on January 21, 2005
William Wellman's "The Public Enemy" (1931) remains the benchmark acheivement in crime cinema by which all successors tip their hats. It stars James Cagney in a breakout performance that established him as one of Warner Bros. 'tough guys' in their so called "murderer's row" roster of heavies. Here Cagney is Tom Powers, a deviant from the wrong side of the tracks who refuses to mellow with age. Together with his buddy, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), Tom becomes a one man crime wave - taking his chances, living high and accosting and abusing women along the way. His grapefruit in Kitty's (Mae Clarke) kisser is justly remembered as a violent and violating act against the fairer sex. But Tom doesn't care. Life is cheap and exciting. Jean Harlow cuts an elegantly seedy swath as Gwen Allen. Joan Blondell, as another toss away trollop - but with a knife in her - adds to the raw tension of the story. Only the congenial, Mike (Donald Cook) pleads with Tom to mend his wicked ways. He is, after all, Tom's only brother. Taut energy and the enigmatic presence of Cagney (then on the verge of international stardom) make "The Public Enemy" enthralling and electric.
Warner's DVD transfer is justly an improvement over previous video incarnations. Though age related artifacts still exist the remastered print elements are generally smooth and inviting. Certain brief sections of the film appear to have been duped in using second or third generation film sources, leading to a considerable variation in image quality. When it's good, the image exhibits a sharp, nicely contrasted beauty not found in previous releases of this film to video. The gray scale has been impeccibly rendered. There are moments where film grain will appear more excessive but this, again, is the fault of a 70 plus year old negative. The audio is mono and exhibits a decided hiss which is a limitation of the old Warner Vitaphone process of sound recording. No more could have been done by the good people at Warners on this transfer. It is head and shoulders above anything the film has looked like in years. Extras include an engaging audio commentary by film historian Robert Sklar, a featurette and the return of Leonard Maltin, hosting "Warner Night at the Movies." Highly recommended.
Warner Bros. Pictures presents "THE PUBLIC ENEMY" (23 April 1931) (84 min/B&W) (Fully Restored/Dolby Digitally Remastered) -- Friends Tom and Matt go from small time to big time crime during prohibition --- Tom tires of his mistress Kitty (he pushes a grapefruit into her face) and falls for Gwen who resists his advances except when it looks as though he might dump her --- When Matt is killed, Tom goes after the murderers.
"The Public Enemy" was Cagney's breakout film, and really he makes a powerful and accurate job --- Strong acting is provided by the whole cast --- The director William A. Wellmann handles the movie with sound talent.
Mae Clarke was immortalized as the recipient of James Cagney's classic grapefruit-in-the-face.
Academy Award nominations for Best Writing & Best Original Story
Under the production staff of:
William A. Wellman [Director]
Kubec Glasmon [Screenplay]
John Bright [Screenplay]
Harvey F. Thew [Screen adaptation]
Darryl F. Zanuck [Producer]
Devereaux Jennings [Cinematographer]
Edward M. McDermott [Film Editor]
1. William A. Wellman [Director]
Date of Birth: 29 February 1896 - Brookline, Massachusetts
Date of Death: 9 December 1975 - Los Angeles, California
2. James Cagney [aka: James Francis Cagney]
Date of Birth: 17 July 1899 - New York City, New York
Date of Death: 30 March 1986 - Stanfordville, New York
the cast includes:
James Cagney - Tom Powers
Jean Harlow - Gwen Allen
Edward Woods - Matt Doyle
Joan Blondell - Mamie
Donald Cook - Mike Powers
Leslie Fenton - Nails Nathan
Beryl Mercer - Ma Powers
Robert Emmett O'Connor - Paddy Ryan
Murray Kinnell - Putty Nose
Clark Burroughs - Dutch
Mae Clarke ... Kitty
Mr. Jim's Ratings:
Quality of Picture & Sound: 5 Stars
Performance: 5 Stars
Story & Screenplay: 5 Stars
Overall: 5 Stars [Original Music, Cinematography & Film Editing]
Total Time: 84 min on DVD ~ Warner Bros. Pictures ~ (01/25/2005)
on July 25, 2002
From the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, crime was the number one topic in the American consciousness. Organized crime was just establishing a stranglehold on nearly every sector of life and street crime punctuated by the use of the Tommy gun was becoming increasing evident. Hollywood lifted the previous blanket of movie anonymity on crime with the release of PUBLIC ENEMY in 1931. The producers were careful to insert two disclaimers that the characters in the film represented a type of criminal that had to be identified and eliminated. Tommy Powers, superbly played by an alternating snarling then smiling James Cagney, was meant to be seen more as an allegorical figure of vice run riot than as a fully fleshed human being. Unfortunately for the hopes of the censors, they did not figure on the capacity of James Cagney to invest his role of Tommy Powers with a complex surge of passion mixed with no small dose of audience sympathy that ultimately allows a straightjacket bound Powers to exit the final reel in such a way that the audience can feel the same loss that his brother felt when he opened the door to see Tommy fall through.
