What a terrific film THIS is!
William Wellman's "Public Enemy" is a tour-de-force performance by James Cagney, wrapped within some elegant direction and supported by a simple but effective screenplay.
First, Mr. Cagney is clearly lightyears ahead of everyone else on the screen in terms of acting style, technique and ability. The quote I use in the title of my review comes from Mr. Scorsese, who screened this film prior to beginning "The Aviator" for several members of the cast and crew. One young actor noted that it appeared that modern screen acting began with Cagney's performance, and that actor could not have been more correct. It's almost obvious in retrospect.
Second, Wellman's direction I didn't notice at first, until viewing the documentary after the film. Then I realized how artful and creative it was, especially considering it was made in 1931. His in-frame composition is eye-catching. The manner in which he consistently shows the most violent events just out of frame, or just out of sight of the viewer, adds tremendously to the gravity and drama of each event. Things like the music...here's an extraordinarily clever use of source music...the soundtrack comes from things ON the screen. A piano player, a radio, a 78 RPM disc...again, I didn't pick up on this until I saw the documentary.
Let me get to that documentary right now. Warner's makes awesome discs, and the care they've put into these Gangster Classics is to be lauded. The "Night At The Movies" is no gimmick. Putting trailers, shorts, cartoons and newsreels before the film doesn't merely re-create the environment of a movie theater back then. The elements are selected to provide context for the film you are about to see. They make the movie better.
Then, the short documentary included here is a model of how these should be done. This is a perfect 20 minute class on "Public Enemy." Concise and thorough, with everything you need to know, along with things you never even considered. For more insight and depth, an audio commentary is provided, but all you need to know to fully appreciate this film is in that amazing 20 minutes.
I agree with Mr. Scorsese that this film appeals to younger viewers (high school/college) as well as cineastes. Cagney is alive in the way few actors EVER are on screen.
This film (heck, the whole BOX of 'em) belongs in every single DVD collection.
on March 30, 2005
THE PUBLIC ENEMY was James Cagney's first starring vehicle. Not only was it the first movie to push a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's startled kisser, it was the movie that propelled Cagney to stardom. It's a gangster film that tells the story of the meteoric rise and early fall of young street punk Tom Powers.
THE PUBLIC ENEMY opens with a quasi-documentary montage of shots of Chicago circa 1909, taking the viewer from the els to the stockyards to the opening sequence of the movie proper - a Salvation Army band marching in front of a saloon, a brewery, past the movie's two heroes as young boys - young boys sneaking a drink from the pail of beer they're bringing to someone, somewhere.
Director William Wellman built this one, and built it good. Interesting camera placement and movement and some very well edited scenes - the heisting of the fur warehouse scene is a case in point, one of a number of scenes that averts its eyes when the bullets splat flesh and, somehow, makes the violence all that more real. Wellman went to some length showing us the conditions in which gangsterism takes seed and flourishes. Starting with the obligatory opening "We must stamp out the scourge of gangsterism" title card, Wellman blames economic hardship, a lack of an authority figure at home (Pa Powers is around for one strapping the unruly brat scene before the movie knocks him off), and a doting mother seem the main culprits, in roughly that order.
Of course, it helps if you don't glamorize those you condemn. Keeps the censors off your back. Even though the charismatic Cagney doesn't paint a particularly sympathetic portrait of young thug Tom Powers, he IS the charismatic James Cagney. His anti-hero grows rich defying the unpopular prohibition act. Grows rich, wears tuxedos to swank nightclubs, and dates a swell dish like Mae Clarke before dumping her for a sweller dish in Jean Harlow. If PE made a star out of Cagney, it also did more than its share in opening the door for a production code with a full set of sharp puritanical teeth.
Part of THE PUBLIC ENEMY'S purpose was to provide a showcase for two up-and-coming stars, Cagney and Harlow. Cagney I can understand. He leapt out of the gate at a gallop, an immense talent even then. Harlow is tougher to understand. A harsh featured sex symbol with a remarkably limited range, Harlow's appeal is as foreign and baffling to me as flag-pole sitting. All I know is it, and she, was all the rage back then.
