The Public Enemy (1931)

James Cagney in “The Public Enemy.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

Plot: Tom Powers is a horrible human being. From the time he is a child, he wreaks havoc on everyone he comes in contact with, and easily convinces his best friend Matt Doyle to accompany him in these shenanigans. The film follows Tom’s entry into the local mob and his rise and fall.

Best Moment: James Cagney ‘s facial expressions. This is the second film I’ve seen Cagney in, and the roles couldn’t be more opposite. My first exposure to him was as George S. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” yet I had zero problem buying him as an amoral gangster. He becomes each character, and in “The Public Enemy,” he is worthy of my disdain. In a good way.

Worst Moment: The end was a little abrupt, but other than that, there really isn’t one. While some might bristle at some sharp edits (basically a title card shows up telling us what year it is; “Cimarron” did the same), not dragging out the story helped the pacing. Side note: I did not doze off once!

Fun Facts: The movie begins and ends with title cards framing the film as a morality play of sorts: we are not to watch this film as entertainment, but as a cautionary tale. Though the Hays Code wouldn’t be rigorously enforced for a couple years after “A Public Enemy,” I found the framing almost as a peace offering to communities who might censor the film.

The final frame of the film says this: “The end of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. The public enemy is not a man, nor is it a character–it is a problem that sooner or later, WE THE PUBLIC must solve.” It’s hard for me to say, after one viewing, what the public enemy problem was–was it prohibition? crime in general? parents being too soft on discipline? too hard? So while it may have appeased pearl-clutchers who saw film as the downfall of society, it’s still a bit vague.

Recommendation: SEE IT. Especially if you like mob movies. I kept thinking how mob movies have evolved–I watch “The Godfather” and I feel empathy for Michael Corleone (not so much in Part II, though). Or on the lighter side, look at the Ocean’s franchise, where we actively root for the criminals. Just a truly interesting trajectory of what we’ve come to expect in films with criminals.

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