The Public Enemy (1931)
The Public Enemy (1931)

Genre: Gangster Running Time: 1 hr. 23 min.

Release Date: April 23rd, 1931 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: William A. Wellman Actors: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Donald Cook, Leslie Fenton, Beryl Mercer




he life of a gangster is consistently glamorized in contemporary cinema, but in 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” one of the earliest crime classics, it definitely isn’t all shown in a prestigious, spectacular light (though certainly a sympathetic one). 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 mobster, a role Cagney would repeat or rework in many Warner Bros. pictures (perhaps most notably in “Angels with Dirty Faces”), “The Public Enemy” is eye-opening and powerful – but the overall story is noticeably unfulfilling, especially when compared to the lengthier, more substantial epics it influenced. It may have been one of the first and most inspiring, but it has aged poorly (though keen direction by William Wellman is still evident).

In Chicago in the early 1900s, Tom Powers (James Cagney) desires easy riches and the fast lane to success. As a mere child, he’s a bully and troublemaker, quickly caught up in rackets for local hooligans. He’s frowned upon by his straight-laced older brother Mike (Donald Cook), a sibling Tom feels is “learning to be poor” at school. By 1920, the incorrigible young adult is introduced to the “big jobs” through Paddy Ryan (Robert O’Connor), a disreputable gang leader intent on using relative innocents (the easily corrupted) in his bootlegging business. Along with Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), his partner in crime and the muscle for the tough missions, Tom robs booze warehouses during the onset of Prohibition and continues his descent into a world of savagery and imminent doom.

Tom becomes increasingly more aggressive and hostile 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. He doesn’t forget his humble origins, however, frequently visiting his mother (Beryl Mercer) to give her monetary aid – which brings about another conflict with his brother, who doesn’t want the dirty money (acquired from “beer and blood” – a nod to the source material). Mike has led a respectable life and gained little for it; Tom has conversely risen to the heights of wealth and power by being a crook – an irony that’s only amended by the direct and shocking conclusion, in which questionably skewed equity is brutally served (it’s particularly morbid, as it arrives on the verge of reformation).

Though a pre-code endeavor with striking violence, a strong message, and modest sexuality, “The Public Enemy” isn’t the most shocking gangster film of the time. It opened to correspondingly mixed reviews, yet made a tidy sum at the box office and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story (John Bright and Kubec Glasmon). It’s clear that in 1930’s Hollywood, villainous activities must have strict repercussions, but the blaring disclaimer at the close only lessens the impact of Powers as a significant fictional individual (though many roles in the film are based on real people from Al Capone’s era). It’s a generalization that doesn’t do justice for a character so expertly crafted by Cagney, who single-handedly carries the production with his razor-sharp grin and rivetingly prototypical antihero portrayal.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10