Narrator: Today, while the earth shakes beneath the heels of marching troops, while a great portion of the world trembles before the threats of acquisitive power-mad men, we of America have little time to remember an astounding era in our own recent history. An era which will grow more and more incredible with each passing generation until someday people will say it never could have happened at all.
The movie - based on a story by Mark Hellinger and brilliantly directed by Raoul Walsh - opens in this documentary style which will portrait two important decades of American history.
War veteran Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) finds difficulties when he returns home: he has no job, the prohibition era has started and soldiers are no longer heroes:
Fletcher's Garage Mechanic: (After the war Eddie is asking to get his old job back) That guy thinks he's gonna' get my job just because he's got a uniform on. He used to work here.
Fletcher's Garage Mechanic: Yeah, those monkeys are gonna' find out what a picnic they had on Uncle Sam's dough while we stayed home and WORKED!
After some frustrated attempts to get a job he enters the bootlegging business almost by chance and he meets speakeasy hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George) and former war colleague, the ruthless George Halley (Humphrey Bogart).
The film portrays the rise of Eddie in the prohibition and jazz age (in the soundtrack we can hear many songs of that time as My Melancholy Baby, It had to be you or Bye bye Blackbird).
Eddie is not portrayed as an evil gangster but as a character caught between the need to survive and a good natured heart: He helps Jean (Priscilla Lane) though she will never love him: They live in different worlds and in fact she will take some advantage of his good will…
As other gangsters Eddie Barlett was also bound to fall: After 1929 things changed deeply in the Depression era, the prohibition was over and the gangster world had changed…
Panama: It's over for all of us: you, me, and George. Eddie, something new is happening, something you don't understand.
The words of Panama echo the ending of an era, the ending of gangster movies, the ending of characters like Eddie – killed on the steps in front of a church:
Panama Smith: He's dead.
Cop: Well, who is this guy?
Panama Smith: This is Eddie Bartlett.
Cop: Well, how're you hooked up with him?
Panama Smith: I could never figure it out.
Cop: What was his business?
Panama Smith: He used to be a big shot.