The Public Enemy
Genre: Drama, Crime/Gangster
Running Time: 83 min.
Release Date: April 23rd, 1931
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: William A. Wellman
Actors: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Beryl Mercer, Joan Blondell
"It’s clear that in 1930’s Hollywood, villainous activities must have consequences."
The life of a gangster is constantly being glamorized in contemporary cinema, but in the The Public Enemy, one of the earliest classic gangster films, it definitely isn’t all positive. For Tom Powers, immortalized by the unforgettable James Cagney, money and the “good life” come from breaking the law. But the dire consequences of such an existence are never more apparent than in the disquieting, unexpected and abrupt conclusion. As the genesis of the movie gangster, a role Cagney would repeat in many Warner Brothers pictures, The Public Enemy is eye-opening and powerful; but the overall story is noticeably unfulfilling, especially when compared to Cagney’s later crime dramas. It may have been one of the first and one of the most influential, but it has dated poorly, although keen direction by William Wellman is still evident.

It’s the early 1900’s Chicago, and Tom Powers (James Cagney) wants easy money and a quick road to success. As a kid he was a bully and a troublemaker, and quickly got caught up stealing for local hooligans. He’s frowned upon by his straight-laced older brother Mike (Donald Cook), who Tom feels is “learning to be poor” at school. When Tom meets Paddy Ryan, a shady gang leader intent on getting relative innocents to get their hands dirty for his bootlegging business, the young boy is introduced to the “big jobs.” Along with Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), his partner in crime and the muscle for the tough missions, he robs booze warehouses during Prohibition and begins his descent into a world of danger and imminent doom.


The Public Enemy - starring James Cagney

The Public Enemy - starring James Cagney


The Public Enemy - starring James Cagney

The Public Enemy - starring James Cagney

Tom continues to become more aggressive and more violent when it comes to people who disagree with his lifestyle (he famously squashes a grapefruit into the face of fling Kitty, played by Mae Clarke), and rises to the top by being more despicable than his rivals. His greed catches up to him when he challenges another gang, inducing a war that ultimately costs him the only things he cares about.

Tom doesn’t forget his humble origins, and frequently visits his mother to give her monetary support – this brings about a conflict with his brother, who doesn’t want his dirty money. Mike has led a respectable life and gained little for it; Tom has risen to the ranks of wealth and power by being a crook – an irony that’s only amended by the direct and shocking conclusion in which questionable justice is served. It’s clear that in 1930’s Hollywood, villainous activities must have consequences, but the blaring disclaimer at the end of the film only lessens the impact of Powers as a significant fictional individual. It’s a generalization that doesn’t do justice for a character so expertly crafted by the one-man-army of acting, James Cagney, who carries the film with his razor sharp grin and absolutely riveting performance.

- Mike Massie

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