A blog to chill and get some of everything, Movies, TV, Comics and Games

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – The Public Enemy

It’s easy to take an initial look at The Public Enemy and assume it’s a stepping stone to larger and greater crime films like The Godfather, Scarface or Goodfellas. However, The Public Enemy is a great piece of crime fiction that not only sets the tone for the genre to come, it pulls its own weight just like those classics I named earlier.

The first positive is obviously James Cagney who provided charisma and menace in equal parts. Originally signed in a secondary role, his screen dominance was so undeniable that Darryl F. Zanuck made the change to have Cagney play the lead. It worked and Cagney’s career was born with us watching the rise and fall of Tom Powers. 

The film is directed by William A. Wellman and with it we have some really good direction. Wellman presents things a a sort of documentary of pre-prohibition and the impact of prohibition leading to Tom’s journey. One creative choice I really liked was the off-screen violence. Despite not being seen, Wellman manages to still convey sheer brutality. There are 3 instances of this and they all work due to Cagney’s character seeking vengeance. These scenes are very effective. There is also another beautiful scene of Cagney stumbling through the rain that’s absolutely gorgeous. 

The Public Enemy does possess the sort of morality you would expect for a film made in 1931. You have the character of Tom as the bad brother to go against the good brother. Certainly Tom gets his at the end, which is to be expected. I watched it the film twice, the second viewing with commentary by the late Robert Sklar who mentions how Tom is never a character we root for. He never even really had a moment where you can sympathize with him. He’s violent, he assaults women, he’s impetuous. Yet Sklar remarks how the audiences reacted so positively to Tom as a result of Cagney’s performance. The iconic scene of him smashing a grapefruit into a woman’s face elicited laughter in a moment of abuse. We like to point to The Godfather and De Palma’s Scarface as films that romanticize the criminal world, but it seems audiences in the 30s did the same.

With a pseudo-historical visual style combined with an electrifying lead performance amidst a basic morality tale, The Public Enemy is an entertaining crime film. It’s one that deserves to sit comfortably with other classics in the genre.


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