The Public Enemy is a hugely significant piece of American cinema, reigniting the country’s longstanding predilection with gangsters that had reached a lull in entertainment. Pre-code, the film is also known for its controversial violence, which, while tame by today’s standards, pushed the absolute limits for what Hollywood could and couldn’t show at the time. Directed by William Wellman in 1931, The Public Enemy opened in the Spring to a mixed critical reaction. Many critics were turned off by the film’s violence and the film’s almost romantic look at the life of a Gangster. Variety called the film “Low-brow” and criticized the film’s foreword and postscript as a moralizing point to the film’s proceedings. These sentiments echoed other views at the time, yet, audiences flocked to the film.
The budget was set at $151,000, just over $2.5 million today, and it is estimated that The Public Enemy earned nearly seven times that original figure. It finished as the 9th highest grossing film of 1931. This after similar gangster films like City Streets released in 1931 failed to ignite such fervor among viewers. So, what set The Public Enemy apart from its competition? And what has kept the film in the public conscience ever since? The script for The Public Enemy was written by Hollywood veteran Harvey F. Thew. Authors and former gang members Kubec Glasmon and John Bright wrote a book that would go unpublished entitled Beer and Blood.
Glasmon and Bright based the core idea of their novel on real events and real people, having been witnesses to some of Al Capone's gang rivalries and wars in Chicago. Darryl F. Zanuck, Warners Bros. studio head, purchased the rights to the unfinished novel and assigned Thew to write the screenplay, which would be the film’s only Academy Award nomination. Zanuck would then assign William Wellman, who was under contract at the studio, to direct. Wellman, who had directed a total of three films in 1930 and would direct five films in 1931, served in World War I like the brother of the main character in The Public Enemy. Wellman famously promised that he would deliver the “toughest, most violent picture you ever did see.”
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The lead character in the film is the standard definition of an anti-hero. He is portrayed as a completely amoral, emotionally brutal, and ruthless individual. The film opens on his youth where we meet Tom as mischievous hoodlum in the pre-Prohibition city streets of presumably Chicago. Tom’s upbringing and early environment is an obvious beginning to the man we will meet later in the film, the abuse he suffers and acting out the he does with childhood friend Matt is, at least in the moment, understood. What is most interesting about this section of the film though, is that, unlike most films of the time, The Public Enemy examines the social hurdles and society’s lack of attention towards youths at the time.
Crime films in the 1930’s often began with a notice of the author or authors intent; The Public Enemy is no different. The film starts with the notice: “It is the intention of the authors of The Public Enemy to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than to glorify the hoodlum or the criminal”. These statements were typically regarded as a ploy for critical sympathy, not so much for the audience’s response. A growing attitude of the times were that films glamorized the lifestyle of the “Enemy” of the people, in this film the gangster. While it wasn’t necessarily the duty of the studio to be a check and balance system on American societal ideals, studios nonetheless made attempts which were mostly a cynical gesture and spoke more about Hollywood’s own morally complex and contractionary position on criminality of the times.
Like those other crime and gangster films of the period, The Public Enemy chose to omit any and all representations of the alliances that bound organized crime and politics. In its place, the film chooses to represent the spectacle and melodrama of the criminal’s life. Tom goes from the rather humble beginnings of a poor family, to a pick pocket, to a criminal, to a rich and respected member of a crime syndicate. The film doesn’t skimp on the details of Tom’s new life, showcasing fancy cars and new suits. But Tom remains trapped within the concept of immaturity throughout the movie, the worst his of these traits dealing with his abusive attitude towards women. Incapable of domesticity, Tom seems to treat women as if he owned them, a way to show his rise and power alongside his other worldly possessions.
The interesting lens in which to view The Public Enemy through, is to understand where the gangster fit into 1930’s America. While, American audiences of 1931 flocked to the Public Enemy and other gangster films in this period, the idea of the gangster was already becoming a poisonous one. Originally viewed as a heroic, man of the people idea, fighting against the Prohibition of the 20’s, 1930’s America quickly changed. The gangster became an idea in which struggling, early Depression Americans could place blame. The gangster threatened the survival of American values and ideals, the very social order of America was in danger because these characters were running amok in cities and towns. Nowhere was this more obvious than with the staggering shift in press coverage of Al Capone, who at one time was referred to as the “Horatio Alger lad of Prohibition”, well before he was convicted for tax evasion in late 1931 (2).
