The Public Enemy

1931, Movie, NR, 83 mins

Review

PUBLIC ENEMY, THE | ENEMIES OF THE PUBLIC
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Fascinating and brutally realistic, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, along with LITTLE CAESAR, BAD COMPANY, and SCARFACE, set the pattern for the gangster films of the 1930s. It also made a star of its volatile leading man, James Cagney, and confirmed director William Wellman as a major force in talkies.

The film opens with two young Irish boys, Tom (Frank Coghlan) and Matt (Frankie Darro), growing up in the shantytown South Side of Chicago, circa 1909, and learning a life of crime from Putty Nose (Kinnell), a fence. As adults, Tom (now played by Cagney) and Matt (Woods) move into robbery but, on a warehouse heist, a panicky Tom fires his gun needlessly and the police descend. Tom and Matt escape, but not before killing a cop. Putty Nose skips town, and the two young crooks move into bootlegging on the advice of Paddy Ryan (O'Connor). (In a scene which memorably uses the offscreen sound of a discordant piano, Matt and Tom square their accounts with Putty Nose.) Working for Nails Nathan (Fenton), the two are successful in their new racket, and move into an apartment with Mamie (Blondell) and Kitty (Clarke), two blondes they have picked up. Tom, the more nasty and aggressive of the two, continues to rise up in the gangster hierarchy, especially after Nails is killed in a freak accident by a horse. (So used to killing are Tom and Matt that they even execute the unfortunate animal.) The price of success, though, is great, as Tom's crusading brother Mike (Cook) prevents their mother (Mercer) from accepting the largesse of Tom's misdeeds. Even though Tom takes up with the seductive Gwen (Harlow), gang warfare takes its toll. The film's famous final shot, with "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" playing on a victrola, is still, even after exposure to today's graphic filmic violence, horrifying.

THE PUBLIC ENEMY is one of the most realistic gangster films ever produced. Wellman's direction is a frontal attack on the subject; other than handling a number of violent deaths offscreen, he spares no brutality of emotion, action, or thought in his grim portrayal of a lethal criminal. Cagney is the gangster of his day, cocky, tough as nails, and utterly without conscience, a character molded into evil by his environment. We see only the criminal world; the one cop shown in detail is Tom's father, a brute who walks around the house in half his uniform, communicating with his unruly child via a razor strop. Photographer Dev Jennings shot the film emphasizing sharp contrasts: glaring sunlit exteriors and grainy gray interiors that fade to black alleyways and gutters.

Tom's casual brutality scars the memory in shot after shot. The moment best remembered, of course, is the one in which Cagney smashes half a grapefruit in Clarke's face when she taunts him with the suggestion that maybe he's found a new lover. Everyone connected with this famous scene recalls it differently--whose idea it was, was Cagney really supposed to hit her, was Clarke prepared, etc. Whatever the case, Clarke is unfortunately remembered more for this small role than any other she played, and Cagney was for years to come offered a grapefruit whenever he entered a restaurant. leave a comment

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Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics (Little Caesar / The Public Enemy / The Petrified Forest / White Heat [Blu-ray]
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