The Public Enemy Reviews
And yet, despite all this, and despite the warnings that Warner Bros. put at the beginning and ending of the film, to the point that they were not trying to glorify gangsters, we somehow still care about Cagney, and as much or more so than his upright and moral brother, who dutifully goes off to WWI, doesn't take crooked money, and tries to set him straight. There seems to be little threat that he's going to be arrested, it's rival gangs that threaten him, not the police (which is perhaps telling to the sentiment of what was going on in Chicago and other cities at the time), but we don't want to see him gunned down.
The rest of the cast is decent but mostly in the background, even Jean Harlow, who is actually a bit ghoulish as one of Cagney's love interests. Joan Blondell is frankly better, and says a lot with her eyes as his partner's girlfriend. The only poor bit of casting was Leslie Fenton, he is not believable as big mob boss 'Nails' Nathan. The action is all a bit over-the-top, and I'm not that big a fan of the modern gangster film, but this one has that sense of being historical and classic, and as such was entertaining. It's also definitely worth watching just to see Cagney.
More or less, it was. I'll admit that The Public Enemy is not a film which has aged perfectly, but that is through no fault of its own. The entertainment value of The Public Enemy is significantly lesser today than upon its original release because though it is clearly a solid film which would have been powerful in its time, the innovations in The Public Enemy have since been turned into conventions for the gangster film genre which makes the plot structure of the film predictable. The Public Enemy shares the same simple narrative with many other Gangster films such as the film Scarface from the following year and adheres to every convention you would expect. The Public Enemy is allowed to get away with it because it came at a time when the Gangster genre was just beginning and so the conventions in the film are essentially innovations for the time. The entertainment value of the film is decreased by today's standards in this sense, but it is certainly admirable to be looked upon for its relevance to the time of its release, particularly considering the influential role that real-life criminal Al Capone had in the production of the story. And being a Pre-code crime film, it does not have to hold back, even resorting to using an iconic scene of violence against women. All in all, the subject matter of the film is very dark and lurid with plenty of grit which makes it a striking film even to this day. The fact that it is a dated film full of things now considered conventions may stand in the way of it making the same impact as well as the fact that the general slow pace and conventional style makes it one which could easily sink into the memories of viewers as just another classical gangster film. But the most important thing is that The Public Enemy is entertaining from a nostalgic perspective. Being one of the original gangster films, The Public Enemy sets the platform for the genre by capturing the right visual style and plot structure.
The Public Enemy follows the rise and fall narrative structure of many gangster films, showing the way that protagonist Tom Powers rises from an angry child into a hard hitting gangster with anger against everyone in the world and a determination to get nothing but power. It follows the main character without condemning his life excessively or glamourizing it too much either, finding the right balance to be neutral without being scared of grittiness. Under the direction of William A. Wellman, the screenplay crafted by former street thugs John Bright and Kubec Glasmon turns into an intense study of both crime and character which is as stylish as it is intelligent. Although being a relatively low budget production, the production and costume design of The Public Enemy is all very detailed and features a lot of key iconography from the gangster genre. It is all captured with strong cinematography which goes between conventional and effective in the way that it emphasizes certain forms of imagery. The look and feel of The Public Enemy is strong because it is a film which knows what to do with its finances and diverts them as such, building an effective setting to justify the strength of the script and ensure that the quality of the story is supported by effective storytelling in general. The Public Enemy is a treat on the eyes and an intense experience for the mind, so its entertainment value is undeniable.
But beneath all the style and the convention in The Public Enemy lies the unforgettable element of a striking performance from James Cagney.
James Cagney's leading performance is a seriously solid one. In his breakthrough role, James Cagney steps up to the platform to portray Tom Powers with all the possible charisma that the role needs. He captures the sophisticated charm of the character within the suit and the angry man behind the weapon, decreasing in humanity as he gets lost in the obsessions of the character. James Cagney stands thoroughly confident in the role by never stepping out of it, always seeming intimidating and ambitious in the part. His dedication to the role is thoroughly convincing because of his consistency in the effort and his relentless strength. Though he maintains a certain sense of subtlety in scenes which demand him to be more charming than aggressive, it is easy to tell that James Cagney is the most entertaining and intimidating character of the film due to the way that his facial expression conveys years of built up anger which occasionally leaks over into his line delivery. He finds ways to channel it without being too confrontational about it which means that he moderates the realism of the role with some striking dramatic techniques. The Public Enemy serves as a powerful medium for the acting talents of James Cagney, and it pushed him into a well-deserved career.
Edward Woods also makes a strong supporting effort. Supporting James Cagney at every turn and sharing a powerful chemistry with him, Edward Woods effectively brings along a tense effort of his own which adheres to the gangster themes of the film well enough. His interactions with James Cagney are clear and entertaining, effectively supplying drama to the film.
Jean Harlow brings a charming effort to her part as well, and though his role is small, Donald Cook manages to share some really powerful scenes with James Cagney which plays on the convention of "the good brother" very effectively and intensively. Joan Blondell also does some fine work.
So although The Public Enemy is a dated film and one of the most conventional examples of a gangster film, its style is innovative for its time, the message is clear, the direction is stylish and the solid leading performance from James Cagney is just unforgettable.
- An excellent early gangster film that helped make James Cagney a star and was also a major influence on Martin Scorsese. I enjoyed Cagney's performance and it's a decent gangster flick. A must for all major film buffs and fans of the gangster genre!