The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931). 83 minutes. Directed by William A. Wellman. Starring James Cagney (as Tom Powers), Jean Harlow (as Gwen Allen), Edward Woods (as Matt Doyle), Joan Blondell (as Mamie), Mae Clarke (as Kitty), Donald Cook (as Michael Powers), Leslie Fenton (as Nails Nathan), Beryl Mercer (as Ma Powers), Robert Emmett O’Connor (as Paddy Ryan), and Murray Kinnell (as Putty Nose).

The Public Enemy is the pre-Code movie that solidified legendary actor James Cagney’s reputation for playing tough-guy criminal types. It made a major contribution to the gangster genre under development in the early sound period, which included such groundbreaking films as Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932). Pre-Code gangster films typically feature slick criminal characters who at times are positioned as worthy of our admiration for their personal style, confidence, and strident disregard for authority. One of the wonderful things about the best of those movies, however, is the way that they also provocatively ask us to evaluate our reactions to their protagonists. The Public Enemy asks far fewer questions than Little Caesar or Scarface; focuses on less ambitious, more low-stakes criminal activity; and is more eager to condemn the crime it showcases (although it is not very adept at doing so). As a result, The Public Enemy is less fun than its competitors, and although it dazzles us with Cagney’s exceptional performance as its criminal protagonist, it also weirdly balances his virtuosity with a lot of tepid scenery in unremarkable saloons. The Public Enemy is worth seeing for the way that it captures Cagney’s magnetism, and for the complicated way that its attempt to take the moral high ground ends up spectacularly backfiring.

The film is set during Prohibition and follows young Tom Powers as he develops into a low-level criminal alongside his friend Matt Doyle. At first, Tom fences watches and runs errands for the gangster Putty Nose. Soon, however, he is betrayed by Putty Nose while attempting a heist and drifts towards other mentors, including bootleggers Paddy Ryan and Nails Nathan. Along the way, Tom flourishes as a criminal, making money from illegal liquor and acquiring a couple of beautiful girlfriends—despite his stern brother Michael’s objections to his lifestyle.

Feeling cocky, Tom murders Putty Nose after a chance encounter in a night club. Soon afterward, when Tom’s mentor Nails dies in a horse-riding accident, a rival gang leader takes advantage of the power vacuum to attack Tom and his crew. Tom and Matt hide out in an apartment for a time, but when they leave, Matt is gunned down in the streets. Seeking revenge, Tom attacks his rivals and is badly wounded in the head. In the hospital, he weakly tells his family that he will reform his ways. Later on at the Powers family residence, his brother is told over the telephone that Tom has been discharged and is on his way home. As the family prepares for his arrival, a knock on the door reveals Tom positioned upright, but bandaged and dead, at the threshold. The film ends by condemning Tom’s way of life via a title card.

As The Public Enemy begins to chart the decades-long criminal path of Tom Powers from tiny street pest to grown-up bootlegger’s apprentice against a backdrop of long panning shots through the city, we might think that the film is gesturing towards epic filmmaking. However, as we quickly learn, The Public Enemy is a study of a stunted criminal, and the look of what follows is blunted in a way that matches its protagonist’s qualities. A spareness and overall lack of expansiveness dominates: the number and types of sets that we see are limited, the sets look small and inexpensive, and the dialogue is brief and direct. But we must consider that the focus of the film is on a small-time crook who steals beer, collects payments for more powerful people, and does not appear to have aspirations beyond the narrow world of the no-frills barroom, the seedy backroom, and the shabby apartment hideout. Limited in soul, cheaply acquired by those who use him, and crude in thought and action, Tom radiates, in other words, the sparse qualities of his on-screen context.

The alignment of Tom’s character with the visual and verbal texture of the film is a treat, but The Public Enemy is an exceptional film for a different reason—primarily because of James Cagney’s performance as Tom. Unlike Scarface or Little Caesar, The Public Enemy does not take pains to make Tom Powers look excessively slick or elite; little in the film can be described in those terms. Nevertheless, Cagney as Tom is intense and magnetic. His dialogue reveals only minimally who he is and what he thinks, and yet he is a force to be reckoned with, emerging from the streets and conveying immediately the ferocious intensity of someone who does not intend to live by any discernible standard morality. A rebel in working clothes for much of the film, Tom eventually appears wearing a fancy suit in a nightclub, but his coolness consists of more than fine clothes and is established well before he has some luck running what are essentially illegal errands for the ringleaders he serves.

