MOVIE REVIEW | The Public Enemy (1931)

Before gangster movie jokes and parodies were all based on the horse in the bed scene from The Godfather or the Joe Pesci’s “What am I, like a clown to you” rant from Goodfellas, gangster movie jokes and parodies were all based on one man, James Cagney.  And to a large degree, most came from one James Cagney movie, The Public Enemy.

Cagney is Tom Powers, no good from childhood and destined for a life of crime.  His brother Mike, played by Donald Cook, is the opposite, a stand-up guy, a straight shooter, as honest as the day is long.  He even goes off to fight when World War I kicks off.  While he’s away, Tommy becomes a more successful, and more ruthless criminal, selling hooch during the gangster good years of prohibition.

Because this was made in the thirties, it was illegal to show a criminal character in even the slightest of good lights.  I guess the makers of The Public Enemy must have been pretty close to the line on this one, because the movie opens with a not so subtle disclaimer from Warner Brothers…  “It is the ambition of the authors of The Public Enemy to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or criminal”.

Just in case their point wasn’t clear, The Public enemy comes with a prologue, too…  “The end of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum.  The Public Enemy is not a man, nor is it a character.  It is a problem that sooner or later we, the public, must solve”.  With those kinds of rules, making interesting movies must have been almost impossible back then.

The other major sign of the time in The Public Enemy is that it comes with the look and feel of a silent film.  It’s like they hadn’t quite figured out yet that sound meant they could tone down a few of the elements amplified in the silent days.  Big, broad, physical movements and facial expressions.  Long takes on over the top reaction shots.  Crazy makeup to accentuate every single feature on every single actor’s face.  This movie has it all.  But none of that makes it bad, or unenjoyable.  Mainly, thanks to Cagney.  He really is one of the most charismatic, easy to watch actors you’ll ever see.

Despite their complete lack of any sort of grasp on reality, old movies like this really do have a certain charm.  It’s almost like everyone involved was just so innocent, optimistic and hopeful.  Everything in the world of The Public Enemy is so overblown and exaggerated, it’s hard not to almost see it as kids playing dress ups and putting on a play in their lounge room.

The Public Enemy
Directed By – William A. Wellman
Written By – Kubec Glasmon

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