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
Great film from the beginnings of the gangster-movie-genre
"The Public Enemy" is one of the starting points of the great season of gangster movies, a very interesting work. It is not the story of the rise and fall of some big boss of crime. Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) are just small time crooks, and so they remain throughout the movie. Only, they make the big money that the circumstances of prohibition offer to any criminal. Tom is just a semi-illiterate, naturally violent thug. He is not even professional. He kills just out of stupidity or desire of a pointless revenge, that ultimately will severely damage himself. Further evidence of his cheap personality is shown when he instantly falls for the vulgar, tasteless girl Gwen (Jean Harlow). By the way, Harlow looks remarkably unattractive (to our modern eyes, at least). Was it a choice of director Wellmann? Matt is slightly better than Tom, but clearly he has not the guts to cross his mate.
In my opinion a major credit of the film is that it systematically avoids cliché. Neither Tom nor Matt are outcomes of poverty and social injustice. They come from simple but honest, decent and loving families. But they are both bad (that's the word) and they use the freedom and opportunities of their democratic country to make evil.
In "The Public Enemy" we find probably the first instances of the beautiful stylish cinematography and clever camera-work that will become the trade-mark of later gangster and noir movies. Some scenes are unforgettable, like the final one, or that under the rain, or that of Cagney abusing the girl. The brief scene of the killing of the horse is pure cinematic genius.
In the film there are also some naiveness and clumsiness, though. The way Tom undergoes the personality of his good brother is far-fetched. It is not clear why a gangster in a hospital, wounded in a gun-fight, is not under strict police control. The behavior of Tom's boss in the ending is illogical. Moreover, the part where Tom and Matt are kids is too long (we audience are all eager to see Cagney!), and action is a bit scarce for a gangster movie.
"The Public Enemy" was Cagney's breakout film, and really he makes a powerful and accurate job. Actually, a strong acting is provided by the whole cast. The director William A. Wellmann handles the movie with sound talent.
"The Public Enemy" is a beautiful and historically important movie. I recommend it to any cinema-lover
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