Published on April 23rd, 1931 | by Padraic Coffey


The Public Enemy (1931)

If John Wayne is the archetypal onscreen cowboy, James Cagney must surely ranks as the archetypal onscreen gangster. Though his tetchy persona was eventually overshadowed by latter-day counterparts offering a more contemporary spin – exemplified by the likes of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the 1970s – it is difficult to overstate Cagney’s dominance of the genre in the 1930s and 1940s. The Public Enemy, released in 1931, was not his debut in crime film; nonetheless, it has become synonymous with kick-starting his career in such roles.

The film begins with a quaintly theatrical roll-call of actors, including Cagney, Edward Woods, Donald Cook and Robert Emmett O’Connor, surveyed in profile for the camera. Cagney and Woods play Tom Powers and Matt Doyle respectively, childhood friends whose petty errands for local hoodlum Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) result in the killing of a policeman. Both avoid jail-time, but their continued involvement in the world of organised crime, intensified by the bootlegging trade of Prohibition-era America and their dealings with local smuggler Paddy Ryan (O’Connor), prove their eventual downfall.

Oddly enough, Woods was originally set to play Powers, his Rudolph Valentino-esque good looks a throwback to the Silent Era, from which cinema had yet to fully emerge. Cagney, however, personifies the role with such energy that any other actor would almost certainly seem miscast. Cagney’s bug-eyed sneer and staccato verbal-delivery have been a source of parody for decades, but the intensity of his performance is still a treat to behold.

The formula of The Public Enemy would reappear in crime cinema ad infinitum, both in comparable gangster pictures like Howard Hawk’s Scarface and Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties, also featuring Cagney, and much later works like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and Martin Scorsese’sGoodfellas. Powers climbs the ladder of criminal enterprise from menial tasks to strong-arm enforcement, with key moments of progress represented by events such as having an expensive suit fitted. Against this backdrop of working class life, military service is offered as the alternate to crime, Powers’ brother Michael (Cook) returning from World War I shell-shocked and contemptuous of his brother’s behaviour.

Though understandably tame in comparison to later gangster films, The Public Enemy arrived in an era referred to as “Pre-Code Hollywood”, before the restrictive Hays Code took effect in 1934, severely limiting the extent to which controversial topics could be depicted in cinema. There is a moral ambivalence throughout the film that flies in the face of the didactic screeds bookending it, which speak of the filmmakers’ intention to “honestly depict… rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal”. Powers may participate in acts defying law enforcement, but we learn early that his father had been a policeman. A person’s moral value is not defined by abidance to the law in the film. As Ryan tells Powers and Doyle, “there’s only two kinds of people: right and wrong. Now, I think you’re right”. Tellingly, it is Ryan who dictates Powers’ memorably grisly demise, not for any violent misdeed, but the age-old offence of involvement with Ryan’s moll.

If there is a flaw in The Public Enemy, it is that its narrative lacks much momentum, despite the brisk running length of approximately 80 minutes. Certain scenes stand out as memorable set pieces, while never gelling with the story as a whole. One darkly comic moment has Powers and Doyle shoot, off-screen, the horse that has thrown an associate of theirs from its back, killing him in the process. Watch, too, for when Powers has a gun-shop owner demonstrate his latest weaponry, then uses it to rob the premises. Similar scenes would take place in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and James Cameron’s The Terminator, no doubt a homage to The Public Enemy.

William A. Wellman had the honour of helming the first ever Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, Wings, in 1927. He keeps his direction workmanlike throughout The Public Enemy, occasionally throwing in imaginative shots, such as capturing the underside of a moving vehicle by crouching into a specially prepared bunker. That moment’s fluidity anticipates the revolutionary camera movements of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, released a decade later. The film was also produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, despite Zanuck being unlisted in the credits. Zanuck had one of the most illustrious careers in Hollywood, producing approximately 200 titles, including Oscar-winners How Green Was My Valley, Gentleman’s Agreement and All About Eve.

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About the Author

Padraic Coffey is a freelance writer and film critic who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He has written for the Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest circulation newspaper, and Trinity College, Dublin, ranked in the top 100 best universities in the world by the QS World University Rankings in 2014. Additionally, his film criticism has appeared on Volta - Ireland's first VOD website - as well as sites such as Taste of Cinema, Film Jam and Head Stuff.

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