The time a film was made often has an interesting effect on its ability to last or not. The 1931 black and white film that launched James Cagney into superstardom, The Public Enemy, directed by William Wellman, is a good case study. While it’s not, overall, an inarguably great film, it certainly is close. It’s a near-great film that certainly ranks as a great genre film- in this case the gangster film. The reason for its missing greatness is essentially because it is an early talking picture, and for the first decade or so, after the silent film era ended, many actors struggled with trying to get a more naturalistic feel to their physical appearances and acting styles. And, it would still be a good two decades before Neo-Realism swept the world cinema, and brought with it the modern ‘naturalism’ of cinema. A decade later, still, and the New Wave would wash over the globe, and empower directors to abandon preconceptions about cinematic rules that had been born in the silent era, but had long since gone outdated. But, while the film suffers, overall, from some of these early talkie ills, Jimmy Cagney never did. He was a trained dancer and Broadway actor, and he oozed naturalism from the get go. It’s amazing how, from his first scene in the film through his last moment, as a corpse, he utterly and totally dominates the screen every second he is on camera. His acting is not ‘realistic,’ per se, but feelistic- it’s full body acting, from the little dance moves he slips into several moments, to his little chin jabs to the way he conveys the rage his character feels in the presence of his brother.
Some credit, also, goes to Wellman, and cinematographer Devereaux Jennings, who channeled some of Cagney’s kinetic energy into scenes shot outdoors (a rarity in 1931), not in a studio, and in the way he often framed his scenes- the best example being a sewer-level shot of an automobile passing overhead. The film’s screenplay also deserves kudos, adapted from a novel called Beer And Blood, by John Bright, by Kubec Glasmon and Harvey Thew, the film moves very quickly, with brief vignettes of public and personal declension (recycled stock footage from the silent film era) that superbly set up the film’s main characters and background for the plot. It is almost like a documentary, and one can see the influence of such a style on films made as late as Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It's A Wonderful Life. The film shows the Chicago area Powers brothers, Mike and Tom (Donald Cook and Cagney) growing up with a stern policeman father (Purnell B. Pratt) and an indulgent mother (Beryl Mercer). Mike takes after his father, who dies offscreen, and is stern and goody-goody. Tom is a free spirit with a bit of a psychopathic streak that he displays as a boy, even mouthing off to his father who is going to give him the strap.
Tom’s best friend is Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), who is sort of a sidekick that idolizes Tom. He also has a softer heart. But both boys (Junior Coughlan as a young Tom and Frankie Darro as a young Matt) aspire to make a fortune in crime. They first hook up with a local fence and small time pool hall crook known as Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), who encourages them from misdemeanors on to a major department store robbery of furs. He gives the pair guns, and, in escaping, they kill a cop who shot down a cohort, in the back, and chased them, firing willy nilly in the dark- a thing that occurred with impunity until the 1980s when more modern police practices discouraged such random violence. The boys try to hook up with Putty Nose, but he’s skipped out. Leaving them to deal with the heat. Tom then vows vengeance on his betrayer. This is when the boys hook up with a bigger crook, a local bootlegger and gang boss named Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor). After some successful gigs, making a killing during Prohibition, the boys and Ryan teamed up with an even more powerful gangster named Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton). The four run their gang and end up on a collision course with a rival gang called the Schemer Burns Mob. In a good cinematic move, Wellman never lets the viewer get a close up look at Burns nor any of his men. They are ‘the other’ in the film, and it helps the viewer empathize and sympathize with Tom as the film goes on, even as his viciousness increases- see the scene where Tom kills Putty Nose (whose demise is tweaked by having a black cat cross his path), as he plays a piano, as Matt watches in disbelief (the killing is off camera), and Tom just walks by with no feeling. Then, Nails is killed in a horse accident, and Matt and Tom buy the horse, then shoot it dead (offscreen)- a touch that helped set up the famous scene in The Godfather, by establishing the connection of horses with Mob deaths. Oddly, the most famous scene of violence is when Tom smashes a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face. The woman, Kitty (Mae Clarke) just cries. The scene was a faux pas of manners, and deemed far worse than the gunplay. This prompts him to dump Kitty and pursue Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow), whereas Matt marries Mamie (Joan Blondell), his gal, and pal of Kitty.
Despite his viciousness, Tom never stands up to his older brother, who continually rebukes and assaults Tom throughout the film. Although never stated directly, Mike seems to have suffered shell shock in World War I. A key scene occurs at a family gathering to welcome Mike home. Matt brings a keg of beer, and Mike, who has married Matt’s sister, Molly (Rita Flynn), rails that it’s blood money, and that Matt and Tom are just killers. Tom throws it all back at his brother, saying he is a killer, too, having served in the war. He says: ‘Your hands ain’t so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.’ With Nails’ death, though, the Burns Mob starts taking apart the Ryan Mob’s territory. Paddy tries to broker piece, and holes Tom and Matt up in his girlfriend’s house, where the older woman, Jane (Mia Marvin), seduces him by getting him drunk. The next morning, when Tom recalls his betrayal of Paddy, he is disgusted, and leaves the safe house. Matt follows, and the pair are ambushed by machine gun fire. Matt is killed but Tom escapes. He then sets out on revenge. During a nightly rainstorm, he alone ambushes the Burns Mob, and gunplay occurs inside their hideout. He rushes out, then collapses on a curb. He is hospitalized, and apologizes to ho mother and brother. They urge him to ‘come home,’ and he promises to. But, then he is kidnapped, from his hospital bed, by the Burns Mob. Paddy tells Mike he’s offered to leave town if only his rivals return Tom. They do, only he is an overly bandaged corpse that falls into the family home when Mike answers the doorbell. Mike then heads to tell his mother that her baby is home. The final scene plays out over the song I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. It is the third time the tune was used, and used effectively. It opens the film in a jaunty credit sequence; it is used in the pool hall where Putty Nose reigns, and a slower, more morose version, herald’s the dead Tom’s return home. The rest of the music in the film is not scored, but sourced in the diegetic reality of the film.
