The Public Enemy

  • Directors: William A Wellman
  • Producers: Darryl F Zanuck
  • Writers: Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Harvey F Thew
  • Genres: Action, Crime, Drama
  • Actors: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke

The opening sequence of The Public Enemy is a montage depicting prohibition – beer parlors closing shop and police raids – before directing the viewer’s attention to two boys growing up with the resultant lure of corruption in 1920s urban America. We get a glimpse into the family life of one of the boys, Tom Powers, including a doting mother and an emotionally absent father who also happens to be a policeman. The consequence of the father’s distance is revealed in one scene where he attempts to discipline his increasingly delinquent son. This sparks a change in young Tom, which is indicated by his souring expression while being beaten by his father with a leather strap.

After Tom Powers (James Cagney) and the other boy, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), grow into young adults, the movie follows how little by little Powers and Doyle progress from small crimes-such as stealing watches from a Department store-to worse crimes-such as killing a policeman during a botched robbery attempt-they are hired by local bootlegger, Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor). Tom quickly rises from apprentice to leading gangster by being more vicious and ruthless than his rivals. Needless to say, the bootlegging business becomes an ever more lucrative operation, and Tom and Matt are not shy about flaunting the trappings of gangsterism. Tom does not forget about his more humble origins, and offers support to his pathetically doting, and now widowed, mother. Needless to say, this brings him into conflict with his older brother, Mike (Donald Cook), a shell-shocked war veteran who strongly disapproves of his wayward little brother. Underlying the fraternal conflict is that Tom’s immorality has brought generous material rewards, while the straight-and-narrow path chosen by his brother has only produced a bitter casualty of war. Tom considers Mike’s self-righteousness hypocritical. When Mike quips that Tom’s success is based on nothing more than “beer and blood” (the title of the original book), Tom rejoins that “your hands ain’t so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”[3]

Needless to say, Tom continues his rise in gangland, but eventually his greed catches up with him when he challenges another gang, precipitating a gang war. Arguably, the most famous scene is Tom “getting it” in the end, graphically setting the tone for the “crime doesn’t pay” theme that dominated crime movies for the rest of the decade and beyond.

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