George Raft had a successful few years at Paramount, but his casting in this film - a last minute thing, when Fred MacMurray and John Garfield proved unavailable - led to him finding a new home at Warners. He fitted in straight away at that tough no-nonsense studio, full of unpretentious films and tough guy stars, and the result were some of his best ever movies... not that it seemed to make Raft happy, and he turned down a whole bunch which turned out to be classics.
He's absolutely electric here - it's possibly his best performance, brilliantly protected as the noble gangster. He spends a lot of time looking, not talking, with fantastic seething glances - tense, wound tight, with some clipped dialogue. Having him do scenes with Cagney really lifts him (he was at his best opposite a strong co star).
It's a great role too - a gang leader who befriends crusading reporter Jimmy Cagney, uses Cagney to help him escape, betrays him, is jolted back into doing the right thing by Jane Bryan (thankless in a thankless part).
Raft's actions don't really make sense at the end - going back into prison to track down a prison who is there involved in Cagney's cast, and planning on breaking out again.... really? But it is an exciting well shot sequence. There's some other great moments too such as the murder of a stoolie prisoner while watching a movie.
The depiction of society is remarkably bleak: society is so corrupt the DA gets in with organised crime figures to frame Cagney for the manslaughter of three (three!) people. The governor of the prison is a dunderhead (I think he's meant to be sympathetic but he loves throwing prisoners in the hole), the guards are incredibly brutal, the system harsh. Prisoners get massive sentences and only after intense effort (and much bloodshed) is justice done. Cagney goes practically insane through his treatment - it's quite shocking.
There's a fine support cast including George Bancroft, Maxie Rosenbloom, Alan Baxter, Victor Jory and Louis Jean Heydt. Cagney and Raft work well together. Maybe Raft should've been in love with Jane B more... as it is the film is fairly homoerotic in the depiction of the relationship between the two men.