The Public Enemy (1931) Review

Director: William A. Wellman

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Public Enemy would prove to be the breakout film for James Cagney, one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen. The movie follows criminal Tom Powers (James Cagney) from his youth as a petty crook to his adulthood as a mob enforcer in the early days of Prohibition. While most gangster flicks follow around the head honchos, this realistic picture is about the common “foot soldier” in the crime wars of the 1920s.

This movie’s greatest asset is its sense of authenticity and immediacy. You can almost feel the grit and dirt under your fingernails as the characters navigate the city. I take that back. While that’s amazing and all, Cagney is the film’s powerhouse element. He acts circles around most of the other cast members, instantly cementing himself as one of the best actors of the generation. The Public Enemy might as well have been called “The James Cagney Show.” It’s interesting to note that Cagney was originally cast to play the sidekick, Matt Doyle (who ended up being played by Edward Woods, who was set to play Tom Powers, the main character), but director William A. Wellman quickly realized James’ talent, and switched the actors’ roles.

This film benefits from its quickly-paced, few-frills storytelling. It has several great scenes that offer “slices-of-life” from the life of a Prohibition-era outlaw. Perhaps the movie’s most iconic sequence is the grapefruit breakfast, which lives up to the hype. The motion picture’s focus isn’t on the action (although there are several deaths), but there is one scene where it appears an actual automatic weapon was used to shred the corner of a building (yes, with what simply has to be live ammunition). Remember, this is before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The Public Enemy was released during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the Production Code was enforced), and it has a similar charm as many of the other flicks released during this time period. It’s more-than-worth watching if you want a nitty-gritty look at the life of the common gangster in the first half of the twentieth century, with more emphasis on the impact of criminality of one’s family and friends than on guns a-blazing.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

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