The Public Enemy is a 1931 Pre-Code American crime drama film starring James Cagney and directed by William A. Wellman. The movie relates the story of a young man's rise in the criminal underworld in prohibition-era urban America. The supporting players include Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Beryl Mercer, Donald Cook, and Mae Clarke. The film was based on the novel Beer and Blood by John Bright and launched Cagney to stardom.
Many of the characters in the movie were based on actual people, although some currently available copies are from the censored and cut 1949 reissue (from the Hays Code era) in which the character of real-life gangster Bugs Moran was removed. Some controversial items, like a scene where Tom Powers (Cagney) hits his girlfriend with a grapefruit, were left in the 1949 re-release.
The opening sequence of The Public Enemy is a montage depicting prohibition - beer parlors closing shop and police raids – before directing the viewer’s attention to two boys growing up with the resultant lure of corruption in 1920s urban America. We get a glimpse into the family life of one of the boys, Tom Powers, including a doting mother and an emotionally absent father, who also happens to be a policeman. The consequence of the father’s distance is revealed in one scene where he attempts to discipline his increasingly delinquent son. This sparks a change in young Tom, which is indicated by his souring expression while being beaten by his father with a leather strap.
After Tom Powers (James Cagney) and the other boy, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), grow into young adults, they are hired by local bootlegger, Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor). Tom quickly rises from apprentice to leading gangster by being more vicious and ruthless than his rivals. Needless to say, the bootlegging business becomes an ever more lucrative operation, and Tom and Matt are not shy about flaunting the trappings of gangsterism. Tom does not forget about his more humble origins, and offers support to his pathetically doting, and now widowed, mother. Needless to say, this brings him into conflict with his older brother, Mike (Donald Cook), a shell-shocked war veteran who strongly disapproves of his wayward little brother. Underlying the fraternal conflict is that Tom’s immorality has brought generous material rewards, while the straight-and-narrow path chosen by his brother has only produced a bitter casualty of war. Tom considers Mike’s self-righteousness hypocritical. When Mike quips that Tom's success is based on nothing more than “beer and blood” (the title of the original book), Tom rejoins that “your hands ain't so clean. You kill and like it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”
Needless to say, Tom continues his rise in gangland, but eventually his greed catches up with him when he challenges another gang, precipitating a gang war. Arguably, the most famous scene is Tom “getting it” in the end, graphically setting the tone for the “crime doesn’t pay” theme that dominated crime movies for the rest of the decade and beyond.
Edward Woods was originally cast in the lead role until director Wellman decided Cagney was more effective in the role and switched the two actors. This is why the children's appearances are reversed in the flashback sequences, since those scenes were shot before the switch. Another reason for the switch is that the sound technology used in The Public Enemy was far superior to that used in earlier films, making it no longer imperative to have an actor in the lead role with impeccable enunciation. Although it was still a risk giving Cagney the starring role, his distinctive interpretation of the character, especially his machine-gun speaking style, was now technically feasible. Cagney was also short and uncouth, compared to the finesse of an actor like Woods, helping to establish Warner Brothers' reputation for films that explicitly targeted working class audiences during the Great Depression.
A theatre in Times Square ran The Public Enemy 24 hours a day during its initial release. It was the first worldwide box office hit for Cagney and forever cast him in the public eye as a "tough guy," an image he was unable to shed despite numerous roles chosen especially to counter that image, including his Oscar-winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing of an Original Screenplay.
The film was re-released in 1941 after the Production Code was put into effect. Three scenes of the film were cut because of the Code, but have been restored for the DVD release. One is of a markedly effeminate tailor measuring Tom for a suit, another with Matt and Mamie "rolling around" in bed (a scene which for decades had been believed lost forever when Warners apparently discarded the original footage in the 1950s), and the third showing Tom being seduced when hiding out in a woman's apartment.
Moreover, for the 1954 re-release of The Public Enemy a written prologue was added before the opening credits, advising that gangsters such as Tom Powers and Caesar "Rico" Bandello, the title character in Little Caesar (played by Edward G. Robinson), are a menace that the public must confront.
In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. The Public Enemy was acknowledged as the eighth best in the gangster film genre.
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