There's something a little undercooked about her fascinatingly flawed performance. It starts with her accent. Her character claims to be from Texas and seems to be aiming for an upper-crust, socialite effect. Whatever she's speaking it sure ain't Texican, and it's about as cultured as sour milk. Every so often a word tumbles out of her mouth that seems accented in some exotic and exclusive dialect - You can let me orf heah, she says at one point, managing to corral all errant dialects into a short sentence. By law you're not allowed to write more than twenty-five words about Harlow without mentioning that she slept in the nude and never wore underwear, two factoids which I suppose go far in explaining many things.
To her credit, Harlow fares much better than poor second male lead Edward Woods, he of the handsome wooden face who seems to have two expressions - one a smile, the other not. For my money Donald Cook, as Cagney's good older brother Mike, and Beryl Mercer, as the saintly and long suffering Ma Powers, fared best in the supporting acting pool. It's hard to relate to Ma Powers, too sweet, but Mercer is as expressive as Cagney and holds her own with him. It's not her fault her character doesn't have many dimensions or any rough edges.
THE PUBLIC ENEMY is a great, great movie that I highly recommend. The print is in very good condition, with only a couple of slightly bleached sequences to disturb things.
Best of all Warner Brothers, as they are wont to do, has packed a bunch of goodies on this gangster classic. They call it Warner Night at the Movies, and I'm not scoffing. They present the movie with a newsreel (Girl Stars Train for the Olympics), a Comedy Short (The Eyes Have It - a 9 minute short featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. They call it a comedy, and I don't have enough room left to argue the point), a Cartoon (Merrie Melodies "Smile, Darn Ya, Smile" with some foot-tapping fox who looks and sounds a lot like Mickey Mouse), and Theatrical Trailers. There's also a 20 minute feature, "Beer and Blood," that focuses most of its attention on Jimmy Cagney and how he got the part in THE PUBLIC ENEMY. The film comes with an informative and entertaining commentary by film historian Robert Sklar.
on November 23, 1999
James Cagney reached the pinnacle of acting success in this 1931 pre-Code gangster thriller.
As Tom Powers, Cagney comes off as pugnacious, cocky, sexy and must be billed as one of the most misogynistic characters ever. (I'm female, and I still find his squashing of the grapefruit in Mae Clarke's surprised maw a riot.) With a certain comedic flair, as a bad guy who thinks he is good, Cagney is endearing as one one of the first and best of Hollywood's bad boys.
Reviewers, however, focus too much on what is now classically referred to as "the grapefruit episode." Instead, "Public Enemy" has to be watched for what I call "The Death of Putty Nose" episode where Tom murders Putty, a bad guy who had done him wrong. Putty begs for reprieve, then tries to endear Tom to him by serenading him at the piano with a song from Tom's childhood. Putty Nose nervously looks back at Cagney standing behind him, who smiles beatifically upon him in response. When Putty turns back to his playing, Cag shoots him in the back, in mid verse. The Cagney character then strides out, never looking back, and reminds his gangster pal that "I guess I'll call Gwen," his gal. He has no sense of remorse or conscience. It is hilarious because Cag is so baaad, and it is chilling because of his ferocity. Importantly, you never see the shooting take place. It happens off camera, which is even for evocative. I am one who believes that far too much gratuitous violence, swearing and nudity takes place on screen. Cagney didn't need it; he was more than effective without it -- even if it had been allowed in 1931.
The filming is curious and innovative, with Cagney being in the background in several chilling scenes, allowing the secondary characters to develop, which is a sure sign of a great flick.
Public Enemy is one of the first pre-Code gangster films, where crime did pay, but Warner Brothers shows 3 disclaimers trying to dissuade anyone from thinking this film is anything but a public service contribution against the evils of crime. Pshaw -- you can't help but watch this film and root for Cagney as the beloved villain. I saw this movie when I was 12 and developed an immediate fixation on this actor and his character. I laughed and cheered and thought Cagney was totally cool, and I cried at the end. Warner Brothers knew exactly what it was doing, and it had nothing to do with public service. In fact Public Enemy was among the first films to usher in the gangster movie craze.
