An Irish-American street punk tries to make it big in the world of organized crime.An Irish-American street punk tries to make it big in the world of organized crime.An Irish-American street punk tries to make it big in the world of organized crime.An Irish-American street punk tries to make it big in the world of organized crime.An Irish-American street punk tries to make it big in the world of organized crime.
The script is loosely adapted from "Beer and Blood", an unpublished book from John Bright and Kubec Glasmon on the life of Dean O'Banion, Al Capone's biggest rival. We see a variety of references to Irish mobsters, including Samuel "Nails" Morton, who was famously killed by a horse. Just like the real-life mobster, Samuel "Nails" Nathan of the film is avenged when the horse is shot.
This is, of course, Cagney's breakout role. And what better role for him? Prior to "Public Enemy", he had been a hoofer on the New York stage. This experience really solidified him as a notable actor, as he had control over his movements that others might not have. Interestingly, he was originally cast as the good guy -- the last minute switch probably saved this movie as well as marked the decision that would catapult Cagney to stardom. (Some scenes were even filmed with Cagney in the other role before director William Wellman realized his mistake.)
As for how the dance background helped his acting, critic Lincoln Kirstein noted Cagney "has an inspired sense of timing, an arrogant style, a pride in the control of his body and a conviction and lack of self-consciousness that is unique. No one expresses more clearly in terms of pictorial action the delights of violence, the overtones of a subconscious sadism, the tendency towards destruction, toward anarchy, which is the base of American sex appeal." Beautifully said.
Playwright Robert Sherwood expressed how Cagney's character was the ideal anti-hero. He wrote that Cagney "does not hesitate to represent Tom as a complete rat -- with a rat's sense of honor, a rat's capacity for human love; and when cornered, a rat's fighting courage. And what is more, although his role is consistently unsympathetic, Mr. Cagney manages to earn for Tom Powers the audience's affection and esteem."
In its own time, the film was thought of as a bit too violent, and there are a few moments that might still be considered shocking today. However, with the changing norms between the 1930s and today, what really stands out is the misogyny that barely earned a mention upon release. The most memorable scene, of course, is Cagney smashing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. But his abusive language to her, suggesting his desire to drown Clarke, is hard to take and still remain empathetic with the gangster.
There are very few films that can be said to be really inspirational to the gangster film. This one, Howard Hawks' "Scarface" (1932) and "Little Caesar" (1931) are at the top of that short list. If it is not evident enough from watching the film itself, the special feature interview of Martin Scorsese should cement the deal. Author TJ English feels this is "perhaps the most influential gangster flick in the history of American movies", but that may be overstating it a little.
Some credit must be given for "Public Enemy" succeeding and remaining a top film, however. As strange as it sounds, there were at least 25 gangster movies in 1931 and at least 40 in 1932. So being among the one or two remembered almost a century later is actually quite a feat. Even William Wellman, who directed a staggering nine gangster films between 1928 and 1933 is really only remembered for this one.
- Jan 18, 2012