James Cagney was a famous gangster actor for thirty years; although the gangster films’ heyday was in the pre-Code years, they continued to be made through the Code and post-Code years, and James Cagney went right along with them. He made his big break as the nefarious gun-man Tom Powers in the 1931 film The Public Enemy. In this film, as in all pre-Code gangster films, the filmmakers make the audience feel sorry for the leading character and then have him be shot by rival gangsters at the end.
James Cagney’s most famous Code gangster film is the 1938 movie Angels with Dirty Faces, in which his character, Rocky Sullivan, is portrayed as a murderer, a thief, and a kidnapper; instead of being shot by other criminals, he is executed by the law. In this, you see the difference between pre-Code and Code gangster films.
For a post-Code gangster film starring James Cagney, I have selected Love Me or Leave Me, the 1955 film based on the life story of the popular 20’s and 30’s singer Ruth Etting; James Cagney plays Ruth’s husband and manager, Marty Sneider, whom, as in real life, she eventually divorces to marry her pianist. Although Marty is not killed at the end, he is quite considerate of Ruth, making the audience pity him and making Ruth seem unfounded in divorcing him; in this we see that the filmmakers were attempting to recapture the pre-Code sympathy angle.
Watch one of these films or one of James Cagney’s many other gangster and crime films to see why he was one of the greatest gangster actors of all times.
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