The Public Enemy

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

As youngsters, Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his lifelong friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) engage in petty theft, selling their loot to “Putty Nose” (Murray Kinnell). When the pair are young men, Putty Nose persuades them to join his gang on a fur warehouse robbery, assuring them he will take care of them if anything goes wrong. When Tom is startled by a stuffed bear, he shoots it, alerting the police, who kill gang member Larry Dalton. Chased by a cop, Tom and Matt have to gun him down. However, when they go to Putty Nose for help, they find he has left town.

Tom’s straitlaced older brother Mike (Donald Cook) tries, but fails to talk Tom into giving up crime. Tom keeps his activities secret from his doting mother (Beryl Mercer). When America enters World War I in 1917, Mike enlists in the Marines.

In 1920, with Prohibition about to go into effect, Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor) recruits them as beer “salesmen” (enforcers) in his bootlegging business. He allies himself with noted gangster “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton).

The bootlegging business becomes ever more lucrative, and Tom and Matt flaunt their wealth. However, when Tom gives his mother a large wad of money, Mike rejects the gift. Tom tears up the banknotes and throws them in his brother’s face. When Mike states that Tom’s success is based on nothing more than “beer and blood” (the title of the book upon which the film is based), Tom retorts: “Your hands ain’t so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”

Tom and Matt acquire girlfriends, Kitty (an uncredited Mae Clarke) and Mamie (Joan Blondell) respectively. Tom eventually tires of Kitty; in a famous scene, when she complains once too often, he pushes half a grapefruit into her face. He then drops her for Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow), a woman with a self-confessed weakness for bad men.

When Nails dies in a horse riding accident, a rival gang headed by “Schemer” Burns takes advantage of the resulting disarray, precipitating a gang war. Matt is gunned down in public, with Tom narrowly escaping the same fate. Furious, Tom takes it upon himself to single-handedly settle scores with Burns and some of his men. He himself is seriously wounded in the shootout, and ends up in the hospital.

When his mother, brother and Matt’s sister Molly come to see him, he reconciles with Mike and agrees to reform. However, he is kidnapped by the Burns mob from the hospital. Later, his dead body is returned to the Powers home.


Back in March, I was at Disneyworld going through one of the rides/attractions that featured old Hollywood movies. Upon getting to the gangster section, I recall seeing The Public Enemy featured. Curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to see what the hoopla was about and why this is considered such a great classic film.

What is this about?

Crime doesn’t pay, as James Cagney learns in this vintage Warner Brothers gangster movie that’s become a much-imitated classic of the genre. Cagney plays hot-headed Tom Powers, who’s on the fast track running illegal hooch during Prohibition.

What did I like?

Cagney. As it turns out, to my surprise, this is the first time I’ve been exposed to a James Cagney film. As with many classic era actors, it just seems as if I’ve seen them all at some point or another, but that wasn’t the case. Cagney delivers a performance to be seen and not talked about. It is that good. His performance is just shy of being over-the-top, and that restraint is what makes it work so well.

It all starts somewhere. The film opens with our two stars as young boys getting into a bit of mischief…the beginning of a long career of wrongdoing, to be sure. For me, personally, films that start this way really work. Just as superheroes have origins, the bad guys must have something that turns them to a life of crime, even if it is just an upbringing of mischief.

Ending. Not to spoil the ending, but the way the film ends, with a somewhat fitting end for the primary antagonist, was quite poetic. Not only that, but it also seemed to fit the tone of the film, because, make no mistake this ain’t no Bugs Bunny gangster cartoon. There is some serious, heavy crime drama going on here.

What didn’t I like?

Short. I loved the rapid-fire dialogue and all, but the film itself seemed to be a bit too short. It almost seemed as if there was more story left to tell, but it ended up on the cutting room floor. I’m the last person to advocate longer films, but in this case, when just as I was getting into it, the last act started, I have to make an exception.

Mama. I think we’ve all heard that told saying, “Mama knows best”, right? Well, in this case, she seemed totally oblivious to what her son was doing. I have to question how this is possible, since he was such a prominent gangster. Then again, I think Al Capone’s mother knew nothing about what he was doing, and his face was plastered over anywhere that had a surface. Still, it does seem that they would have made her a bit more conscious of what was going on, but maybe that was just me.

Harlow or harlot? Jean Harlow was the Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Pamela Anderson, Sofia Vergara, etc. of her day. My problem is not with her, as she is obviously a sex symbol. However, the way her character was written didn’t quite jive with me. I can’t tell you why, perhaps it was that in her biggest scene, it appeared as though she was trying too hard to land Cagney’s character that did it.

The Public Enemy is worthy of all the praise it had heaped on it, perhaps even more. Similar to other films of this era, it shines where today’s pictures falter, emphasis on characters and story above everything else. Let us not beat around the bush, this is a picture that isn’t for everyone. I am sure there are those that will get offended by the controversial grapefruit scene, among other things. However, this is a well-made film that is most definitely one that should be seen before you die!

4 1/3 out of 5 stars


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