Influence of the Public Enemy on the Sopranos

Published: 2021-06-17 09:43:42
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Essay: Public Enemy influence on Sopranos
Influence of The Public Enemy (1931) on The Sopranos
David Chase’s influence by William Wellman’s classic gangster film extends beyond specific details to the ambiguous overall intention of the work. Specific episodes pay explicit homage. In the most dramatic reference, when Livia dies Tony watches that film on TV. Obviously, Junior’s pie in his mistress’s face (I, 9) echoes Tom Powers’ (James Cagney) grapefruit in his Kitty’s (Mae Clark). But where Tom’s action characterizes his misogyny Junior’s marks his own denial of his sensitivity and generosity. And though the Irish-American of the 1930s cops and robbers film gives way to the Italian-American, some of the most dramatic scenes in both works happen over dinner. But of course, the classic film’s relevance to The Sopranos runs deeper than those obvious citations.
Wellman’s film focuses on the rise and fall of a Chicago hoodlum in the early years of the 20th Century. As a boy Tom plays tough guy. He accepts his policeman’s father strapping with stoic disdain. He ridicules his older brother Mike’s (Donald Cook) virtues: a legitimate job on the streetcars, night school study to improve himself, volunteering for the marines. Mike’s virtuous romance with Molly Doyle (Rita Flynn) contrasts with Tom’s leading her brother Matt (Edward Woods) into a life of crime.Tom anticipates the Sopranos’ life of hedonistic and excessive pleasure. After the introductory Chicago montage the first scene establishes the Wellman film’s ethos. A man toting six pails of beer crosses paths with a Salvation Army band, parading in the opposite direction. It passes a bar, from which young Tom and Matt emerge with a pail of beer, presumably to deliver. Tom’s heady swig leaves him with a beer foam, not milk, moustache. To the band’ “Brighten the corner where you are,” at that corner two forms of life brightening collide: the Sally Ann’s religious and community values vs. Tom’s precocious choice of sin and hedonism.
With the advent of prohibition the Salvation Army’s values may seem to have won. But the ban only nourishes the underworld’s growth to provide the popular but forbidden pleasures. The sophisticated society stocks up on booze on the eve of prohibition, as a florist empties his truck for booze and a family wheels a baby stroller full of bottles. Like the lordly businessman Lehman’s furtive deal with the hoodlums to reopen his brewery, these images confirm the futility of prohibition, given the weakness of the flesh for the flash. Tom’s self-indulgence anticipates the Sopranos’, as it brings him the genre’s conventional fancy clothes and cars, bubbly night life, and a fancier mistress, Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow).
That may seem preferable to the depression that the shell-shocked Mike brings back with his medals from the war. Nonetheless, opening and closing titles declare Tom to personify a social problem that the public must address. This evades the charge — familiar to The Sopranos — that the film glorifies the hoodlum. Like Gandolfini’s Tony, though. Cagney’s charm and his character’s constant screen presence are solid counterweights to his folly and his doom. Like Tony, Tom feels himself a loner, responsible to none but himself, who thinks he can buy off his family’s shame.
Brother Mike’s ethic is to serve others. As a boy he saves Molly from Tom’s stolen skates. He goes to war out of responsibility to his society and urges Tom to stay home, to take care of their mother. No wus, Mike knocks Tom down for suggesting he steals from the bus company, then again to reject Tom’s blood money. Tellingly, no such selfless character can be found in the Sopranos clan. But Mike is somewhat echoed by Charmaine Bucco and by Melfi’s mentor, Dr. Kracauer. Mike’s rejection of Tom’s dirty money – “That money is blood money and we want no part of it” — anticipates Dr. Kracauer’s advice that Carmela fails to sustain when she returns to her marriage and rationalizes away her failure by donating to her daughter’s university.
Tom also shows the womanizer’s disdain for women – in the spirit of the Bada Bing – not just in the famous grapefruit scene, but when earlier he excuses his trick on Molly: “What do you care? She’s only a girl.” This anticipates the Sopranos’ fear of the feminine, of softness. Initially the slick hood Samuel Nathan (Leslie Fenton) seems nicknamed “Nails” because of his elegance, but his nightclub remarks about the villainous Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) – “The guy’s going to get you again. He thinks you’re soft.” — rather suggest he is as hard as nails.
In the film the male bonding extends into implications of – however denied — homophilia. To avenge their boyhood betrayal by Putty Nose, Tom pulls Matt away from his Mamie (Joan Blondell) on their wedding night. Framed low between the newlyweds, Tom interrupts their kiss. As a boy Tom calls Matt away from his pursuit of a girl. Moreover, their friendship is depicted as Tom’s denial of Matt. Tom tells Putty Nose “I’m always alone when I’m with Matt.” That joke he repeats at the nightclub: “”I’m alone, but Tom’s all fixed up. He’s with me.” After they pick up the two girls, Tom tells Matt “I don’t even know you’re here.” Later he tells Gwen that Matt “ain’t got a name, just a number.” Like his proprietorial defense against women, denying Matt seems to be Tom’s cover for his emotions, possibly love.
After Putty Nose’s betrayal, Tom and Matt are adopted by a more honorable mentor, the barkeep Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), who gives them advice, then brings them into his lucrative bootleg operation. Like the Sopranos’ code of omerta, Paddy gives Tom an ethic and a fraternity that his harsh policeman father failed to impose. From Ryan enlisting Tom and Matt, Wellman cuts to the home scene where Tom finds his mother crying but proud that Mike is going off to serve his country at war.
Like Ryan’s gang, the Sopranos have their own code that unites them against both the police and rival gangs. Ryan proves his honour when he tries to save Tony’s life by offering to leave the territory. Earlier Paddy teaches the two boys the value of friendship: “I may need a friend myself someday…. Nobody can do much without somebody else…. You’ve got to have friends.” But like the Sopranos’, Paddy’s code operates not within the law but with the values of the underworld: “There’s only two kinds of people: right and wrong. Now I think you’re right. You’ll find I am – unless you cross me.” In a bathetic parody of this ostensible straight shooting, Paddy and Tom hit the spittoon every time. But shooting outside the law cannot be straight, however sympathetic the criminal.
As it happens, Tom inadvertently does cross that friend when in a drunken stupor he is seduced by Paddy’s girl, Jane (Mia Marvin). When Paddy gathers all his cohorts’ money and guns and locks them in an apartment — “going to the mattresses,” in Godfather parlance — we suspect betrayal. But Paddy is the betrayed. When Tom realizes that he slept with his friend’s girl he slaps her and storms out of the gang’s refuge. Matt follows: “Why’d you want to run out on me for? We’re together, ain’t we?” “Sure,” Tom says, with that affectionate punch on the jaw that he hasn’t granted Matt since he killed Putty Nose. That proves Matt’s kiss of death. Out on the street Matt is killed, but Tom escapes. Smiling in resolve, he takes on the enemy gang by himself, emerging into the rainy night wounded. After a life of denying his emotions, his remorse at betraying Paddy and his final admission of feeling for Matt lead to Tom’s downfall. Hence the Soprano men’s vulnerability to their soft side, too, the suspicions about Tony’s therapy, and the inevitably untrustworthy nature of Pussy. The film anticipates the TV series’ concern with the criteria for manhood. As in the “making” of Christopher, Putty Nose hands the boys their first guns as a rite of manhood: “Ya gotta grow up sometime.”
Wounded Tom’s admission, “I ain’t so tough,” refers both to his physical wounds and his repressed feelings for Matt. This Public Enemy has discovered private feelings, after all, though he has fancied himself too tough to allow them. From his hospital bed he finally apologizes to Mike and admits his filial failure to his long suffering mother (Beryl Mercer). “Tommy boy, you’re my baby” she assures him. Given the recovery of the brothers’ friendship and the reuniting of the family, Tommy’s apparent reform makes his mother “almost glad this [near-fatal wounding of Tommy] happened.” In response Tom softly punches her head.
