It's the early days of the F.B.I. - federal agents working for the Department of Justice. Though they've got limited powers - they don't carry weapons and have to get local police approval ... See full summary »
Tom Powers and Matt Doyle are best friends and fellow gangsters, their lives frowned upon by Tom's straight laced brother, Mike, and Matt's straight laced sister, Molly. From their teen-aged years into young adulthood, Tom and Matt have an increasingly lucrative life, bootlegging during the Prohibition era. But Tom in particular becomes more and more brazen in what he is willing to do, and becomes more obstinate and violent against those who either disagree with him or cross him. When one of their colleagues dies in a freak accident, a rival bootlegging faction senses weakness among Tom and Matt's gang, which is led by Paddy Ryan. A gang war ensues, resulting in Paddy suggesting that Tom and Matt lay low. But because of Tom's basic nature, he decides instead to take matters into his own hands. Written by
The Public Enemy, along with Little Caesar and Scarface, set the standard for the gangster film. Though films about crime had been done in the silent era, sound was what really ushered in this particular genre. I've always maintained that musicals and gangster films are the only two movie genres that date from the sound era.
Of course this film about a young man's rise to prominence in the bootleg liquor business during Prohibition made James Cagney a star. Interestingly enough Edward Woods was originally supposed to be Tom Powers and Cagney was cast as best friend Matt Doyle. After some footage had been shot, Director William Wellman scrapped it and had Cagney and Woods exchange roles. Stars get born in many and strange ways.
Some critics have complained about Beryl Mercer's part as Cagney's mother, saying she's overacts the ditziness. I disagree with that completely. In the prologue section with Cagney and Woods as juveniles, there is a two parent household. The boys have a stern Irish father and a mom who'd spoil them if she could. The older kid who is later played by Donald Cook has more the benefit of the two family home and both influences. That and the fact that World War I leaves him partially disabled prevents him from thinking about the gangster trade. Cagney misses the war and is spoiled by mom.
I knew a woman like Beryl, in her own world with a stream of nonsensical chatter to keep out the reality of things. Her portrayal for me rings true.
Oddly enough in The Roaring Twenties Cagney is a veteran who enters the rackets because he can't get a legitimate job and its easy money.
Both The Public Enemy and Little Caesar are short films, edited down to the essentials so the viewer ain't bored for a minute. Warner Brothers sure knew how to do those gangster flicks.
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