See this film over and over. It'll become an immediate favorite.
on March 7, 2000
"Public Enemy" details the rise and fall of an Irish-American gangster. Although, the word "Irish" is never mentioned, there is no doubt of the ethnicity of the main characters: the stern cop father; the doting, sentimental mother; the surnames:Powers, Doyle, Ryan; even some of the first names: Paddy and Mike; and I believe the song "Mother Macree" is played on the soundtrack. In the early 30's this film reinforced the American public's image of big city crime as the territory of certain ethnic groups: the Jews, the Italians, and the Irish.
I find the above interesting because "Public Enemy" is as fascinating viewed as a product of its era as it is as entertainment. In 1930's Hollywood certain ethnic stereotypes were used ad naseum, and the Irish were always portrayed as either cops, priests, or gangsters.
And no one ever embodied the image of the Irish-American gangster better than Jimmy Cagney. His pugnacious looks combined with his ability to portray men who could be all charm one second and a hair-trigger tempered killer the next, captivated audiences. Watch "Public Enemy" and you will be in awe of Cagney's ability to dominate the screen from the famous grapefruit scene to his look of maniacal glee before he confronts a rival gang. Cagney's Tommy Powers is a gangster for the ages.
It's fun to note that the Sean Penn film "State of Grace," which is also about Irish-American gangsters, paid tribute to "Public Enemy." Watch "State of Grace," and you will see some parts either taken directly from or influenced by that older film.
on August 8, 2003
There is very little waste in PUBLIC ENEMY and it is easy to see why this film caused such a sensation in 1931. The movie is about the steady rise of a professional criminal (James Cagney) from before World War I through the early years of Prohibition. The acting by Cagney, Joan Blondell and Mae Clarke is excellent. The strong supporting cast includes Beryl Mercer, Edward Woods and Jean Harlow.
PUBLIC ENEMY received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story (John Bright and Kubec Glasmon). The film has certainly stood the test of time and the final scene has remained unforgettable. William Wellman also directed BEAU GESTE, WINGS and THE STORY OF G.I. JOE.
on August 7, 2006
Everyone has to start somewhere, and while The Public Enemy (1931), directed by William `Wild Bill' Wellman (Wings, The Call of the Wild, Island in the Sky) wasn't James Cagney's (Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Heat, Mister Roberts) first film, it was one of his earliest starring roles...originally Cagney was set to play a supporting character, but after stealing the show in The Millionaire (1931), studio executives decided to set him as the star only a couple of weeks prior to shooting The Public Enemy, and the rest is history, as they say. Also appear with Cagney is the original platinum blonde Jean Harlow (Hell's Angels), Edward Woods (Tarzan the Fearless), Joan Blondell (The Blue Veil), Donald Cook (Whirlpool), Leslie Fenton (Streets of Laredo), Beryl Mercer (Devil's Lottery), Robert Emmett O'Connor (A Night at the Opera), Mae Clarke (Frankenstein), Murray Kinnell (Anne of Green Gables), the man credited for getting Bette Davis her big break into films.
As the film, set in Chicago, begins, it's the year 1909, and we meet two young delinquents named Tom Powers and Matt Doyle, later played as adults by Cagney and Woods, respectively. Anyway, seems the junior hoods belong to a club run by a mug by the name of Putty Nose (Kinnell), a Fagin type who acts as a fence for whatever the street urchins in his club can lift. As the years go by Putty Nose eventually hooks Tom and Matt up with their first, big heist, but things go down badly, causing Putty Nose to leave everyone's cheese out in the wind in saving his own miserable hide. As time passes, Tom's older brother Mike (Cook), who's a real goody goody, goes off to fight the Kaiser, Tom and Matt fall into the lucrative bootlegging business, once prohibition kicks in, finding sponsorship through a relatively small time mug named Paddy Ryan (O'Connor), who hooks them up with local dapper criminal type named Nails Nathan (Fenton). Eventually Tom returns from the war a bit shell shocked, learns of his brother's activities, and the pair have a falling out, causing Tom, who's swimming in coin now, to move out of the family home and shack up with some dame (Clarke) who he soon drops (by way of a grapefruit to the face) for another slightly more polished dame named Gwen Allen (Harlow). After settling a score with an old acquaintance, Tom and Matt soon find themselves in the middle of a gang war, are forced to go into hiding, but are quickly ratted out, which leads to Tom taking matters into his own, psychotic hands (which he does, and then some).
