The Pleasure of The Public Enemy

November 8, 2023

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Did people scream when they first saw this famous final scene in The Public Enemy? In a crowded movie house back in 1931, I would have. It’s a bit less intense to watch a movie that’s 92 years old on your Kindle or laptop, but the thrill is there.

For anyone unfamiliar with the movie, The Public Enemy (1931) is one of a series of violent pre-Code gangster films produced by Warner Brothers in the 1930s, the ones that always came with a sort of warning label at the start – “the hoodlums and terrorists of the underworld must be exposed, and the glamor ripped from them” – with the studio claiming they made the movie to educate, not titillate its audience. This one tells the story of Tom Powers (James Cagney in his first leading role) and his rise to power in Prohibition Era Chicago. Tom’s a violent sociopath and charming, thanks to Cagney’s gleaming performance.

The film, directed by William A. Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident), is famous (or infamous) for the scene where Cagney smashes a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face, a young flapper he picked up at a speakeasy. (click HERE). Whether he did it because she didn’t offer him a drink with breakfast, called him ‘dear’ too soon in the relationship, or dared to question his fidelity isn’t essential to the rest of the plot other than to show what a contemptuous pig Tom Powers is. Although, as played by Cagney, still charming.

There are many better scenes to remember from The Public Enemy, especially between Tom and his war-hero brother, Mike (Donald Cook). Watching Tom interact with his mother, Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer), is both melodramatic and creepy but works to take some of the shine off Cagney’s charm. The scenes that Cagney shares with screen siren Jean Harlow sizzle.

And then there’s that final shootout, gorgeously shot by cinematographer Devereaux Jennings (Steamboat Bill, Jr.). Made today, the screen would be filled with guns and gore, but Jennings and Wellman make it much more compelling by leaving that violence to your imagination. All you see is the rain; all you hear is the gunfire and the storm. Cagney comes stumbling out, obviously shot and in severe pain, calling out to anyone who will listen, “I ain’t so tough.”

It could end there and be a good movie. It becomes great during the last 8 minutes when the story shows us Tom, reunited with his brother and mother, recovering in a hospital. It’s downright maudlin, and if it ended with that, The Public Enemy would be crap. But then, with 1:06 left in the runtime, WHAM! That famous final scene.


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