Many myths about the film have circulated. The two biggest are that real machine gun bullets were used in the ambush scene where Matt is killed and that the famous grapefruit scene was an improvisation. Both are false, as is explained on the DVD commentary and extras for the film. The grapefruit scene was scripted, and the claim of real bullets is mere legendry. The Warner Brothers DVD, though, is very good. While the film’s visual quality varies from reel to reel, even the worst reels are better than what was usually rerun on television, and the best ones are nearly pristine. The whole film is in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and the DVD is part of a 6 disk Warner Brothers Gangsters Collection. The film runs 84 minutes, down over ten minutes from its original release because, in 1949, when the film was re-released, those minutes were cut because they featured a character based upon real life gangster Bugs Moran that were deemed unsuitable. Subsequently, that original footage has been lost. The extra features are all top notch, for the DVD tries to present the film as it would have been shown in theaters, in a section called Warner Night At The Movies. Hosted by film critic Leonard Maltin, the segment features cartoons, newsreels, trailers and short subject films from the same year as the film in the DVD- this one being 1931. The trailer is for Blonde Crazy, a romance with Joan Blondell, co-star of The Public Enemy. Then we see Hearst Metrotone News. Then Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy star in the short comedy, The Eyes Have It. The cartoon is a Friz Freleng sing-a-long called Smile, Darn Ya, Smile! But the featurette on the film is the best extra, called Beer And Blood: Enemies Of The Public. Assorted film experts, including director Martin Scorsese, reminisce on the film and its impact. There is also the original theatrical trailer for The Public Enemy and the 1954 re-release disclaimer. The film commentary features film historian Robert Sklar, and it’s solid stuff, although Sklar allows much down time between anecdotes.
When the film was first released it was recognized as, at least, a great film in its genre, and most reviews, over the years concur. But, one of the worst reviews of the film that I have come across is this one, on the DVD Verdict website. I quote the most egregious parts:
Lest I be viewed as a heretic by my film critic brethren, let the record show that I like The Public Enemy, find it technically and artistically impressive for its time, and consider it an important forefather to subsequent gangster films. Its realism is refreshing, and a handful of the scenes could be considered eternal classics of film.
….When the ballyhooed ending arrived (and I hadn't heard any of the ballyhooing, so I didn't realize I was supposed to be suitably impressed) I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it.
….Tom takes on an entire room of armed crooks to avenge Matt's death. The camera stays outside while Tom strides in and throws down a giant handful of gurgling death. This action rapidly brings us to the final scene, where Tom's warm corpse is delivered to the front door. I know they had to wrap up the film somehow, but Tom would never walk into a room full of armed, wary mobsters with one gun and no backup. At least, the Tom I just spent 80 minutes watching wouldn't. He is too savvy to go out in such a stupid fashion.
As for the film’s ending, where has this reviewer been the last decade, where terrorists willingly fling themselves at death? Has he not learnt of the idiotic machismo that fuels most organized criminals. In fact, Tom’s rage into the enemy camp is what makes it so real. His best pal has just been killed, and he wants revenge. Especially given it was 1931, this ending was both realistic and brutal. And to claim that Tom was somehow smart before that moment is to show the reviewer really didn’t pay attention to the film, and how easily duped he is by father figures and infantilizing females.
Other critics carp on the moralistic opening and closing title cards- but this was during the strict film production codes of the Hays Board censors, or they whine about some of the acting, by Harlow and Mercer, but there really were people like that in the early part of the 20th Century, in big cities. I know, because my own dad, born in 1916, was one of them. The film does avoid many of the clichés of gangster films of the era, and one of the biggest is that poverty is the sole cause of crime. Both Matt and Tom, while not rich, are certainly not living in squalor. They both actively choose crime; it is not thrust upon them. Also, unlike the two other classic gangster films released within a year of this one, Scarface and Little Caesar, only this one really backgrounded the characters and followed them across a long arc of years. There is also a good deal of humor in the film, especially in a scene where Tom encounters an effeminate homosexual tailor, who takes to fondling Tom’s bicep.
Most of all, though, the film is dominated by Cagney, and it’s interesting to compare Cagney’s brutal little thug with that type played in several Martin Scorsese films, by Joe Pesci. While both are realistic, and I’ve known both types, only the Cagney films treats his character realistically. Whereas the Pesci characters would have all easily had their asses kicked well before they got into any positions of power, the Cagney type was the real deal. And despite many rumors to the contrary, none of the main characters were based on any specific real life mobsters, but a mélange of Mob legends. The Public Enemy may not be an obviously great piece of cinema, but it’s damned good and damned close, and certainly a historically important film of and about its era. If one is a film buff or historian it’s one of those films that really is not to be absent from your collection. And, if that does not convince you, just think Cagney. He’s worth it.