REVIEW: The Public Enemy (1931)

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1931, Warner Bros. Pictures

Director:
William A. Wellman
Producer:
Darryl F. Zanuck
Writers:
Kubec Glasmon (story)
John Bright (story)
Harvey F. Thew (screenplay)
Cinematography:
Dev Jennings
Editing:
Edward M. McDermott

Cast:
James Cagney (Tom Powers)
Jean Harlow (Gwen Allen)
Edward Woods (Matt Doyle)
Joan Blondell (Mamie)
Donald Cook (Mike Powers)
Leslie Fenton (“Nails” Nathan)
Beryl Mercer (Ma Powers)
Robert O’Connor (Paddy Ryan)
Murray Kinnell (Putty Nose)
Mae Clarke (Kitty)

James Cagney stars in this classic film about the rise and fall of a young gangster in the early 20th Century.

Since childhood, Tom Powers and Matt Doyle have been two lifelong friends who have been involved in criminal activities. They start out stealing and selling their goods to local crime boss Putty Nose, who gives them an invitation to join his gang on a major robbery. However, when Tom makes a mistake that results in the police killing another member of the gang, they learn Putty Nose has ditched them. Despite objections from his older brother Mike to give up the life of crime, Tom continues his activities while Mike eventually enters the Marines during World War I.

Flash forward a few years later during Prohibition. Tom and Matt now work for Paddy Ryan, who has allied himself with revered gangster Nails Nathan. As bootleggers who sell beer, Tom and Matt soon rake in the dough. Things between Mike and Tom become even worse when it is soon revealed that Mike has now become an assistant district attorney and disowns Tom from the family. Things for Tom and Matt will soon get worse when they end up in a gang war with a rival gangster named Schemer Burns.

During the pre-Code era of Hollywood, this gangster film is truly hailed as one of the greatest classics of the genre thanks in part to the performance of one James Cagney. Interestingly enough, this film is based on an unpublished novel by two former real-life gangsters based on their experiences. Cagney shines in the role of the titular “public enemy”, Tom Powers, who rises up the ladder of the criminal underworld, but it comes at a major price.

What is great is that while he earns the respect of the likes of fellow gangsters and his childhood friend Matt Doyle, played well by Edward Woods, he loses the respect of his wiser older brother Mike, played with intensity by Donald Cook, and even his girlfriend in one of the most shocking scenes of the film. For those who don’t know this scene, When Tom and his girlfriend Kitty, played by Mae Clarke, get into an argument during a meal, Tom does the unthinkable and shoves a grapefruit in Kitty’s face.

Jean Harlow brings some good support in the role of Tom’s second girlfriend, Gwen, who has an affixation for bad boys and sees Tom as the ultimate “bad boy”. This proves to be true as we see Tom stoop to levels unheard of during this era, but all because he wants to have that power. He doesn’t care the price of gaining that power and respect amongst gangsters. He will go to great lengths to go after those who wronged him, with the exception of his brother because in some aspect, Tom still is loyal to his family as opposed to his “family”.

The Public Enemy is a true classic gangster film with James Cagney driving the film in the role of someone who yearns for power and respect no matter the cost. There are some classic scenes in the film, especially the grapefruit scene, that makes this a must-see for any movie lover.

WFG RATING: A+

DVD

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