Film Review: The Public Enemy

The Public Enemy

1931

Director: William A. Wellman

Continuing my descent into the classic 1930s gangster films that pioneered the genre, I moved onto the final of the ‘big three’ classic mob movies – The Public Enemy, released in between my previous entries, 1931’s Little Caesar and 1932s Scarface.

Much like the above two movies, The Public Enemy is designed as being a cautionary tale about the role of organised crime in society which was fuelled by prohibition. The film was released towards the end of that particular experiment, when mob violence was arguably at its peak. It begins and ends with short flash cards saying that the film is based on true events, and suggests the need for action by both the public and the government to contain the problem.

Much like Scarface which followed in the next year, The Public Enemy can be seen as a partial adaptation of Al Capone, A.K.A. ‘Public Enemy Number 1’ (it’s a wonder how much time he had for criminal activities in his later years with the amount of films coming out about him). It tells the tale of Tom Powers (portrayed with manic brilliance by James Cagney), from his early life in 1909 Chicago making petty thefts for local crook ‘Putty Mouth’ (this film pretty much spawned all gangster nicknames – we have Putty Mouth, ‘Nails’ Nathan, Paddy Ryan, ‘Schemer’ Burns…), upwards into 1920 and the onset of prohibition, which itself is given more attention than the other two movies managed to. Here, we see men loading up wheelbarrows of booze on the eve before prohibition, shops advertising ‘everything must go’ slogans – it helps to show the role of alcohol in society, which itself suggests that prohibition was always doomed to failure.

The film shows Powers’ internal family struggles, initially with his father, and later with his WW1 veteran brother Michael, who is ashamed and appalled by the increased levels of violence hid younger brother is descending into. It shows how the criminals enforced their own activities amongst speakeasy owners and their own rivals (although mainly through the use of Powers’ fists rather than any heavy tommy-gun action). Interestingly, unlike Rico in Little Caesar and Tony in Scarface, Tom Powers here never actually ascends to the very top of the mob – whilst he is respected and clearly a man of authority, he quite clearly works under the remit of bosses of his own, and is really more a high-level henchman working alongside a number of other heavy-handed mobsters. It makes for a refreshing difference to the power struggles of the other films.

The film doesn’t stint on the violence, however it makes the choice to keep most of it carefully off-camera rather than in direct view. One particularly powerful scene is Powers’ killing of a former rival as he plays the piano, while the camera is pointed towards his partner, who stares on in shock. We hear the gun go off, and all we have to know of the outcome is the sound of crashing on the piano keys. Another is of Powers entering a rival saloon to avenge a partner’s death, armed only with two pistols. We expect a bloodbath, but instead the camera is left outside pointing at the saloon entrance as we see Powers go in and are left with an empty street, and just the sounds of gunshots and men screaming to let us know what is going on.

In terms of style and overall plot, we’re in familiar territory with The Public Enemy. But the individual film nuances, combined with the exceptional performance by Cagney makes this well worth adding to any classic crime film collection.

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