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
Several versions exist of the origin of the notorious grapefruit scene, but the most plausible is the one on which both James Cagney and Mae Clarke agree: The scene, they explained, was actually staged as a practical joke at the expense of the film crew, just to see their stunned reactions. There was never any intention of ever using the shot in the completed film. Director William A. Wellman, however, eventually decided to keep the shot, and use it in the film's final release print. See more »
The "Foreword" mentions that the movie is to depict "a certain strata of American life." "Strata" is the plural form of "stratum." The phrase should have been written "a certain stratum of American life." See more »
It is the ambition of the authors of "The Public Enemy" to honestly depict the environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal. While the story of "The Public Enemy" is essentially a true story, all names and characters appearing herein, are purely fictional. See more »
For a 1941 re-release, three scenes in "The Public Enemy" were censored to comply with the Production Code. These censored segments (including an extended edit of the scene involving the gay tailor) were restored for the 2005 DVD release. See more »
A young hoodlum (James Cagney) rises up through the ranks of the Chicago underworld, even as a gangster's accidental death threatens to spark a bloody mob war.
The script is loosely adapted from "Beer and Blood", an unpublished book from John Bright and Kubec Glasmon on the life of Dean O'Banion, Al Capone's biggest rival.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.
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