As far as gangster films go, The Public Enemy is right up there in my personal top five, due primarily to Cagney's indomitable presence and Wellman's wonderful direction. Nearly every aspect of this film works together to create an engaging, moralistic prohibition era tale set in the bad old days of Chicago. I learned a lot from this film, including the following...
1. The short-armed jab was a popular way to show affection back in the day.
2. Gangsters don't like it when you `lam out' on them.
3. Gangsters aren't very sympathetic, especially when they catch up to someone who's `lammed out' on them.
4. A beer keg makes an interesting centerpiece on a dinner table.
5. Black cats are truly bad luck.
6. Mike's got one hell of a right hook, at least before he joined the army.
7. Mike doesn't care for bootleg beer.
8. If you're looking to break up with your significant other, try shoving a juicy grapefruit in his/her face as it really gets the point across.
9. If you're ever thrown from a horse, best to protect your melon.
10. Criminal types had really cool nicknames back in the day like Nails, Dutch, Limpy, and Putty Nose (okay, maybe those last two aren't so cool).
11. Monogamy isn't a particularly cherished value among gangsters or their dames.
12. Platinum blondes are hard to figure.
13. Parents do have favorites.
14. Gangsters have a sick sense of humor (case in point, Tom's `homecoming' at the end of the film).
15. In terms of really lousy gooberment legislation resulting in disastrous negative after effects, prohibition has to be in the top five.
As I said, nearly every aspect of this film worked for me including the strong performances (Cagney owns the film with his portrayal of the ruthless, cold blooded, unflinching, extremely lethal racketeer Tom Powers), the well thought out engaging direction by Wellman, and the snappy dialog (including lots of colorful gangster `speak')...the one element the felt a little off for me was Harlow's character. I think she was supposed to be a classy, sophisticated type Cagney's character hooks up with once he begins moving up in the world, but she came off more as a street dame pretending to be a classy, sophisticated type. This was a minor point for me, only noticeable because everything else worked so well. My favorite scene from the film is near the end, when Cagney's character seeks revenge against a rival gang, and stakes out their hangout in the middle of the night during a pouring rainstorm. As the men arrive and enter the storefront, Cagney produces one of the most psychotic grins I've ever seen, his character enjoying the supreme satisfaction of knowing he's about to permanently settle the hash of those who've wronged him. Another aspect that works so well with this film is the fact that most all of the violence is off screen, providing clear and defined setups allowing viewers to utilize their imaginations in filling in the gaps, which is sometimes much more effective than displayed bloodshed. All in all if you're a fan of early gangster films, or just great films in general (especially ones with a doozy of an ending), this one deserves your attention, ya lousy mug...
The picture quality, presented in fullscreen aspect ratio, looks quite good, especially considering the film is over seventy-five years old. The tones aren't as sharp as I would have liked, but overall the picture comes across well, as does the Dolby Digital mono audio. Extras feature a bit called Leonard Maltin's Night at the Movies which includes an introduction by Lenny himself, a newsreel of the day, a comedy short titled The Eyes Have It (1931) featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, a Merrie Melodies cartoon short titled Smile, Darn Ya, Smile (1931), and trailers, one for this film along with another for one for a Cagney film titled Blonde Crazy (1931). Also included is a featurette titled Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public (19:33), a commentary track with film historian Robert Sklar, the 1954 re-release forward (0:42), and subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.
By the way, if you're interested in picking up this film on DVD, you might want to check out The Warner Gangsters DVD Collection which features The Public Enemy (1931), White Heat (1949), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Little Caesar (1931), The Petrified Forest (1936), and The Roaring Twenties (1939) as it's probably a better value that buying the films individually.
on November 8, 2005
Little Ceasar made the year before was the prototype. But Public Enemy is a better movie. Better sound, better camera work etc. It is the baseline on which all gangster movies are measured, even today. James Cagney is Tommy-boy, lively energetic & funny. He is also a remorseless, psychopathic killer. But he is at the same time appealing. It was a character type he perfected. A bad-boy persona with a comedic flair. He is the star in this one. After several more co-starring roles he emerged as one of Hollywoods top actors.
