Cagney is Bat Morgan, a simple sailor but smart enough to spurn the mickey slipped his way by the infamous hook-handed Shanghai Duck, yet not swift enough to avoid a blow to the head intended to induct him into involuntary nautical service. He manages to escape after coming to and is fished out of the ocean by the benevolent Sol Green (George E. Stone). Bat gets revenge on one of Shanghai's minions with a table leg and finally beats the Duck himself to death in Ricardo Cortez's casino. Now a sort of celebrity, he decides to muscle in on the gambling racket all along the infamous coast. His strategy is to start at the top, convincing the local political boss to join him as a silent partner in all the joints. They'll offer protection when the town's crusading journalists call for a crackdown, in return for a fair cut of the profits. Only Spider Burke (Barton MacLane), an old crony of Shanghai Duck, rejects the plan; he's still out to kill Morgan, but his bullet takes out Sol Green instead. The film then shows us a dead Burke on the wharf; while we must assume that Morgan killed him, Bacon doesn't want to show the deed. The Code may have frowned on what would have been premeditated murder rather than a death struggle in self-defense like the fight with Shanghai Duck.
Bat Morgan's rise to power is complicated by his blossoming relationship with one of the reformers, crusading newspaper publisher Jean Barrat (Margaret Lindsay). At first Bat assumes that she's spoken for by her editorial writer (Donald Woods), but she must have something for the bad boys, or else she sees the good in our antihero. As her love for Bat becomes more obvious, her social circle frowns on the relationship and snubs Morgan. To show up the snobs Bat leads a contingent of Barbary Coast gamblers who crash the opening night of a new opera house, and from here things go downhill. The temperamental Cortez resents an insult from the same old fogey of a judge who had snubbed Bat earlier. Unlike Bat, Cortez shoots the judge. This provokes a virtual civil war in San Francisco as the establishment forms a vigilante army -- not for the first time, we're told -- to purge the Barbary Coast. Cortez and Bat's political sponsor -- who has shot the editorial writer in the back -- are captured, tried in kangaroo court and hung by the neck from upper-floor windows. The remaining gamblers are prepared to turn Bat's deluxe casino into their own private Alamo, but Morgan no longer sees any reason for futile violence when defeat is certain.
Frisco Kid seems like it should have fit the town-tamer mode of classic westerns, but it never quite gets there. Instead, it follows the rise-and-fall pattern set for Cagney by Public Enemy, though it aborts the fall with an act of grace. It can't be a town-tamer movie because Cagney's character doesn't reform in time to play that role. Instead, his own taming is the film's ultimate subject. He's effectively tamed by superior force, and the power of the vigilantes is the part most reminiscent of Pre-Code movies, but the real moral influence is that of the good woman, Jean. If Bat Morgan is to survive, he must submit to her tutelage; he's alive at the end of the picture only because she offered to "sponsor" him, after she persuaded the vigilantes to spare him by showing that he had urged the gamblers to surrender, only to get shot in the back by one of them and trampled in the ensuing melee. James Cagney was arguably Pre-Code cinema personified (male division), the original glorified gangster, and by putting him through this sort of auto-da-fe Warner Bros., erstwhile alleged glorifier of gangsters, presumably showed contrition for its own recent vices and promised, through him, to be good from now on, now that the Warners themselves had been impressed by the power of an outraged citizenry the year before. I'm not sure if this was Cagney's first period piece picture, but it's definitely a way to say that the Cagney audiences knew would now be a thing of the past. Cagney is fine here, but his role suffers from the lack of a strong antagonist who lasts the whole picture through. Since he's the tamed rather than the tamer, there's no one for him to tame after Shanghai Duck and Spider Burke are eliminated. The Cortez character seems designed to play the wicked-gambler role in the town-tamer archetype, but he never becomes an antagonist to Cagney and gets relatively little to do apart from a great moment killing the judge and his nicely underplayed stoic resignation ("You win. I pass.") in the face of the lynchers. Apart from Cagney's charisma, Lloyd Bacon's direction and Sol Polito's cinematography are the main things that keep Frisco Kid entertaining. The first reel in particular is a showcase for Polito's illuminating imagery of light in darkness, from the feeble shafts penetrating Shanghai Duck's dungeon to the moonlight reflected from the water playing on the wood of the wharf. Later, Bacon's wrangling of hundreds of extras forming the vigilante army comes to the fore in this film's equivalent of Scorsese's draft riot in Gangs of New York. Some contemporary critics considered Frisco Kid a better film than Barbary Coast -- where the villain was Warner's other super-gangster, Edward G. Robinson -- and having seen them both now I'm inclined to agree. Neither film is a great one, but Frisco Kid is a fine piece of film craftsmanship and, depending on how you look at it, a symbolically significant film marking the change from an era of freedom to one of less, even if it's forced to call this a happy ending.