A gangster moves his way up through the ranks of the Chicago
mob as the sudden death of a boss sparks a citywide war.
The Public Enemy (1931)
Directed by William A. Wellman
Written by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright
Starring James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods,
Joan Blondell, Donald Cook, Leslie Fenton, Beryl Mercer,
Robert Emmett O'Connor, Murray Kinnell
Oscar Nominations - Best Original Story
The Public Enemy was made at a time when they were still figuring things out in film. It was a growing medium that was more potential than anything else. You can see the roots of what would become films like White Heat and Angels with Dirty Faces. But right from his gangster debut, James Cagney knew exactly what he was doing. The same cannot be said for his dry supporting cast. There's a lot about this film that's fairly dull thanks to delivery and a generic story. But its influence can't be overstated. Many of the greatest gangster films of all time owe everything to this film.
Cagney plays Tommy Powers, a two-bit hoodlum who pals around with his buddy Matt Doyle (Woods) looking for a big score. When they partner with Paddy Ryan (O'Connor), they get a taste of the good life and power goes to their heads quickly. Tom has a falling out with his straight-arrow veteran brother Mike (Cook) and falls for femme fatale Gwen Allen (Harlow). But when a rival gangster is accidentally killed, a war for his territory erupts and Tommy is caught in the middle. Cagney does a very good job playing gangsters, as we've seen before, but the film's short runtime and some of the goofy secondary performances really hold this film back. It ends right when the most interesting part should be starting.
The Public Enemy is a good prototype for what would come after it. It sets up all the tropes that would be done to death over the next seven decades. James Cagney remains a 20th century icon for his incredible, ahead of their time performances. But I'd definitely recommend White Heat before this one.