Film Review: The Public Enemy (1931)

Also known as: Beer and Blood (working title), Enemies of the Public (UK)
Release Date: April 23rd, 1931 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Kubec Glasmon, John Bright
Based on: Beer and Blood by John Bright, Kubec Glasmon
Music by: David Mendoza, Vitaphone Orchestra
Cast: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Donald Cook

Warner Bros., 83 Minutes

Review:

“You are different, Tommy. Very different. And I’ve discovered it isn’t only a difference in manner and outward appearances. It’s a difference in basic character. The men I know – and I’ve known dozens of them – oh, they’re so nice, so polished, so considerate. Most women like that type. I guess they’re afraid of the other kind. I thought I was too, but you’re so strong. You don’t give, you take. Oh, Tommy, I could love you to death.” – Gwen Allen

As much as I love Edward G. Robinson, I still can’t deny that James Cagney was the king of the classic gangster movie. The Public Enemy is hands down, one of the most well-known gangster films of all-time and for very good reason.

What’s actually most interesting about this film, is it is based on an unpublished book by two former Chicago street thugs that actually personally witnessed some of Al Capone’s violent actions against rival gangs. For a 1930s film, it did have a real feeling of authenticity and a grittiness that set it apart from some of the other gangster films of the time.

James Cagney is exceptional in this and in several key scenes, you don’t even need dialogue, you just read his face and see where he is going and it usually isn’t anywhere good.

The cinematography of Devereaux Jennings was really good and it made this feel more refined than similar pictures. That scene towards the end of Cagney’s Tom Powers crawling through the rain is amazing and conveyed more emotion than the scene would have had otherwise.

I also like the ending a lot. It leaves you thinking that this guy has reformed and he may have but what seems like a happy ending comes with a twist, as Tom Powers is kidnapped from the hospital and then found murdered.

This ending almost defied the old school morality code but at the same time, this was a pre-code film. Anyway, Powers had to pay for his crimes in some form and he does, despite his apparent change of heart after reconciling with his family.

The Public Enemy really made James Cagney’s career and he would do a slew of similar films but if you’ve got a niche, exploit it and make money. That’s what Cagney did and it was off of the back of this film’s massive success.

Without this, the gangster genre might have died out more quickly and it also might not have lead to the film-noir of the 1940s. We also probably wouldn’t have gotten the classic crime picture White Heat or at the very least, that film would have been drastically different.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: White HeatLittle Caesar, the original Scarface and Smart Money.

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