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.
Cagney struts and preens as the acerbic, hot-headed -- not to mention horny -- Tom Powers. The movie traces Tom's friendship with Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), his partner-in-crime from their childhood days of petty thievery to working as top guns for a big-city liquor baron. Tom's unabashed life of crime and free love is paralleled with his relationship to his brokenhearted mother and mortified, grim-faced brother. The moral tensions roiling between Tom's private life and his family life drives the movie's drama.
Released just before the implementation of the Hays Code, which emasculated Hollywood cinema for years to come -- The Public Enemy revels in no uncertain terms in Tom's sexual machismo and how the women in his circle are as free and as willing as he is. When we see Tom in a bathrobe dallying with his moll (Mae Clarke) in a hotel suite (just before the notorious grapefruit-to-the-face), or Tom flirting with a leggy new girlfriend (Jean Harlow) or Tom, drunk and amorously handled by an older woman, we delight in the scenes' raw suggestiveness. And we realize that two years hence, when Will Hays finally reared his ugly head, The Public Enemy couldn't have been made in just this way.
Of course, the movie's dialogue is overripe and its rigid and at times clunky aesthetic suggest a cinema still coming to terms with sound (though it does feel looser and more comfortable with the technology than Little Caesar). But that's part of the enjoyment of The Public Enemy, with its broad acting and dated slang. The serious, straight-ahead energy of these early sound melodramas make them monuments to kitsch -- vibrant remnants of a now-defunct pop culture, mellowed over time and preserved on celluloid.
Strip away Cagney and the Pre-Code boldness of The Public Enemy, however, and you're left with a fairly routine product from Hollywood's then-budding factory system. Save for bits of visual panache, William Wellman's direction is as utilitarian as the movie's chintzy décor and the morally obliged turns in Harvey F. Thew's adaptation of Kubec Glasmon and John Bright's story. Wellman, a consummate studio hack -- I mean, director -- shunts his movie via conventional, efficient setups, reflecting an era when a director's worthiness was measured in terms of his shooting ratio and how many shots he got off from one workday to the next.
Regardless of its prudish posturing and pedestrian get-up, The Public Enemy is still remarkably vital: sexy, violent, tightly wound. Watching it, one is reminded of more modern gangster send-ups, particularly Scorsese's GoodFellas (another Warner Bros. production). Indeed, Scorsese's 1990 chronicle of a dreamy-eyed adolescent's descent into a life of crime, riddled with drugs, molls, violent revenge, and, finally, penance can be viewed as a direct successor to The Public Enemy made some 60 years earlier. The details may change, the stories never do.
The DVD includes countless extras, including a historical commentary, featurettes, and a Leonard Maltin-hosted collection of archival media.
Run time: 83 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 23rd April 1931
Distributed by: WARNER BROTHERS PICTURES
Production compaines: The Vitaphone Corporation, Warner Bros.
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: William A. Wellman
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenwriter: Harvey F. Thew
Starring: James Cagney as Tom Powers, Jean Harlow as Gwen Allen, Edward Woods as Matt Doyle, Joan Blondell as Mamie, Donald Cook as Mike Powers, Leslie Fenton as Nails Nathan, Beryl Mercer as Ma Powers, Robert Emmett O'Connor as Paddy Ryan, Murray Kinnell as Putty Nose, Clark Burroughs as Dutch (uncredited), Mae Clarke as Kitty (uncredited), Frank Coghlan Jr. as Tom as a Boy (uncredited), George Daly as Machine Gunner (uncredited), Frankie Darro as Matt as a Boy (uncredited)
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