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THE PUBLIC ENEMY, 1931
Movie Review

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THE PUBLIC ENEMY MOVIETHE PUBLIC ENEMY, 1931
Movie Reviews

Directed by William A. Wellman

Cast: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Donald Cook, Leslie Fenton, Beryl Mercer
Review by Pamela Miller


SYNOPSIS:

Tom's bad way of life is constantly set up against his brother Mike's, who has a job during the day and goes to night school. Mike will enroll in the Marines to fight in WWI. He will come back and will constantly try to put Tom back on the right path.

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REVIEW:

Hollywood sure found a goldmine with the popularity of gangster/mob films. They've been cashing in on the well-received genre for decades now. Martin Scorsese has had his fare share of success in the genre with hits such as Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Of course Brian De Palma excels in this genre, directing such films as The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993), and Scarface (1983). But what about the early ones? What about the gangster flicks that inspired these later blockbusters? Oh, there are a number of them. Before the Production Code took effect in 1934, Hollywood took full advantage of the gangster film demand and gave people just what wanted they wanted to see (or not see, is more like it).

One of the most famous gangster films to slide in, pre-code, is William Wellman’s 1931 classic The Public Enemy. Though there were a few before it, this film really defined gangster films, providing a blue print for future mob films, and set the bar quite high, at that. It shot (no pun intended) James Cagney to ‘tough guy’ fame and proved through its box office success that there was a market for crime dramas.

This classic begins with the introduction of two little boys trying to get by on the city streets during the time of prohibition in the 1920s. The schemes they use to get by soon advance into petty crimes and then bigger crimes. Soon the boys, Tom Powers (Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) are all grown up and have gained much experience in the corrupt world of crime. When they are hired to work for a big mobster, they start making their way up the mob family ladder.

Though life at ‘work’ is good for Tom, he still struggles to keep his family happy, including his mother and brother, who disapproves of Tom’s line of work. Frustrated with work and his family, he often takes out his anger on his girlfriend Gwen (Jean Harlow). His anger manifests into the famous grapefruit in the face scene. A mob war between Tom’s gang and a rival gang soon ensues. SPOLIER ALERT. In one of the most famous endings of a movie ever, Tom is shot down, crawling his way, in vain, to safety. Once dead, the rival gang wraps him up like a mummy and drops him off at his alarmed mother’s house.

Though the code was not yet in order, and the film did get away with much, the ending is still a reverberation of the fears of studio heads and executives. Many producers were still frightened at the back lash that would occur if this film was released with a happy ending. After all, what would that say about crime? That it was a good thing? As with other gangster films during this era, such as Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1933), directors were still forced to provide a morally decent film. Though these censorships were being pushed, William Wellman put a creative, to say the least, spin on the issue, providing one of the most memorable and disturbing images in cinematic history.

The Public Enemy was James Cagney’s first film and threw him into the spotlight as Hollywood’s ‘tough guy’. Years later, he would try to break this mold with films like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Billy Wilder’s comedy One, Two, Three, but he wasn’t fooling anyone. Whether he liked being typecast or not, Cagney will always be remembered for his gangster films. Despite his short stature and boyish looks, he took this role and ran with it. Many actors are still running after him, forever unable to catch up.

This film laid the groundwork for every gangster/mob film/television after it. As well as all of the films already mentioned, The Soprano’s borrowed many story ideas from it, including the gang war at the end of the series. However, it’s more in the vain of an homage rather than flat out stealing. Tony even watches The Public Enemy in one Soprano's episode. Showtime’s Brotherhood used the idea of brothers torn apart by crime. Like in The Public Enemy, there is a younger hoodlum brother that the older, more mature brother despises. This film was the godfather (pun intended) of all future mob genre film and television works.

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THE PUBLIC ENEMY


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