James Cagney created his career-defining role in William Wellman's landmark gangster movie also starring Jean Harlow, Mae Clarke, and Joan Blondell. The film, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay, traces the rise and fall of prohibition-era mobster Tom Powers. From his childhood corrupted by the beer hall, pool parlor, and false friends, to his adulthood as a henchman of ruthless but innately decent bootlegger Paddy Ryan, Tom rises to the top of the heap, with all the accoutrements of success: custom-tailored tuxedoes, fancy cars, and gorgeous girls. But fate soon takes Tom down another path. Tommy's degeneration from brash kid to vicious lowlife is brought home in a famous scene in which he smashes a grapefruit in the face of his latest mistress (Mae Clarke).]]>
The Public Enemy
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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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Classic gangster movie showing how kids from good families get in over their heads when they try to be tough.Published 15 days ago by Accountant
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. Read morePublished 5 months ago by bbman
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