The movie opens with a juvenile Tommy living with his family in Chicago, learning even then the rudiments of a criminal code of honor and justice that he would adhere to for the rest of his life. At home, his policeman father often beats him with a strap in such a futile way that Tommy's nonchalant response brings to mind a future Marlon Brando telling his abductors who are beating him that his old man hits harder than that. Although the film does expicitly show the father being abusive to the rest of the family, director William Wellman suggests that the violence inflicted on a youthful Tommy is not limited only to him. Violence, then, becomes a way of life and a solution to both personal and professional problems. As an adult, Tommy (now played by Cagney) and his chum played by Edward Woods embark on a life of crime that shows both as willing to kill when killing can solve a problem. Further, Tommy cold bloodedly kills a man in revenge for a hurt done years before in a way that resonates as savage even by today's standards. The victim begs Tommy for his life even as he plays a piano and sings a song in the hope that the song will arouse a shred of pity. Tommy shoots him in mid key and walks out of the room without a backward glance. Tommy's relations with women are equally twisted by his belief that violence is the solution to any issue. The infamous grapefruit scene with Mae Clarke has lingered long in the audience's mind as an archetype of misogynistic hatred of women. Tommy seems a little more relaxed in the company of Jean Harlow whose love for him alters and softens the audience's perception of his clear failings. As Tommy pokes his friends and family on their respective chins, the viewer can sense that Tommy is struggling to express a lighter, gentler side that his environment has taught him to suppress. When Tommy walks into a bar to avenge the killing of his best friend, his smile radiates his certainty that his revenge will kill him, but his code of honor demands nothing less. When he exits the bar, he has killed them all but is badly wounded. As he staggers, he shouts, 'I am not so tough.' He may have thought so, but the audience would probably disagree. His stoic convalescence, his being kidnapped by a rival gang, and his unexpected return as a bound mummy left leaning on his mother's door have rendered the public perception of Tommy Powers in a way far different from the producers' original intent. Tommy Powers was meant to be seen only as the criminal scum of the earth. James Cagney managed to do that but also forced viewers to look behind the snarl to see a little boy being whipped by a sadistic father and learning even then how to hide his emotions under a veneer or false bravado.
on October 28, 2001
This little Warner's flick was hot stuff back in 1931! Two friends, Tom (Jimmy) and Matt (Eddie Woods), start their career of criminal activities with petty thefts and later graduate to big-time rackets. Tom's brother (Donald Cook) cannot convice Tom to reform, but manages to keep his brother's sordid activities from their mother's (Beryl Mercer) knowledge. Cagney is terrific as usual in his zesty,energetic, keenly vivid and sharply humourous performance; both critics and the public alike took notice of this rising young star. Jean Harlow, as Gwen - the icey platinum blonde siren - hadn't yet learned the necessary techniques of film acting and her performance borders on being ludicrous; critics of the day were less than kind in their reviews. For some obscure reason, the second lead - Edward Woods - never clicked in films; just why I don't know; he was quite good as Matt and he was definitely photogenic - two years later, he was reduced to playing a bit as a bell-hop who brought John Barrymore his booze in DINNER AT EIGHT. One of the very few actresses I could never abide was the whiney Beryl Mercer. Originally, ZaSu Pitts was to play Lew Ayre's bedridden mother in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (made the year before) but preview audiences snickered at the very sight of her as they associated her with comedy roles - the very sight of Mercer - her replacement - is enough to make one wince! A classic scene: A less than enchanted Mae Clarke gets half a grapefruit smashed right smack onto her left cheek by the no-nonsense Jimmy at the breakfast table! (this was supposedly NOT in the shooting script, but rather improvised!).
on September 4, 2001
The most powerful of all the Warners gangster films, 'Public Enemy' is still gripping viewing today. It may be an obvious point, but it can't be stated enough how so much of the film's force comes from being made in the actual era it depicts (NB Prohibition lasted until 1933) with all the conviction and urgency that brings. The film is an acknowledged influence on 'Goodfellas' in that the story is told 'straight' with no moral bromide being forced through the criminal charcters' mouths - they lead their lives without time or need for apology or introspection. What moral conclusion there is to be drawn is all too implicit in the resolution of their story. 'Goodfellas' though depicting historical events, drew on a uniquely candid first hand account, as well as the director's own experiences, which gives the film a similar 'truth' to 'Public Enemy'. Scorcese also picked up on William Wellman's use of source, rather than soundtrack music ('I'm For Ever Blowing Bubbles'), as seen to virtuoso effect in 'Raging Bull'. As for Cagney himself, well, let's just say it was the performance that made him a star. That's all that need be said. The famous ending is still one of the most shocking in all cinema.