In fact, that playful punch is Tom’s most characteristic, indeed only, expression of affection. That’s how he expresses affection to his mother, to the nightclub maitre-d’, to his pickups, and ultimately to his friend Matt. Tom’s only emotional expression is a softened form of violent aggression. Similarly, Tony expresses his affection only by lavishing his ill-gotten luxuries. But happily, Tony and Silvio have therapy to free their emotional expression.
Still, to his mother Tommy remains “just a baby,” so he shouldn’t enlist. Mike declares him “the man in the family now,” not for his gun but for his new familial responsibility. Like Tony’s, Tom’s charm is defined as a boyishness. Gwen is finally ready to accept him as a lover when she declares him “a spoiled boy…. My bashful boy,” who is different from the “dozens” of other men in her life: “You don’t give, you take. I could love you to death.” So too Ryan’s girl, Jane: “I want to do things for you, Tommy. You don’t think I’m old, do you, Tommy? You like me, don’t you, Tommy?… Just a good night kiss, for a fine boy.” In this spirit, Dr. Melfi, Gloria and Ralphie’s ex are attracted to Tony’s bad-boy charm, as both Gwen and Jane cuddle Tom.
Tom’s otherwise suppressed charm and innocence also lie behind his mother’s unquestioning love. She blames a young colleague’s death on his falling in “with the wrong kind of people,” not realizing that includes her own son, Tom. She remains blind to his guilt and faults. Early her singing stops and she sighs helpless at her son’s punishment. In the film’s climax, she sings in joy that her “baby” is about to come home to her, as she freshens the linens in his old bedroom. But Tom is delivered dead, like Frankenstein’s monster, trussed and stiff, and he falls forward on his face at the front door.
When Tony watches Ma Powers lovingly prepare for her son’s return she amplifies his own sense of how remote from her love his mother’s feelings were for him. The dead son’s return reflects Tony feeling deadened by his relationship to his just dead mother. The classic gangster film offers an ideal mother that the “real” gangster has missed. Here Public Enemy’s pertinence to The Sopranos is indirect, a matter of reversal.
Similarly, when Nails Nathan is fatally thrown from his horse, Rajah, Tom buys the horse for a grand and shoots him. This is antithetical to Tony’s commitment to Pie-O-My and his avenging her death. In t his spirit, too, Tony’s casual sport shirts and slacks reject the posh style that the genre gunsels immediately adopt to emblematize their fast wealth.
The Sopranos also draws on Public Enemy in incidental ways. The wintry extreme through which Tony staggers home to Carmela in V, 13 recalls the dense downpour in which Tom avenges Matt. In both these scenes of “pathetic fallacy,” the weather is an image of the character’s emotional or psychological state. Anticipating Tony’s defence of his “soldiers,” Tommy turns upon the disturbed veteran Mike: “Your hands ain’t so clean. You’ve killed and liked it.” When Matt blames Putty Nose for turning the boys toward crime Tommy rejects the excuse: “Yeah, we might’ve been ding dings on the streetcar” – like his brother Mike. Tony like Tommy realizes his life and nature would allow no other career. When Tommy is kidnapped from his hospital bed, Mike’s violent rage to avenge him – cooled by the savvy Paddy Ryan — anticipates Artie Bucco’s characteristic anger and impotence.
Of course, nothing in The Sopranos requires a detailed knowledge of Public Enemy. However, the pointed allusions to the film invite this fuller consideration both of Wellman’s construction and of the myriad ways it deepens David Chase’s work. Certainly the older film’s general claim to present not an individual psychotic but a social problem that “society” needs to address equally applies to the charming but culpable Tony and his crew.

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