The Public Enemy (1931)

This is my first post that’s about a film I did not see in the cinema. I hope that this can be excused, given the title of my blog. EDIT: It turns out that upon looking at my cinema spreadsheet, I did in fact see this in a cinema over 12 years ago. I just clearly couldn’t remember it at all.

It’s been long enough since this film came out that a lot has been written about it. It has an early and important place in the canon of American crime films, which largely started a few years before with Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927), and of which there have been quite a few over the years. It also shows up in discussions of “pre-Code” Hollywood, that brief period in the late-1920s and very early-1930s before Hollywood started to more rigorously self-censor the content of its films (with a Motion Picture Production Code). Furthermore, the film’s story ties in closely with the prohibition that came about with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920 and which was still in force when the film was made.

It’s prohibition, in particular, that really precipitated the rise of the gangster in both real terms and in popular culture, and which led to the emergence of this new genre. The Public Enemy takes this up directly, by showing how quickly the protagonist Tom Powers becomes wealthy after prohibition is introduced, thanks to his involvement with the illegal brewing and distribution of beer.

Nevertheless, for all the punchy charisma of James Cagney’s screen presence in this role, the character of Tom is never anything other than low-level muscle for the real gangsters pulling the strings and making the deals (“Putty Nose” in the early scenes, then Paddy Ryan and “Nails” Nathan later on in the prohibition years). When a youthful heist goes wrong and a police officer is killed, neither Tom nor his friend Matt receive any support from “Putty Nose”, who has swiftly disappeared. In fact, none of the real gangsters find themselves much in the line of fire, and the only death among them comes via a horse-riding accident (a hazard of an entitled lifestyle, more than anything else).

The only power Tom seems to wield is over his partner in crime Matt (the actor playing whom was originally slated for the lead role), and to a certain extent over the women in his life, primarily his blissfully ingenuous and naive mother. His girlfriends don’t fare too well either (the film’s iconic scene features a grapefruit pushed by Tom into the face of one of them over the breakfast table), though none of the women who appear in the film have particularly prominent roles, and even Jean Harlow, who appears on the poster, barely registers in the film itself.

As an early sound film, there’s still a sense of the filmmakers learning what they can do, and some of the sound recording is patchy. The acting too comes across as a little forced, especially obvious when Cagney is on screen, as few of the other actors show his flair. There are a lot of frontal arrangements, though that said, the camera manages to be relatively mobile, clearly limited by what was technologically possible at the time. It remains a strong story, though, with a great lead performance, not to mention being a key early film in the development of the genre, and for that it’s worth watching.

Director William A. Wellman; Writers Kubec Glasmon, John Bright and Harvey Thew (based on the novel Beer and Blood by Glasmon and Bright); Cinematographer Devereaux Jennings; Starring James Cagney; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Sunday 24 September 2000 (most recently on DVD at home, London, Thursday 18 April 2013).


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