Cagney conveys his character’s coolness through the use of his body rather than clothes or accoutrements. As a professional dancer and thus as someone who is keenly aware of the position of his body at all times, Cagney as Tom consistently and pointedly employs something akin to a rebel slouch. In every scene that features Tom (which is nearly every scene), he smirks and grins handsomely, leaning over a bar or hunched over in a car, with his hat placed jauntily just to the side of his head. Cagney is constantly bent against rails and walls, conveying laid-back ease but also a lack of regard for more rigid norms. In the scene where his brother Michael is packing to go off to war, Tom challenges Michael in his bedroom, leaning up against a metal bed frame while Michael stands unshakably upright. The physical stance of the two suggests the difference between their moral constitutions, but it also suggests the nature of the battle between their two wills: whereas Michael attempts to bruise Tom’s ego by condemning his moral failings, Tom seeks to dominate his brother by infusing everything with hoodlum effortlessness and thuggish intimidation.

Cagney as Tom is undoubtedly the source of the film’s power, but Donald Cook as Michael offers a strident, combative presence that is constantly at odds with Tom’s disregard for goodness and decency, and that presents a strong counterpoint to Cagney’s performance. Michael can seem at times like an oppressive force—intense, condemnatory, and relentless. Take, for example, the scene where Tom presents his mother with a wad of cash, which she gleefully embraces, easily seduced by the fruits of her son’s nefarious labor. Michael will have none of it. What is she going to spend it on, he asks: dancing and champagne? She answers enthusiastically that when she was a girl, she danced and drank champagne, seeing in her son’s money an opportunity to claim not only momentary wealth but also to reclaim her youth and vitality. Michael, however, will not bend, and in disgust Tom ends up tearing up the money and the potential for transformation that it offers.

The tension between Michael and Tom is perhaps most dramatically evident during Michael’s homecoming from the Great War. In celebration, Ma Powers presents him with a large family dinner, for which Tom has supplied the beer. The spouted keg sits in the middle of the table, obscuring our view of the diners, and when Tom fills glasses with beer and passes them around, Michael refuses to drink, angrily proclaiming that Tom’s career is based on “beer and blood.” Tom shouts back, “Your hands ain’t so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”

Michael is right: there is blood in the beer, and the keg is there because of Tom’s crimes. But Tom is more than capable of answering back with sharp and painful words. His attempt to turn the tables and attack Michael’s distinguished military achievements is a bold move; perhaps in another gangster film, his lines might serve as more of a subversive opportunity to suggest that mainstream activities such as military service have roots in the encroaching world of street crimes, that both make use of the same impulses, and that the two are equivalent. The Public Enemy does not delve more deeply into the moment. As it is, Michael’s sorrowful attitude towards his service suggests at least one enormous difference between the two men: Michael mourns for what he saw abroad, whereas Tom thrills to his crimes, and sitting next to Michael, Tom’s actions do not seem noble or admirable. In other words, as a critic of Tom’s evil deeds, Michael provides an effective counter-presence.

Michael’s argument that the beer on the table is tainted with blood and that no one should drink it is a great, alliterative reminder of the activities that Tom’s bootlegging success supports and is supported by. However, the image of the beer as it is being poured suggests another dimension to Tom’s crimes and to the movie at large: the beer comes out of the keg with a tremendous amount of froth—indeed, all of the beer poured out in The Public Enemy is served with copious froth—and the frequent appearance of that froth in the bars that Tom visits is indicative of a certain amount of breezy lightness inherent in Tom’s criminal campaign. The alcohol flows, and Tom glides along from one Prohibition-inspired shenanigan to the next, evading consequences and responsibility. Unlike other movie gangsters of the period, he does not seek to run his own empire, and he also does not become a boss. Tom remains a low-level thug, a punk, a pest, someone who complains about “stools” and “mugs” in the criminal vernacular but whose violent end comes about in a gang war as the result of the actions following the death of his boss, Nails Nathan, from an innocuous horse-riding accident.

