The Public Enemy was one of the first in the gangster subgenre. The genre is pretty self-exclamatory as they are usually about gangsters, the mafia, have a lot of violence, and are critiques of crime in America. Early gangster movies like this one would inspire later films like The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), The Irishman (2019), and so many others. This is an important film not just because it was one of the first of its kind, but it was made during a different time in early Hollywood. During the early sound era of film, there were not many restrictions for what you could or could not show. No, you couldn’t swear or show sexual situations, but other than that filmmakers could get away with pretty much anything. This was known as the Pre-Code era of Hollywood that lasted from 1929 to 1934. While there was a rating system known as the Motion Picture Production Code, or “Hays Code” as it was later known, it was not rigorously enforced. So, films during this time could be more violent and lewd than films after 1934.
The story follows Tom Powers (James Cagney), a juvenile delinquent living in the slums of Chicago. Since they were kids Tom and his friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) have been working as small-time thugs. During the 1920s they become bootleggers during Prohibition. The Prohibition era (1919-1933) was a time in America where alcohol and the selling of it was illegal. A bootlegger were people or a person who made and sold alcohol illegally. From this the two of them go from being petty thieves to being rich gangsters who rule over the city. His brother Mike (Donald Cook) tries to bring him back home with his family. But, being a gangster, Tom is continually pulled into a world of violence as he kills the competition and breaks the law. With the cops and rival gangsters trying to stop him, Tom has no choice but immerse himself in the criminal underworld.
This film, like many gangster films, is a cautionary tale about how crime only leads to suffering. The story is from the point-of-view of Tom Powers and how violence has shaped his life. His story parallels what was going on in America at the time as Prohibition did not end until 1933. One could argue that Prohibition created more crimes as gangsters like Al Capone and John Dillinger roamed the streets. These men committed many acts of violence, robberies, internal gang warfare, and murders. Tom’s character is a product of his environment. From a young age we see how he lived. He stole and took low paying jobs just to stay alive. Once he gets older, he becomes immersed in the gangster world as it offers him a lavish and upscale lifestyle he used to only dream of. And we see how being a gangster would have benefits for him as once he joins a gang, he makes money, gets a wife (and a girlfriend), and provides for his mother, which he loves dearly. However, we also see how crime has corrupted him to the point where he’s trigger-happy and very dangerous. Throughout the movie we see how short tempered he is and is easily set off by the smallest of things. Tom may start out as a relatable character, but with time we see how money and power have made him crazy.
But what makes this character great is how Cagney manages to make him relatable and even sympathetic at times. He’s charming, charismatic, and has a good heart. At least in the beginning. But as the film goes on, he becomes unlikeable and even monstrous. Aside from him killing people he also gets really angry at the drop of a hat. Particularly with his wife when, after she makes fun of him, he shoves a grapefruit in her face. This scene shows how much of a child he is, yet he’s also menacing as anything will set him off. At this point he has become a violent criminal who’s past the point of being saved. A haunting moment that shows us this is when he decides to kill several important gangsters. In the pouring rain, dressed in all black, Tom walks towards the camera with a look of anger, determination, and bloodlust. I believe this character wouldn’t have worked with a lesser actor. Cagney is so good at being sympathetic, yet crazy, that he elevates this character to the next level. Tom Powers would become the template for other gangster characters in later films including characters like Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas and Tony Soprano from The Sopranos (1999 to 2007).
For the time the movie had a lot of violence and shocking scenes that many people were not used to. This film would be the first of the gangster genre to be defined by its violence. Many name characters and many more random people die frequently in the film. There are even instances where the actors are nearly shot at, and I mean that literally. The studio actually hired a trained sniper to fire real bullets at Cagney. Even the comedic scenes are dark as they revolve around violence. That grapefruit scene I mentioned before is both dark yet really funny as you don’t expect it. The movie is still pretty bleak as Tom, towards the end, manages to piss off everyone in Chicago. And the film has one of the darkest, most disturbing endings in any gangster film. I won’t spoil that as you need to see it to believe it, but just remember I warned you.
The Public Enemy is one to watch if you’re new to the gangster genre and Pre-Code films. You will defiantly see how this film inspired later gangster films with similar characters, story elements, and even violent scenes. The film is also a great primer for those of you who are new to Pre-Code era films. The film is a little corny and doesn’t hold up to current gangster films, given it’s almost 90 years old. But remember, it’s a very early film of the genre, so the filmmakers were still trying to perfect it. But this is still an important film that would change the genre forever.