The Public Enemy


The Public Enemy

Critics Consensus

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Total Count: 29


Audience Score

User Ratings: 7,496
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Movie Info

William Wellman's landmark gangster movie traces the rise and fall of prohibition-era mobster Tom Powers. We are first shown various episodes of Tom's childhood with the corrupting influences of the beer hall, pool parlor, and false friends like minor-league fence Putty Nose. As young adults, Tom (James Cagney) and his pal, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), are hired by ruthless but innately decent bootlegger Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor). The boys quickly rise to the top of the heap, with all the accoutrements of success: custom-tailored tuxedoes, fancy cars, and gorgeous girls. All the while, Tom's loving (and somewhat addlepated) mother (Beryl Mercer) is kept in the dark, believing Tommy to be a good boy, a façade easily seen through by his older brother Mike (Donald Cook). Tommy's degeneration from brash kid to vicious lowlife is brought home in a famous scene in which he smashes a grapefruit in the face of his latest mistress (Mae Clarke). Some dated elements aside, The Public Enemy is as powerful as when it was first released, and it is far superior to the like-vintage Little Caesar. James Cagney is so dynamic in his first starring role that he practically bursts off the screen; he makes the audience pull for a character with no redeeming qualities. The film is blessed with a superior supporting cast: Joan Blondell is somewhat wasted as Matt's girl, Mamie; Jean Harlow is better served as Tom's main squeeze, Gwen (though some of her line readings are a bit awkward); and Murray Kinnell is slime personified as the deceitful Putty Nose, who "gets his" in unforgettable fashion. Despite a tacked-on opening disclaimer, most of the characters in The Public Enemy are based on actual people, a fact not lost on audiences of the period. Current prints are struck from the 1949 reissue, which was shortened from 92 to 83 minutes (among the deletions was the character of real-life hoodlum Bugs Moran).

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James Cagney
as Tom Powers
Jean Harlow
as Gwen Allen
Edward Woods
as Matt Doyle
Beryl Mercer
as Ma Powers
Donald Cook
as Mike Powers
Leslie Fenton
as Nails Nathan
Murray Kinnell
as Putty Nose
Russell Powell
as Bartender
Rita Flynn
as Molly Doyle
Snitz Edwards
as Hack Miller
Adele Watson
as Mrs. Doyle
Frank Coghlan Jr.
as Tom As A Boy
Frankie Darro
as Matt as a Boy
Robert E. Homans
as Off. Pat Burke
Dorothy Gee
as Nails' Girl
Purnell Pratt
as Officer Powers
Lee Phelps
as Steve, the Bartender
Helen Parrish
as Little Girl
Dorothy Gray
as Little Girl
Nanci Price
as Little Girl
Ben Hendricks III
as Bugs as a Boy
George Daly
as Machine Gunner
Eddie Kane
as Joe, the Headwaiter
Douglas Gerrard
as Assistant tailor
Sam McDaniel
as Black Headwaiter
William Strauss
as Pawnbroker
Russ Powell
as Bartender
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Critic Reviews for The Public Enemy

All Critics (29) | Top Critics (4)

  • If there are to be gangster pictures, let them be like The Public Enemy, hard-boiled and vindictive almost to the point of burlesque.

    Apr 19, 2019 | Full Review…
  • There's no lace on this picture. It's raw and brutal. It's low-brow material given such workmanship as to make it high-brow.

    Oct 30, 2007 | Full Review…

    Variety Staff

    Top Critic
  • Cagney's energy and Wellman's gutsy direction carry the day, counteracting the moralistic sentimentality of the script and indelibly etching the star on the memory as a definitive gangster hero.

    Feb 9, 2006 | Full Review…

    Geoff Andrew

    Time Out
    Top Critic
  • James Cagney's portrayal of a bootlegging runt is truly electrifying (he'd made five films, but this one made him a star), and Jean Harlow makes the tartiest tart imaginable.

    Jan 1, 2000 | Full Review…
  • 1931's The Public Enemy is still at this stage one of the best gangster films ever made.

    Sep 21, 2017 | Rating: 9/10 | Full Review…
  • In spite of woodenness, creakiness in plot, and unintentional humor in printed piety, ' The Public Enemy,' a film of its time, was a sensation at that time, and is still not to be missed today.

    Jan 14, 2016 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for The Public Enemy

  • Mar 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.
    Antonius B Super Reviewer
  • Feb 24, 2012
    This film is actually a bit overrated. I was actually very disappointed. I was expecting a masterpiece. Something that would have me screaming because to tell you the truth me and gangster films are like a screaming fan girl. It was weak in the writing so I don't know why it got nominated for best screenplay at Oscars. It was a different time so I'm not to worried. The acting was also lacking. But it is a classic and there acting was different back then. This was filmed around the time when modern acting was just getting started. Hollywood was also making the transition from silent films to talkies so they where probably just struggling. The plot was also a bit weak. There weren't much interesting scenes. I think even I could have done a much better job. But this film isn't all bad. There where some things about this film. It was an okay watch. The ending was also shocking and it probably was even more shocking back then. This is one classic that I hope they remake because I'm pretty sure they won't ruin it. Needles to say, if you like classic gangster films then you should watch this one. It's a must.
    Eduardo T Super Reviewer
  • Jan 09, 2011
    Brutal, explosive and honest depiction of a societal stratus raised in the noir slums, bold for such an early year. Tom Powers was among the first personifications that propelled Cagney's name into Hollywood stardom, and still several modern performances today haven't been able to scratch the level of such great celluloid incarnations, let's not say top it. 99/100
    Edgar C Super Reviewer
  • Sep 03, 2010
    Typical gangster story, predictable, but with an unexpected ending.
    Aj V Super Reviewer

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