Beryl Mercer

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The Public Enemy Review


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The opening and closing titles of Warner Bros' The Public Enemy contain a solemn message that implies that the movie isn't meant so much to entertain but to enlighten. Studio head Jack Warner's mandate in the early '30s to produce movies that drew attention to salient social issues in Depression-wracked America resulted in a slew of melodramas (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang from 1932 being its high water mark) and gangster movies that poised themselves as morality fables.

The Public Enemy, like Warner's own Little Caesar from a year earlier, is classically molded in the template of the early-'30s gangster genre. It follows the rise and fall of a vicious hoodlum who finally repents his ways but falls prey to the very cycle of violence that he himself instigated. Thankfully, the movie's prudish show of outrage at the liquor racket and its plea for civic order is overshadowed by its Pre-Code mischief and the sheer delight of watching James Cagney hone the cock-of-the-walk persona that made him an instant star.

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