by Jeric Llanes
The Public Enemy (1931) came into theaters during the era of America’s Prohibition, a time when alcohol was banned from being produced, imported/exported, and sold nationwide. Yet it was during this period that organized crime started to rise into prominence. The black market for alcohol became a booming and lucrative business and subsequently Gangsters came into power. This classic crime film is an attempt to portray this harsh reality on the big screen, as it details the fictional life of Tom Powers (James Cagney), a Chicago native who goes from mischievous hoodlum to a dangerous criminal.
Now, I’ll admit that I have an affinity for gangster flicks. As bad as the characters in these kinds of films tended to be, there were still some redeeming qualities that made them lovable. Most were all about the family. Others were humorous and charming. Some had the brains to craft an awe-inspiring scheme. Heck, if anything the gangsters on screen are just flat out… “cool”. In a way, you can argue that most crime dramas have a tendency to romanticize the mobster character and lifestyle, whether that be a good or bad thing.
But this classic happens to do the complete opposite. Instead of the cool criminal lead that is common in most contemporary crime films, Cagney plays the role of Tom Powers with such grit and menace. Never mind the fact that Tom looks rather small compared to the other characters (a quick search on Google reports Cagney’s height to be a mere 5’5”), but his presence on the screen is filled with tension that strikes fear. You just don’t know what you’re going to get with Tom as the film implies that his need to cause trouble blossomed from a very early age. The young hoodlum stated it himself with one of the first few lines of the film, retorting that if he ends up in jail in the future, that he wouldn’t go in “for swiping pigeons”; A hint that he’s willing to be much more malicious if the opportunity for him was right.
James Cagney’s performance as the tough gangster is incredible, but I also have to praise the vision of director William A. Wellman. He made the very interesting choice (whether personal or through studio censorship) of keeping most of the violence off screen, as the camera would pan out when someone was being killed off. Not only does this leave room for the audience to imagine the horrors of these criminal activities, but in visually taking away these scenes the killing becomes casual. You don’t see it, but you hear about it. And like Tom and the other characters, we simply move on. Violence in that sense becomes numb, and that is where the true terror of the gangster lifestyle lies.
The film is also very self-conscious with its social commentary on the rise of organized crime during prohibition. At times, they argue against figures such as Tom Powers, with captions appearing before and after the film condemning these mobsters and urging viewers to put a stop to madness on the streets. But on the flipside, there are scenes that flip that mentality on its head, particularly when Tom interacts with his brother Mike, a decorated Marine who has come home to stay with the family. Clearly meant to be polar opposites, Tom being the corrupted gangster and Mike being the honored soldier, the dynamic between the two is strained. Mike constantly looks down on his brother for his ordeals with criminals, but Tom gets the final word in, claiming that Mike didn’t earn his medals by “holding hands with them Germans,” and implying that the brothers aren’t so different after all.
The balance of superb acting and intellectual stimulation is enough to keep audiences engaged with this classic crime film. The plot is simplistic, and often times minimal. But it’s because of this, the film captures the raw essence of these criminals and gangs that were rampant on the streets during that time. This isn’t a movie that glorifies violence by amazing audiences with spectacular action sequences and explosions. Instead, what we have here is a gritty film that keeps you thinking about its themes and commentary, and overall just feels flat out real.
Where to Watch this Film: The Public Enemy (1931) is available for rent/purchase on Youtube, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, iTunes, and Netflix DVD.