Tom is a killer, it is true. He appears to murder a policeman, then the criminal Putty Nose, and he at least injures a room full of other gangsters, who in turn shoot him in the head. But the camera turns away from these acts of violence, preventing us from seeing them directly. Of the actions we can see, one of the worst things that Tom does is to shove half a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face over breakfast—a decidedly abusive and humiliating act, but insofar as it is a fruit-related transgression, it fails to register to the same extent as on-screen gangster activity in other movies contemporaneous with The Public Enemy. Overall, the film wants to use the “blood and beer” label to characterize Tom’s activities, but until the very end of the film, there is actually little blood on the screen and few armed confrontations. This suggests to me that the movie is willing to suggest a certain amount of toughness but is unwilling to expose us to that violence in a more explicit way. That in itself is not necessarily a fault—we could argue, after all, that a lighter gangster movie is a welcome respite from the Scarfaces and Little Caesars of the early 1930s—but it does mean that the violent ending, in which Tom is bandaged with a head wound and cruelly dumped at his family home, feels as if it belongs in another film.

Tom’s death is by far the movie’s most brutal element. After a rival gang steals his body, ailing and bullet-ridden, from the hospital and calls to tell his family that he is coming home at last, Ma Powers runs around gleefully preparing a bed for her son, singing to herself as she fluffs and changes pillowcases. When Tom arrives home, the door opens to reveal his full, upright, bloody, bandaged, and grinning body in the doorway; he falls straight over, clearly dead. The juxtaposition of Tom’s gruesome bloodied corpse, with a delirious look on his face in death, with the activities of the delighted Ma Powers is exceedingly unnerving. We are spared a scene where she comes downstairs and discovers the body, but watching her oblivious behavior beforehand is somehow even worse. The prospect of her devastation is still on the horizon when the film ends, leaving us in a state of unresolved uncertainty that is discomforting and upsetting.

Although the final sequence appears to come from another movie, it is exceedingly well shot and so powerfully expressed in visuals that it can be watched and comprehended successfully with the sound off. Everything crucial about the events can be discerned from the editing and the actors’ performances, including the fabulous image of Michael turning away from the body on the floor and walking into the camera, consuming our image of the dead Tom with his own self and effectively overtaking our view of the movie’s final crime. We do not need the verbal epilogue that appears next, condemning the generic American hoodlum and his criminal ways. The fact that Michael, disturbed and distraught by his brother’s horrible death, becomes all that we can see is enough to convey both the idea that Michael’s perception governs the film’s conclusion that he was right about his brother, and that there is an emotional dimension to crime: it affects innocent people, including Michael and the rest of his family, as much as the Great War did.

As the movie successfully punishes its criminal and, via the final title card, explicitly tells us that Tom Powers is a bad man, its severe moralizing tone feels, for a moment, powerful and plausible. But the ending is also contradictory. We should not gloss over the fact that in its final judgmental move, the film’s visual rhetoric encourages us to experience squeamish delight, lodged somewhere between our observation of the irony of Tom’s appearance as a corpse at the door (counter to his family’s, and specifically his mother’s, joyous and evident expectations) and the long hold on the creepy, horror-movie leer on his bandaged face. In its punishing approach, The Public Enemy strangely and boldly exhibits both freedom and audacity, more than it ever does when Tom is a live agent doing harm in the wild. If The Public Enemy does not encourage us to delight in his crimes while he is alive to the extent that Scarface or Little Caesar potentially encourages us to delight in their protagonists’ crimes, it nevertheless attempts to produce a questionable emotional reaction in us with its cruel ending. I am not sure which approach is worse from an ethical perspective, but condemning a criminal character and simultaneously positioning us to thrill to his family’s horror and his victimization—both as a suffering person abducted from the hospital and as a dumped corpse—seems especially grotesque.

In spite of its claims of moral rectitude, and in spite of the compelling case that the last shots make for the effects of mob violence on families, in the end The Public Enemy succumbs to baser impulses—to violence and vicarious thrills. It made me think there is in comparison something decent about other gangster films’ bullet-ridden conclusions: at least their characters are not dehumanized on screen in an ending that humiliates them physically and disturbs their loved ones, and the size and scope of their death scenes feels proportionate to their ascent to power during the film. The Public Enemy’s ending is a big production for such a low-level hoodlum; if Tom Powers knew he was going to go out like this, maybe he would have spent less time stealing booze and collecting tribute money and more time living it up. Undoubtedly, that is not what the filmmakers would recommend, but in the end their credibility diminishes much like the life force of the thug they wish to obliterate. For a Cagney crime movie that feels more proportionate and justified in terms of its moral universe, I recommend Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and White Heat (1949).