After the First World War, Eddie Bartlett gets mixed up in the bootlegging racket and becomes an important mob figure. Ruined in the stock market crash, he takes up his gun again when he learns his vicious ex-partner intends to kill the crusading District Attorney who has married the girl he idolised.
A 1939 Warner Bros super‑production, summing up the Prohibition era gangster movies they made earlier in the decade. We follow nice guy bootlegger Cagney from the trenches through the bathtub gin‑fueled '20s to the end of his gangland empire and his last hurrah in the early '30s.
Initially a naive doughboy, Cagney drifts into crime when he can't get his old job back and a speakeasy siren hires him as a bootlegger. The dark side of gangsterism is represented by Cagney’s old war buddy partner Bogart, first seen shooting teenage Germans five minutes before the Armistice is declared.
Relishing one of his best early bad guy roles, the sharklike Bogart turns to crime not through social necessity but for the sadistic love of it, memorably taking the opportunity during a heist to murder his old sergeant (Joe Sawyer) when he finds the man working as a security guard. Using a stentorian narrator and extraordinary symbolic montage newsreels (staged by Don Siegel), director Raoul Walsh effortlessly weaves together social history, romantic comedy, gang warfare, rat‑tat‑tat tough guy dialogue, sharp suits, spaghetti house shoot‑outs, speakeasy singalongs, nostalgia, wonderful Warners character players (Frank McHugh, Paul Kelly) and a great Cagney star performance.
In a redemptive finish Cagney guns down the cowardly Bogart and is himself shot, expiring in the snow on the steps of a church as George delivers his epitaph, 'he used to be a big shot'.
Bogart and Cagney are gloriously dark in this gangster tour-de-force.