The Public Enemy - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

The Public Enemy Reviews

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May 26, 2016
Kinda surprised at how entertaining I found this. Compelling, creatively interesting direction, great pacing, and Cagney is just a blast to watch. Apart from the unsurprising but still eyebrow-raising casual bigotry, and the thudding moral lesson of the last ten minutes, it's a real fun time.
Antonius Block
Super Reviewer
March 31, 2016
Cagney is something special in this film, an early gangster and bootlegging movie that was made in 1931, while Prohibition was still the law (it ended in 1933). The way he wears his many hats, the way he talks, and the way he playfully bumps his fist into someone's face as a sign of respect is all truly iconic. He is great in scenes of pure evil, the most famous of which has him smashing a grapefruit in a lover's face for not serving him alcohol for breakfast. There are several others though - spitting beer in a bartender's face for selling a competitor's product, killing a horse for having thrown and killed his boss, killing a guy who had betrayed him years ago, 'Putty Nose', without remorse, shocking even his partner, and slapping a woman for seducing and sleeping with him the night before while he was drunk. The seduction is clearly pre-Code as there is no doubt what's happening, but it's far from erotic, and more of an indication of the depths to which he's sinking before his ultimate end.

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.
½ February 24, 2016
James Cagney is truly the definitive gangster in his iconic role of Tom Powers, but that is all the movie has going for it. Beyond that I was uninterested in the story and found it dull to sit through. (First and only viewing - 10/8/2011)
August 21, 2015
This is a quintessential gangster film that all other gangster films were based on. Sure, it's dated. But it still holds up for some classic pre-code scenes that wouldn't be seen again in a while. Jean Harlow has a very small, but very memorable role ("the men i know, and i've known dozens of them..") and Mae Clark has been entrenched in cinematic history by having a grapefruit smashed in her face.
August 20, 2015
gr8! another lost review!
August 1, 2015
some modern audiences might find it slow, but Cagney is great and it sets up the foundation for almost all future gangster films.
May 30, 2015
Not even the famous "grapefruit scene" was as great as I have heard all my life. Middle of the road movie for any genre
½ May 11, 2015
Cagney was a genius.
April 15, 2015
I wasn't as impressed with this as most of Cagney's other gangster movies. It seemed longer than it needed to be and mostly just drama. But the acting was awesome.
½ March 29, 2015
I guess this deserves credit for being so influential but it's not a particularly enjoyable film. Personally I found it to be fairly boring and James Cagney was getting on my nerves. Still, if you are a fan of mob films then this is essential viewing.
½ March 26, 2015
Hailed as one of the original Gangster films, The Public Enemy sounded like a film with the value of a good classical piece.

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.
½ February 22, 2015
- Enjoyed revisiting this one on Blu-ray. Cagney is amazing in this role that launched his career. The movie looks good considering it's almost 85yrs old. A MUST for all serious film fans.

- 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!
½ February 18, 2015
James Cagney gives his star-making performance as Tom Powers, a young man who is involved in gang activity from a young age. It is a great gangster movie, and since it was made in the pre-code era you get stuff that you don't expect from films prior to the 60s, like definite references to sex, a character who is clearly meant to be gay (though not explicitly stated), and raw gritty violence. Cagney is simply great, he is a real badass prick who doesn't take guff, and will kill anyone who crosses him or hurts his friends...even if they are just a horse. When you see Cagney as likable nice guys in things like "Footlight Parade", then see him here, it is easy to see what an actor he was. A true classic gangster film, check it out.
February 2, 2015
William Wellman's "Public Enemy" is a tour-de-force performance by James Cagney, wrapped within some elegant direction, a solid supporting cast and a simple but effective screenplay.

The Public Enemy, along with two other films released in the early 1930s - Little Caesar and Scarface, set the standard for gangster genre. This was the film that made James Cagney a star. Ironically Cagney was originally cast to star as the Matt Doyle, the sidekick to Tom Powers, portrayed by Edward Woods. When Director William A. Wellman saw Cagney in rehearsals, he realized that Cagney would be far more effective in the star role than Woods, so he switched them and the rest is cinematic history.

Very good supporting cast formed by actresses who subsequently would have an important starring roles of their own: Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell. Mae Clarke became known for her scene with Cagney, in his striped pajama, sat opposite Mae Clarke at breakfast and decided he had had enough of her nagging and pressed half a grapefruit into Clarke's face.

Donald Cook was well cast as Powers' brother Mike who returns from World War I shell shocked, but able to discern the gangster that his brother has become. Beryl Mercer is equally good as Powers' mother who does not have the foresight to see that her son's path will lead to his impending demise.

One thing that is not clear is why Powers, in a hospital after being wounded in a gun-fight, is not under police arrest. In the end he is kidnapped from the hospital and, in a scene that could only be allowed in a time before the studios' production Code, is dumped dead on his doorstep.
½ January 4, 2015
It is well acted, solidly directed, fine finale and it has some very memorable sequences, but The Public Enemy is ultimately not a great movie thanks to not particularly well developed characters, lack of emotional presence, standard story and the flawed beginning with too much jumping up in time too fast. It is sometimes involving, sometimes not, it is at times forgettable, at times quite memorable. A polarizing experience.
½ October 16, 2014
An exceptional early gangster film, launching the careers of James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Jean Harlow. The DVD is great, with bonus extras of an intro by Leonard Maltin, the featurette Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public, a comedy short The Eyes Have It and the cartoon Smile, Darn Ya, Smile. Heartily recommended.
August 28, 2014
Cagney at his finest, with notes of humor and violence throughout. A gangster film staple.
June 29, 2014
The character of Tom Powers remains one of the most fascinating that Cagney has ever played.
March 25, 2014
A well done Gangster film. James Cagney makes for a pretty good gangster and some of the set pieces are great. A good film, but not a great one.
March 5, 2014
Not nearly as good as I expected it to be, especially with the reputation the character Tom Powers has, but he just wasn't nearly as nasty as some other gangsters Cagney has played.
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