60 of 366: The Public Enemy


The Public Enemy (1931) brings to mind gangster films of today in that it seems so subtle in terms of its violence and language, but it actually led to censorship in Hollywood as the Production Code was in development during the 1930s.

It’s hard to believe the “grapefruit scene,” apparently a well-known moment in film among critics, or the shootouts in The Public Enemy were too much, but again I know I am subconsciously comparing it to films like The Departed or Goodfellas that definitely pushed the boundaries away from what was allowed in 1930s cinema.

Starring James Cagney as Tom Powers, The Public Enemy (directed by William A. Wellman) splits the focus on his character between his childhood years when he reportedly developed his future as a gangster in Chicago and his adult life of crime including robberies, bootlegging and murder.

As a child Powers is relatively innocent, which does not carry over into his adult years, but he does still always have a mischievous look on his face that can deceive most anyone intol believing maybe he’s not so bad, or he is.

Powers mostly tries to keep his family at bay from his gangster lifestyle, including Ma Powers and his straight-laced brother, Mike.

Their mother wants to believe Tom isn’t the “bad son,” and wants him home, to the point that when he is injured in a shootout she is glad because that means he can be there to recover and not on the streets.

Unfortunately, Tom cannot escape the lifestyle or the powers-that-be in 1930s Chicago like Putty Nose and Nails Nathan (best gangster names ever).

The Public Enemy uses real-life gangsters as inspiration for its characters and happenings in that world that occurred on the streets of Chicago.

It received an Oscar nomination for screenwriting, but not Cagney’s performance, which is also recognized as one of the landmarks of the film. He reportedly was in a supporting role when the project started, but Wellman saw his acting and decided to move him into the title character.

I am really enjoying watching classic films as part of this challenge and studying their style and techniques and love the opening credits, often including forwards or prologues that bridge the gap between plays or novels they may be based on and cinema.

The Public Enemy is no exception, with its forward acknowledging it’s not meant to glorify criminals, rather honestly depict the environment they lived in and created.

It seems Wellman accomplished that goal and set a tone and influence for the genre that is ultimately still used today.


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