The Public Enemy


In 1931, Al Capone, America’a most notorious gangster, was sentenced to eleven years in the inescapable island jail of Alcatraz. The newly introduced inmate swaggered through his new abode and bypassed a long and hungry lunch line. A waiting convict grabbed the Chicago mob boss by the lapels, Capone sneered ‘Don’t you know who I am?’, to which the convict replied ‘if you don’t get to the back of the line I’ll know who you were’.

Gangsters, fictional and living, follow an almost inescapable path of a gradual rise and rapid fall. Tom Powers (James Cagney) is no exception. The formation of Tom and partner Matt’s (Edward Woods) foray into the criminal underworld evolves against a blossoming country. As America is yet to make its riches in 1909, the boys enjoy petty thievery and outrunning policeman. In their adolescence, Tom and Matt graduate to .38 calibre carrying thugs and experience murder as the USA encounters its first World War. But the Prohibition rockets them to their peak before they  pursue the Wall Street Crash into oblivion.


Riding this destructive wave is Cagney. Originally slated as Matt, the rising actor proved his star quality in The Millionaire and won the lead two weeks before shooting began and a star was born in booze, blood and bullets. Cagney absorbed his experiences being raised on the streets of New York populated by the rough and tough characters seemingly only real in the pictures. Cagney was a larger than life personality which he brought to his characters but drew back from the murky waters of caricature. His naturalism and keen ear for the quick fire street speak was lauded by critics and holds fascination for encapsulating an epoch today.

Cagney’s Tom Powers is a bomb with a short lit fuse, evolving on a morally downward spiral to become increasingly violent with each act. His first kill is necessary to escape, but over time, his cold murder of rivals shocks friends, and his gleeful smile before single handedly murdering a gang shocks us. His every move, even the short arm jabs designed to be a friendly gesture, oozes violence sizzling beneath a wide grin.

Cagney is a rabid dog on the end of William A Wellman’s leash, and he has no fear of letting him loose. When Wellman, AKA ‘Wild Bill’, was offered the chance to direct a gangster picture he exclaimed ‘I’ll bring you the toughest, most violent picture you ever did see’ right in Jack Warner’s face. Meanwhile, Darryl F Zanuck wooed the uptight Hay’s office by preaching a high moral objective of the picture found in the closing titles ‘The Public Enemy is not a man, nor is it a character, it is a problem that we, the public, must solve’.

Annex - Harlow, Jean (Public Enemy, The)_01

Wellman delivered on both Zanuck’s and his own promise by blending the meat of pulp fiction matter and headlines Americans digested along with breakfast. So much of The Public Enemy’s ruthlessness was authorised due to being essentially fact. One scene depicts Tom ruthlessly avenging his boss’ accidental death due to a horse riding accident. This is lifted from an incident involving Louis ‘Two Gun’ Alteri of the Charles Dion O’Bannion gang who kidnapped and murdered the horse responsible for his boss’ death. The concern of diluting the evil of mobsters allowed Wellman to depict arguably more than the majority of its tamer peers.

The Public Enemy (1931) not only earns its distinction as one of the roughest gangster pictures of the time, but also one of the most elegantly constructed films. Wellman’s eye for action was vivid and evocative, purely capturing the bombing of rival saloons and poetically illuminating the murder of a policeman in a close up of a limp hand caressing a pistol.

The Public Enemy has a distinctively archaic Scorsese vibe and has clearly been an influence. One distinct technique includes a constantly roaming camera, the opening alone is one smooth movement concisely establishing America of 1909 by gliding with a horse and cart, racks of beer, and a marching band before arriving at young Tom. Equally important is the unusually extensive use of source music, most prominently ‘Forever Blowing Bubbles’ to punctuate a shocking  resolution.


The Public Enemy was lauded for ‘apprising the audience that the hoodlums and terrorists of the underworld must be exposed and the glamor ripped from them’. But Tom Powers is not glamour, he is a raw entity and proved that audiences loved a charismatic underdog to a morally pure hero any day. A lesson Hollywood never forgot. The ruthlessness of Wellman’s picture certainly aided the hastening of the Hays Code and forced Cagney to simmer for two decades before finally exploding white hot…

Classic Moment… 

Tom shares a relaxed breakfast with a beautiful girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clark). Tom has everything he could want; money, power and respect, but his temper never dissipates. Over a flip comment, Tom grabs Kitty’s grapefruit and smashes it into her face.

Of the many origin rumours, the most likely is that the instance was a pre-planned joke between Cagney and Mae Clark at the expense of the crew, but Wellman loved the rawness of the reaction and left it in the cut. For years afterwards, Cagney would be sent grapefruit by fans in restaurants as a respectful joke which he would invariably eat.


Jack Wightman is a script writer, film reviewer and budding film director. Jack blogs over at 1001: A Film Odyssey. 

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