The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931)


This is one of those often-quoted classic films in cinema. First off, in 1930 a Production Code was established to stop the growing amount of violence depicted in movies – filmmakers would get around this by placing prologue cards and epilogue cards specifying how a criminal life is not condoned by the filmmakers. 1931 – ‘The Public Enemy’ is released. 1934 and public outrage against the many violations of the code – namely ‘Scarface’ – came to a head. The Catholic Legion of Decency began a protest against violent films by picketing outside cinemas and putting lists of films together than they condemned – amongst them ‘Little Caesar’ and ‘The Public Enemy’. I have yet to see ‘Little Caesar’ but it is being shown during a Gangsters month at the BFI in July, so I shall hopefully have tickets then – watching it ‘how it was meant to be seen’. Nevertheless, The Public Enemy’ was made between these two points so now, you can watch it, without any edits or changes that back in, say, 1940, would be inevitable due to those bloody Catholics. These edits to films came due to a huge public outrage following these protests, whereby producers decided that a ‘certificate’ would be produced for each film released, judged by the Hays office, and this would hopefully give the audience an indication of the type of film a group would be watching. ‘The Public Enemy’ itself had a huge influence on filmmakers – specifically Martin Scorsese, who often says in interviews how he attended double-bills that showed ‘The Public Enemy’ and ‘Scarface’ when he was a child and it was part of many factors that made him the one of the greatest directors of all time, and in the first few minutes you can see the influence this has had on him.

Quick Synopsis and What I reckon …
We start off in 1909, whereby a young Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) are stealing little things, pulling pranks on Matt’s sister and generally winding people up- so when you think about ‘Goodfellas’ with the chronological order of the story shown (Henry, Tommy and Jimmy Conway as young hoods) you can see the influence of ‘The Public Enemy’ on ‘Goodfellas’. Nevertheless, the ‘rise-and-fall’ aspect of ‘The Public Enemy’ is also a popular type of story that is clearly shown in both ‘The Public Enemy’ and ‘Goodfellas‘. Anyway, enough of that – I’ll save the review of ‘Goodfellas’ for another time. At this point (the film begins in 1909) we are also introduced to Putty-Nose, a non-important hood who gives Tom and Matt their first real job, whereby not only does it go wrong (a fake Bear scares Tom… bloody Bears … ) , but ‘Limpy Larry’ is killed and Tom or Matt – probably Tom – kill a policeman. Tom and Matt swear revenge on Putty-Nose…

Its interesting to note that James Cagney and Edward Woods were originally up for the opposite roles – Cagney as Matt and Woods as Tom, but when Cagney was clearly better. This is really strange because when you watch the first sequence with the child actors playing the roles, it is clear that the young actor playing Matt is based around the look of Cagney, while the young version of Tom is based on Woods. Even the clothes are practically the same. Talk about a continuity error!

Like most of these early Gangster films – say ‘The Roaring Twenties’ – we obviously see the effect Prohibition had to the criminal underworld, and this provides the foundations for Tom and Matt’s breakout job, whereby they steal a load of alcohol in gasoline trucks. I ask this – if this is a used gasoline truck, how did they clean the inside of it fast enough and clean enough so that the alcohol wouldn’t be polluted because, I guess, if you drink gasoline, you die. Maybe it was a new truck. I know this is pedantic. I’ll stop.

I could spend so long looking at each narrative function, but alas, it would take too long. Maybe ‘The Public Enemy Review: Part II’ would be better. You have a brilliant character called Nails Nathan – a man who looks so sinister, his smile will keep you up at night. When he clarifies to a brewery owner how Tom and Matt are hired to make sure that no-one buys beer from anyone else, he snaps out of a very posh persona into a dog-like barking murderer. A businessman first and foremost – but he does remind me of Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) in ‘The Untouchables’.

Two brilliant sequences to finish on (nothing to do with grapefruit and nothing to do with the finale itself which are most often recalled). Mike (Tom’s goody goody brother) returns from fighting in the war, while Tom has been making money off of the prohibition. During a family dinner we see Mike stewing over Tom’s criminal lifestyle. Here is Mike, tired and – probably tortured by the memories – with barely any money at all, while Tom has a new car, new suit and has provided, in the middle of the table (completely in everyone’s way may I add… oh, I get it, that’s the point) is a beer keg. As we waited for Michael Corleone to react to Kay’s abortion we wait for Mike to blow – which he does, telling Tom how ‘it’s not just beer in that keg … its beer and blood’ (The name of the book the film is based upon: “Beer and Blood”), shouting down Tom and Matt – the murderers and criminals that they are. Tom, referring to the war Mike has recently come back from, says Mike enjoys killing – “You didn’t get that medal for holding hands with them Germans”. He su-u-ure didn’t.

The second sequence is probably most influential one, specifically on the notion of film-noir whereby during an absolute downpour of rain, Tom decides to respond to the death of Matt by killing the rival gang. Dressed in a black mack, with the rain pouring down off his hat and jacket he walks in, we hear the shootout without seeing anything, and he returns out stumbling and trying to stand, he falls to his knees and eyes looking up he says “I ain’t so tough” and he collapses. This isn’t the end, and there is a treat in store – and everyone should try and catch this film to see that finale.

There is so much stuff going on in this film – family, US history, criminal morals, the law, etc – that it is still relevant and fascinating today. More importantly, like many of the classic films of this time, this film would not stand well remade as no-one could match James Cagney’s performance as the twisted, slightly crazy (though nothing in comparison to ‘White Heat’s’ Cody Jarrett) Tom Powers. This is a necessary watch for anyone who wants to know their Gangster genre … in fact, it would be the first, in a long line of films, to watch and understand the genre.

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