Each Dawn I Die (1939)

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  • directed by William Keighley
  • starring James Cagney, George Raft, Jane Bryan
  • Crusading journalist Frank Ross loses faith in the legal system when he finds himself framed for vehicular manslaughter and is sent to prison.

“I’ll get out if I hafta kill every screw in the joint.”

The 1930s was full of amazing and iconic gangster films. There were plenty that just ran through the motions, but the genre that kicked into high gear with films like Little Caesar, Scarface, and Public Enemy, ended up treading into rather emotional territory towards the latter end of the decade. James Cagney was responsible for a lot of that growth, especially in 1938 and 1939. Angels With Dirty Faces used the Dead End Kids to coax a little sentimentality out of his Rocky Sullivan who up until that point cared about little other than survival by any means necessary. The Roaring Twenties featured a less ruthless brand of gangster, one who spirals further into the corrupt life due to the inaccessibility of a woman and society at large before he was gunned down in that tragic death scene. This was a little out of bounds of the usual gangster portrayal because he’s an innocent journalist. And yet Cagney never invites much sympathy because prison degrades his character to a point where his typical criminal swagger emerges. Prison had a way of turning Frank Ross into a rightful prisoner at times, although getting out and returning home was always the priority.

Ignoring the outlier that was 1949’s White Heat for a second, this film was the period at the end of this specific gangster era’s sentence. Though it was an anti-climactic punctuation mark, not furthering the genre and reaching great poetic heights like Raoul Walsh did with The Roaring Twenties this same year, it did present a more realistic and logical end to a decade of desperation, corruption, bootlegging, and gunshots. There’s very little glamorous about the depiction of the legal and prison systems here, but it’s laid out as the substitute for the streets in this case and it just so happens to be the place, other than the grave, that all these guys typically end up.

Keighly was kind of an everyman when it came to his genre choices, but he locked into the story and vibe nicely here. There were a lot of stylized visuals, composed shots through broken windows, through flames, through prison cell bars, and he kept the entire film, even as it dealt with things as bland as bureaucracy, moving along with a wickedly fast pace. The film on the whole ran the gamut of including everything you’d expect from a prison movie—concealed weapons, a factionalizing of the inmates, avoiding “life in the hole,” etc.—but the clichés never phased me because the film looked great and moved like lightning, especially in the final act when it all devolved into an explosive battle between guards and inmates.

Though I still haven’t seen the bulk of Cagney’s classics up until this point yet, I already feel like I’ve seen enough to put my finger on what it is about him that is so easy to connect with. It’s that with his level of talent and how hammy these gangster films can be, I still haven’t seen him fall into the trap of overdoing it. He can be ruthless in the street, be the stereotypical tough guy inside prison to keep out of trouble, or be tender and emotional as he was when his girlfriend and mother came to visit, but he succumbs to no pace other than his own and it never ceases to come across as completely natural. I saw this film as being far stronger in technique than it was in story, so it was the first time I’ve seen Cagney as way better than the material given. This makes me happy to know that 1939 was his turning point into a wider variety of work.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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