It's the early days of the F.B.I. - federal agents working for the Department of Justice. Though they've got limited powers - they don't carry weapons and have to get local police approval ... See full summary »
Tom Powers and Matt Doyle are best friends and fellow gangsters, their lives frowned upon by Tom's straight laced brother, Mike, and Matt's straight laced sister, Molly. From their teen-aged years into young adulthood, Tom and Matt have an increasingly lucrative life, bootlegging during the Prohibition era. But Tom in particular becomes more and more brazen in what he is willing to do, and becomes more obstinate and violent against those who either disagree with him or cross him. When one of their colleagues dies in a freak accident, a rival bootlegging faction senses weakness among Tom and Matt's gang, which is led by Paddy Ryan. A gang war ensues, resulting in Paddy suggesting that Tom and Matt lay low. But because of Tom's basic nature, he decides instead to take matters into his own hands.Written by
Edward Woods was originally hired for the lead role of Tom Powers and James Cagney was hired to play Matt Doyle, his friend. However, once director William A. Wellman got to know both of them and saw Cagney in rehearsals, he realized that Cagney would be far more effective in the star role than Woods, so he switched them. See more »
Mic shadow (apparently disguised with leaves) in early scene where girl trips while roller skating. See more »
Tom as a boy:
[Tom grabs his pants just as his father is about to spank him]
How do you want 'em this time, up or down?
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It is the ambition of the authors of "The Public Enemy" to honestly depict the environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal. While the story of "The Public Enemy" is essentially a true story, all names and characters appearing herein, are purely fictional. See more »
For the theatrical release in 1931, the New York censors made the following cuts:
The scene where Putty Nose hands Tom and Matt a gun.
All scenes of the warehouse robbery.
Scenes showing the boys getting their payoff from the government liquor heist.
Most of the scene where Tom kills Putty Nose.
The seduction of Tom by Paddy's girl and the subsequent scene where Tom slaps her.
In the early days of the talkies, a somewhat panicky film industry drafted in players from the theatre in the hopes that they would be the best suited to the new medium. If anything though these stagey hams only added to the awkwardness of those early sound movies. However a couple of years on a new kind of star began to emerge, those with unique voices, full of character, not necessarily realistic but injecting some smart-sounding talk into cinema after the silents.
James Cagney wasn't originally supposed to be the lead in The Public Enemy. He was cast as the sidekick, but director William Wellman soon realised he was the better man for the top job. And it's not surprising that he stood out, despite a lack of experience. It's not deep acting ability (although he would demonstrate that later in his career), it's presence; a raw, captivating charisma. He brings a compelling life to the part of Tom Powers, much as Edward G. Robinson did in Little Caesar six months or so earlier. But whereas Robinson was more of an Al Capone figure, Cagney is more the lean, young street brawler than the cigar-chomping kingpin. The gangster genre had found the perfect actor for another of its archetypes.
Scripted by Kubec Glasmon, John Bright and Harvey Thew, The Public Enemy is at the forefront of the then-popular mob movies, mainly thanks its brutal presentation of gangland. There were plenty of movies in which hoods gunned each other down with far more abandon, but in The Public Enemy the violence is more shocking through its context. The picture begins by showing the protagonists as kids. This was ostensibly to demonstrate the origins of criminality, but by giving us that glimpse of childhood, the later fates of the characters seem all the more grim and tragic. Cagney's doting mother remains a presence throughout the movie to keep this angle going.
William Wellman was ideal for such a project, since it's violence that brings out his inventive side. A little bit of action goes a long way in a Wellman movie. When Donald Cook punches Cagney, Cagney falls and crushes a chair. At other times the director has a bit of nasty business take place off screen, something which only the new sound technology would fully allow, cunningly drawing attention to the wider context. Involving the audience is another trick. For key moments he'll change the angle so that Cagney is almost staring into the lens, bearing down upon us.
And with those piercing eyes, commanding tone and short, sharp movements, Cagney is ideal for such an aggressive visual style. And yet these very strengths would present him with one drawback. As stars began to emerge that seemed so intrinsic to the tones and tropes of one genre, typecasting set in hard. The Public Enemy is an awesome debut for Cagney, but it also formed a constricting mould this intelligent and versatile actor would struggle to break.
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