The very idea of our historical view of the “classic gangster film” was, in fact, the result of a single production season, 1930-1931. Only thirty films were made in this cycle. There were massive successes, The Doorway to Hell in late 1930 and Little Caesar in January 1931, which flooded the cycle with studios attempting to catch onto the successes. Unfortunately, films released after April 1931 were box-office poison. After these failures, audiences had enough of gangsters and crime films, many claiming that these films only further glamorized the way of life. Responding to this criticism and growing momentum that would ultimately lead to the creation of the Hollywood Code, the New York censor board cut a total of six scenes from The Public Enemy before allowing its release in mid-April.
Why then, after these points, is The Public Enemy remembered and celebrated among the many, more prestigious and recognized films of the time? At its core, The Public Enemy is a violent, family melodrama, placing the conflict between the two social worlds of the second-generation immigrant, dramatizing the family conflicts generated by the process of Americanization. Tom’s father makes only a single appearance in the film, an intense scene in which he appears on the porch to scold and later beat Tom as punishment dressed in his police officer uniform. He is mostly silent in his sequence, setting in place the mental state Tom will live under, relating his father with law enforcement.
His father is absent from the film after this scene, we later hear from Tom’s mother that he died. Law enforcement is only ever seen again through the lens of Officer Burke who’s one line is delivered to Tom’s war hero brother Mike, speaking of the worst part of Tom’s criminality, “is that he’s been lying to his mother”.
Through the film’s story, it attempts to create an unsympathetic character in Tom. Yet, its biggest flaw is also what makes the film the most memorable. James Cagney became a star with the film. His first starring role, Cagney brings Tom to life with a performance that oozes charisma and power. Even in Tom’s worst moments, Cagney gives the audience something to sympathize with, more than anything though, Cagney makes Tom feel like a real person. Eschewing the commonplace of the time to overact, Cagney portrays Tom as calm and collected, there is a buildup to his explosive outbursts, something we can see, and watch grow. Tom is without a weapon for majority of the film’s first two acts, yet this is where he feels the most dangerous. This is a testament to the actor Cagney was and would later become.
Cagney would not portray another gangster again until 1938 in Angels with Dirty Faces, for which he would be nominated for an Oscar. Cagney would play however, a series of tough guy characters that were essentially rifts on Tom Powers. Through these performances, Cagney would create his iconic image, an image so strong and well created that many in the viewing audience believed he was a kid from the slums who made his way into films. Some would go so far as to copy Cagney’s mannerisms and dress in a hope to be more like the actor. His reach spread far and wide, thanks in no small part to The Public Enemy.
The film also benefits greatly from the innovative work behind the camera from William Wellman. By the point he began work on the film, Wellman was already a celebrated directed and in demand with nearly all the studios. The very idea of Hollywood beauty lighting might be traced to Wellman, who captures every ounce of James Cagney with malicious glee. One gets the impression, that while Tom Powers is a monster and criminal, Wellman truly enjoyed working with Cagney.
Wellman’s camera lingers effortlessly in every frame, placing you inside the moments and creating a truly uncomfortable viewing experience. He highlights depth of field magnificently in moments of great emotional anguish. Recalling the first and only time we see Tom’s father, the camera holds in a low angle shot on Tom as he torments a neighbor girl. Slowly though, the camera moves to the left of the screen revealing Tom’s father standing, menacingly, on the porch. The shot itself reveals everything we need to know about the father, as well as, Tom’s relationship with the man. Wellman achieves a great amount of understanding and insight into his characters mental state purely through his compositions.
It’s in Wellman’s compositions that the film shows its roots in the Silent Era. Produced just four year after The Jazz Singer, The Public Enemy, could conceivably, work as a silent film. So much of the film’s story and character motivations is told through looks between said characters. Dialogue acts as a more grounding element of the story telling, a further brick for the audience to bring them into the world. While the film has held onto a strong critical claim almost 100 years after its original release, one does wonder if its acclaim would be even higher had it been released as a silent film. Wellman’s camera work, while again, it is celebrated, may have drawn much more acclaim in its original release.
The Public Enemy has stood the test of time as a film worth not only remembering but celebrating. While not without its flaws, whether that’s subtextual or in quality, the film is remember today for launching the career of one of Hollywood’s greatest stars in James Cagney. As society changes and bends to new ideals and values, we look back at history with a new eye, seeing things that we might denounce or celebrate today. Through this lens, its impossible not to see The Public Enemy as a piece of our history with its own story to tell.
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