The Public Enemy - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1931

Director: William Wellman

Production: Warner Bros. Pictures Inc.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 96 minutes. Released May 1931. Filmed February-March 1931 in Warner Bros. studios. Cost: $151,000.

Producer: Darryl Zanuck; screenplay: Kubec Glasmon and John Bright; adaptation and dialogue: Harvey Thew, from a story "Beer and Blood" by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright; photography: Dev Jennings; editor: Ed McCormick; art director: Max Parker; music conductor: David Mendoza; costume designer: Earl Luick.

Cast: James Cagney ( Tom Powers ); Jean Harlow ( Gwen Allen ); Edward Woods ( Matt Doyle ); Joan Blondell ( Mamie ); Beryl Mercer ( Ma Powers ); Donald Cook ( Mike Powers ); Mae Clark ( Kitty ); Leslie Fenton ( Nails Nathan ); Robert Emmett O'Connor ( Paddy Ryan ); Murray Kinnell ( Putty Nose ); Ben Hendricks, Jr. ( Bugs Moran ); Rita Flynn ( Molly Doyle ); Clark Burroughs ( Dutch ); Snitz Edwards ( Hack Miller ); Adele Watson ( Mrs. Doyle ); Frank Coghlan, Jr. ( Tom as a boy ); Frankie Darro ( Matt as a boy ); Purnell Pratt ( Officer Powers ); Mia Marvin ( Jane ); Robert E. Homans ( Pat Burke ); Dorothy Gee ( Nail's girl ); Lee Phelps ( Steve the bartender ); Ben Hendricks III ( Bugs as a boy ); Landers Stevens ( Doctor ); Eddie Kane ( Joe, the headwaiter ); Douglas Gerrard ( Assistant tailor ); Sam McDaniel ( Black headwaiter ); William H. Strass ( Pawnbroker ); Russ Powell ( Bartender ).



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* * *

Although The Public Enemy is now most remembered for the famous scene in which James Cagney smashes half a grapefruit into the face of actress Mae Clark—an act that more than one critic has termed the most vicious in all of motion picture history—the film is, in fact, one of the first of the gangster genre to examine the sociological roots of crime in a serious way. Because of some unforgettable images and a charismatic performance by Cagney in the role that made him famous, the film achieved the rare distinction of being both a major box office success and a public-spirited statement.

The film's overall treatment of violence is implied rather than graphic. Most of the violence occurs off camera, but through an innovative use of sound—for example, in the chilling scene in which Cagney murders the horse that killed his friend—the effects of the savagery are actually heightened. Similarly, the scenes in which Cagney's gift-wrapped corpse is delivered to his brother or the bizarre scene in the rain after he is wounded (which prefigures the famous Gene Kelly "Singin' in the Rain" number from that 1952 film) stunned audiences and justified the film's social statement. When Cagney, riddled with bullets, falls face down in a rain gutter, his blood entering the torrent, and mutters "I ain't so tough," that is a restatement of the film's prologue that it is within the public's power to stamp out criminals.

Between the picture's framing prologue and epilogue, director William Wellman created powerful sequences that still retain much of their impact. Through the introduction of his characters as children and an elaborate opening pan that delineates their environment, Wellman establishes a relationship between sordid surroundings and the natural inclinations of children, that they sometimes interact to begin the evolution of the criminal. Yet much of the commentary surrounding these scenes seems simplistic to modern viewers. That the film retains much of its impact today is due largely to the performances, particularly those of Jean Harlow as Cagney's seductive mistress and Cagney himself as the gangster Tom Powers. Although the fortuitous pairing of the star with a role ideally suited to his talents was the result of one of Wellman's "gut" instincts, Cagney's magnetic performance made the film a smash hit and achieved some political repercussions as well: the picture unintentionally glamorized the criminal and indirectly hastened Hollywood's implementation of a self-imposed Production Code to prevent such undesirable social figures from being depicted in future in a sympathetic way. Although The Public Enemy may seem tame in comparison with some of the post-Code films of the last two decades, enough of its power survives to sustain it both as a film and as a creditable social document.

—Steve Hanson

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