The movie opens with a short sketch of Tommy's boyhood in 1909 Chicago. He is a junvenile deliquent, a bad seed, with few options. The years pass & the story picks up again. Tommy is a young hood. Criminal activity is the only thing he knows being too lazy to work diligently like his older brother.
The movie is full of interesting characters. His partner is played by Edward Woods, his older brother, by Donald Cook. No review is complete without a nod to one of the top ten scenes in all of history: the grapefruit in the face of poor Mae Clark, perhaps her only claim to fame. Jean Harlow is rather wooden as his girlfriend in a small part. She looks great, but it was not much of a performance.
This is a pre-code Hollywood movie but even so Warner Brothers proceeded the movie with a a disclaimer that they deplored the events in the movie. Tommy could not get away with it. Crime does not pay, at least not in depression America. He dies in a particularly grisy manner. This is relatively new in dvd format. There are lots of extras, comentary & period pieces that are a nice touch.
on February 16, 2016
If you were young person who has never watched a movie from the 1930s and a James Cagney movie in particular then you can't miss this movie. This is James Cagney at his best I was not disappointed by this purchase and for the price that you pay for this movie it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see a great store from yesteryear
on July 31, 2015
Great debut by James Cagney as his iconic role as gangster Tom Powers, a brutal man who is looking to be a big man . This classic Warner picture along with Little Caesar made a few years earlier made Warner the bastion of the gangster flicks . With a few scenes with great thirties seductress, Jean Harlow on loan from MGM, the chemistry is hot !. One wonders what would have happened had she stayed at Warner. A great picture and brilliant start for one of the great actors of the cinema. Directed by William Wellman.
on August 24, 2001
"The Public Enemy", the gangster drama that brought James Cagney to stardom, is just as tough and effective today as it was when first released in 1931. Despite some stilted acting (Donald Cook is a little too stiff as the anti-hero's straight-arrow brother), the story of Tom Powers, a hoodlum who becomes a leading mobster, is a harrowing study of Prohibition Chicago and the racketeers who made it their oyster. Tom himself is a conscienceless but strangely compelling (due to Cagney's charm) character who lives for rapine -- and occasional revenge (poor Putty Nose!). As a kid (well-played by Frank Coghlan, Jr.), he is heavily disciplined by his cop father and pampered by his weak mother. One senses that Tom has witnessed a lot of spousal abuse and it has affected his attitude towards women. That playful little "slugging" gesture of his looks vaguely ominous. The movie's most famous scene is the one where Tom smashes a breakfast grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. (Oddly enough, Mae Clarke doesn't get screen credit.) Later in the story, while Tom is lying low at a gangland boss's apartment, the boss's mistress makes a heavy pass at Tom, who's had one too many. The next morning, as Tom is having his coffee, the woman implies that they slept together, which is evidently untrue. Furious at the manipulation, Tom belts her one. The moral: don't bug Tom at breakfast. The only female who remotely affects Tom is Gwen, played by the rising Jean Harlow. In this role, Harlow is suppose to be a high society girl with a veddy-veddy accent, quite at variance with the doxies she later played at Metro. ("The Public Enemy" was released by Warners, one of the first of its underworld "exposés".)Joan Blondell was also at the beginning of her long career, and here she plays the warm supportive type she would specialize in. Their co-star Edward Woods as Tom's buddy Matt is engaging, but he didn't forge ahead like the others. Director William A Wellman maintains the dark, dangerous atmosphere throughout with scenes of implied rather than direct violence. This is true of the revenge on Putty Nose as well as the killing of the horse responsible for "Nails" Nathan's death and the rubbing out of Tom's rival gang. Like the ending itself, one of the most unsettling ever filmed, these chilling events leave you convinced that this is still a strong, tough movie, seven decades after it was released.