The Public Enemy (1931)

by Afra Nariman

The Public Enemy (1931)

Director: William A. Wellman

Stars: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook, Robert Emmett O’Connor


“Money don’t mean nothing to me.” 

“No, I guess not. But with no heart and no brains, it’s all you’ve got. You’ll need it.”

Interestingly, although The Public Enemy is a crime film released during the risk-taking Pre-Code era, this film is not very grandiose for most of its runtime; and if anything, it deliberately avoids leaning too far into the spectacle of violence — choosing its moments with precision (though, the dialogue can be pretty unhinged in a few scenes). It couples with this restraint, quietly exaggerated acting akin to methods typically associated with the silent era (i.e.: an emphasis on facial movements and expressions, or sudden overstated body motions). This is led by James Cagney, whose performance is undoubtably the best part of the film. His every twitch of the eye, quick retracting smile, anxious bite of the lip, random gesture, etc. pops off the screen to juxtapose an otherwise “matter-of-fact” depiction of crime. The other major players of the picture follow Cagney’s lead; such as when Paddy Ryan (played by Robert Emmett O’Connor), is explaining his big plan to lift large amounts of alcohol to sell for a sizable profit, while simultaneously stuffing his face with chips — his eyes blinking and twitching as the camera moves in towards a close-up, before transitioning to the next scene. There are countless such scenes that O’Connor more-or-less matches Cagney’s offbeat, exaggerated performance. 

Overall, the pacing of the film isn’t the best. It finds itself dragging a bit, particularly in the second act. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining enough story that interrogates the diluting moral fiber of organized crime, and features a great performance by Cagney. This is my first film of his, but I could already see the influence he’d have on future generations of actors. Most notably, I would imagine Jack Nicholson watched a lot of Cagney and took inspiration from the way he carried himself on screen. Like Jack, Cagney can be smiling from ear to ear in one scene, be grimacing moments later, and as the audience, we don’t blink an eye because of how natural each reactionary transition is. The range of emotions communicated through facial expression and improvised body motion by both Cagney and Jack is a skill that cannot be understated.

Considering that The Public Enemy is one of the earliest gangster films (made even before the original Scarface), it does illustrate its themes very well and establishes many of the tropes that we’ve seen have a lasting presence within the gangster genre. The final 15 minutes is particularly bold and impressive — the final scene, all the more.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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