on August 24, 2001
"The Public Enemy", the gangster drama that brought James Cagney to stardom, is just as tough and effective today as it was when first released in 1931. Despite some stilted acting (Donald Cook is a little too stiff as the anti-hero's straight-arrow brother), the story of Tom Powers, a hoodlum who becomes a leading mobster, is a harrowing study of Prohibition Chicago and the racketeers who made it their oyster. Tom himself is a conscienceless but strangely compelling (due to Cagney's charm) character who lives for rapine -- and occasional revenge (poor Putty Nose!). As a kid (well-played by Frank Coghlan, Jr.), he is heavily disciplined by his cop father and pampered by his weak mother. One senses that Tom has witnessed a lot of spousal abuse and it has affected his attitude towards women. That playful little "slugging" gesture of his looks vaguely ominous. The movie's most famous scene is the one where Tom smashes a breakfast grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. (Oddly enough, Mae Clarke doesn't get screen credit.) Later in the story, while Tom is lying low at a gangland boss's apartment, the boss's mistress makes a heavy pass at Tom, who's had one too many. The next morning, as Tom is having his coffee, the woman implies that they slept together, which is evidently untrue. Furious at the manipulation, Tom belts her one. The moral: don't bug Tom at breakfast. The only female who remotely affects Tom is Gwen, played by the rising Jean Harlow. In this role, Harlow is suppose to be a high society girl with a veddy-veddy accent, quite at variance with the doxies she later played at Metro. ("The Public Enemy" was released by Warners, one of the first of its underworld "exposés".)Joan Blondell was also at the beginning of her long career, and here she plays the warm supportive type she would specialize in. Their co-star Edward Woods as Tom's buddy Matt is engaging, but he didn't forge ahead like the others. Director William A Wellman maintains the dark, dangerous atmosphere throughout with scenes of implied rather than direct violence. This is true of the revenge on Putty Nose as well as the killing of the horse responsible for "Nails" Nathan's death and the rubbing out of Tom's rival gang. Like the ending itself, one of the most unsettling ever filmed, these chilling events leave you convinced that this is still a strong, tough movie, seven decades after it was released.
on August 4, 2000
Long before Scorsese's "Goodfellas" or Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange", William Wellman made a film which studies hatred and violence in society. "Public Enemy" shows the growth of Cagney's Tom Powers from a mischievous child into a truly spiteful and hating young man. He disobeys his parents (notice the occupation of his father), takes advantage of women, and basically commits any violent act he can do in order to advance himself in the ranks of organized crime. Cagney is brilliant in this role; even though Tom seems to have not a single shred of love or compassion in his body, we still care about what happens to him and in the end we sympathize with what happens to him. Again, Wellman makes a great effort to put through his message about the evils of violence and crime, and he also directs the film brilliantly (this is definitely his masterpiece). Many have borrowed from this landmark film, and not only gangster films--am I the only one to notice the similarity between Tom Powers and A Clockwork Orange's Alex deLarge? Even their basic appearance is similar, and Alex's father really reminds me of Tom's father too! This must have been intentional on Kubrick's part. At any rate, The Public Enemy is a brilliant gangster film which works on several levels.
on July 5, 2000
Paul Muni in Scarface; Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar - these are now interesting but dated performances in interesting but dated movies. Almost seventy years later, Cagney's performance is truly fresh, as is the movie. Public Enemy is the one unmissable gangster movie from the early thirties: its violence is always suggested rather than stated (always more effective); most of the acting seems strikingly contemporary (Sara Algood is of another age, but Jean Harlow could saunter onto a contemporary screen and not seem in any way anachronistic); and there is no mood music: what music there is on the soundtrack can be explained by way of live bands or the presence of a radio. This fact contributes to one of the most chilling endings of any American movie I've ever seen. Above all, there is Cagney! What a great actor! Today there is Russell Crowe: even in the old days, only Spencer Tracy came close to this kind of ease and naturalness. Enough! About James Cagney I have said - and can say - nothing. Rent it, and see for yourself!
on August 8, 2003
There is very little waste in PUBLIC ENEMY and it is easy to see why this film caused such a sensation in 1931. The movie is about the steady rise of a professional criminal (James Cagney) from before World War I through the early years of Prohibition. The acting by Cagney, Joan Blondell and Mae Clarke is excellent. The strong supporting cast includes Beryl Mercer, Edward Woods and Jean Harlow.
PUBLIC ENEMY received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story (John Bright and Kubec Glasmon). The film has certainly stood the test of time and the final scene has remained unforgettable. William Wellman also directed BEAU GESTE, WINGS and THE STORY OF G.I. JOE.
on July 4, 2002
This powerful and stunning gangster film starrs James Cagney, a small time hood who eventually rises to the top as a notorious gangster. Cagney established his "type" as a tough guy with this one. He also gets to smoosh a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face (producing the all-time classic still photo).
"Public Enemy" joins the trio of classic gangster films, including "Scarface" (Hummphrey Bogard) and "Little Caesar" (Edward G. Robinson), setting the conventions of the genre. A young Jean Harlow makes a lasting impression with her stellar performance. The original script received an Oscar nomination. A five-star movie classic!*****