Skip to content

The Public Enemy

October 18, 2010

58. The Public Enemy
Directed by William A. Wellman
USA, 1931

IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Rachel
First viewing


In 1909, young Tom Powers is a local thug with a reputation as a thief and a wiseguy. By 1920 he’s in the bootlegging business and a prominent member of an infamous gang. He has the money, the clothes and the women, but how long will the good times last?

Essential Scene:

Matt (Edward Woods) and Tom (James Cagney) have spent the night — and many other previous nights — at a hotel with their lovers.

Tom and Kitty (Mae Clarke) sit down to a nice breakfast.

Kitty: It’s all ready, Tom

Tom: Ain’t you got a drink in the house?

Kitty: Well, not before breakfast, dear.

Tom: I didn’t ask you for any lip, I asked you to get a drink.

Kitty: I know, Tom, but.. Gee, I wish that..

Tom: There you go with that wishing stuff again. [Smiles] I wish you was a wishing well. So I could tie a bucket to ya and sink ya.

Kitty: Maybe you’ve found someone you like better.

Tom’s face twists in anger and he stands up. He picks up a grapefruit off Kitty’s plate and shoves it into her face.


The 1930 introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code — aka the Hays Code — put a gag on Hollywood’s output. However, we are lucky that it wasn’t fully upheld until around 1934 because that meant that Warner could release The Public Enemy.

It has references to sex (including a woman seducing a man), alcohol, a (very) possible homosexual character and violence towards both men and women. By today’s standards it is tame but I was quite surprised at such references in a thirties film.

While the prologue and epilogue tries to drum into you that Tom Powers is a warning, not a man to be liked or emulated, I couldn’t help but like him in some sense. He’s not a moral man, nor is he a very nice one, but the air of humour and confidence about him somehow draws you in: The thirties equivalent of Tony Soprano.

Reviewed by Ally
Third viewing

Essential Scene:

Tom strolls cheerfully into a pawn shop and leans on the counter.

Tom: I was just looking at some of them pistol things in the window.

Pawnbroker: Shall I show you some?

Tom: Yeah. I kinda like that big one.

As the kindly pawnbroker turns his back to get a gun, the smile drops from Tom’s face. The pawnbroker returns. So does Tom’s smile. He asks to see another gun of the same calibre. The pawnbroker obliges.

Tom: How do you load that?

Pawnbroker: First, you break it. Then, you stick the cartridges in the holes.

Tom: Could I see?

Pawnbroker: Sure.

Tom proceeds to cautiously load the gun, feigning naïvety. The pawnbroker reassures Tom that he’s getting it right.

Pawnbroker: It’ll hold six.

Tom: Oh, this’ll be enough. Stick ’em up!

Tom turns the gun on the pawnbroker, who laughs. He assumes it’s a joke from his previously friendly customer. Tom persists. The man’s smile fades as he puts up his hands.

You’ve got to admit, stealing a gun using the gun itself is pretty badass.


Many filmmakers were still getting the hang of talkies in 1931, but The Public Enemy often uses sound to great effect. Certain events take place off-screen, indicated only by the sound of gunshots and screams, or a piano ‘played’ by a dead body slumping onto the keyboad. The power of suggestion can be supremely chilling.

Like most gangster movies, the moral of The Public Enemy is undermined wonderfully by the fact that the main character is so damn charismatic. Sure, he ain’t ‘book smart.’ Sure, he’s a criminal. Sure, he’s a remorseless killer — he even kills a horse for revenge, as if a horse would understand such a concept. But James Cagney is just too cool for school.

For weeks to come, I’ll be fighting the urge to sock folks in the kisser.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 18, 2010 4:41 pm

    In “The Public Enemy” art imitated life in that director “Wild Bill” Wellman had a breakfast encounter with one of ex-wives that made it to the screen with Cagney and Mae Clarke.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: