One of the earliest true gangster films, The Public Enemy charts the rise and fall of gangsters Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) through the first third of the twentieth century. From street hoodlums tripping up girls in 1909 to prohibition era bootleggers, Powers and Doyle become top dogs in a world of crime, money, women and violence before getting their studio orchestrated comeuppance.
The movie starts with some fantastic streets scenes set in the first few years of the twentieth century. Anyone who has read my reviews of Chaplin films or other early cinema will know what a huge fan I am of seeing these sorts of shots, especially if they’re real. Here they look like sets but are still great. Early on there is a sort of Oliver-Fagan dynamic featuring Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) as a gangster who employs children to do his thieving. It is soon obvious that he is ripping them off and the two boys strike out on their own. Although the film was produced in the pre-code era the violence is very tame by today’s standards and my DVD copy was rated as PG. The story is the driving force here though and the plot has been repeated numerous times in both versions of Scarface, the similarly titled Public Enemies and countless others.
I watch more films from this period than a lot of people but a lot of what I watch are the comedies of Chaplin and Keaton. I was pleasantly surprised then to see such a great deal of camera movement particularly in early scenes. Chaplin was renowned (wrongly in my opinion) for his use of static cameras so the tracking shots in an early scene on the streets gave me a pleasant surprise. The Direction on the whole is excellent and the film makes great use of movement and, what was for the period, quick cutting to heighten some of the action scenes. One problem was the sets which although occasionally looking good were poorly made and little effort was given to make them sound real. In one scene Cagney slides down a drainpipe onto a lower roof and when he lands it sounds like he has landed on wood, not stone. I also had a problem, as I often do with this period, with the sound. Released just four years after the first talkie, The Public Enemy was recorded at a time when sound mixing was in its infancy and static microphones had trouble picking up actor’s voices.
There are further problems with the acting. I’ve read that on its release the acting was praised but by modern standards it looks fairly poor bar a couple of performances. There is a lot of overacting which becomes even more apparent when James Cagney steps into a scene with his trademark naturalistic style. Compared to some of the others he doesn’t appear to be trying but as a result comes off looking much better. Many of the cast act as though they are on stage with voices booming and faces gurning. Another exception is Leslie Fenton who plays gangster ‘Nails’ Nathan. He has a great style which combines a sort of European Count with vicious gangster and his performance is close to matching Cagney’s. Sex Symbol Jean Harlow is another who performs admirably but despite her natural beauty is here made up to look like a drag queen and reminded me of Eastenders Pat Butcher. An example of the ham acting comes in a famous scene known today as ‘the grapefruit scene.’ In this scene Cagney’s character is stressed and uptight and his girlfriend has prepared him breakfast. Angry about her insistence that he doesn’t drink in the morning he picks up the halved grapefruit and shoves it in her face. The surprise of the attack actually made me laugh and Mae Clark’s reaction looked forced but I’ve since read that the incident may not have even been planned and that the reaction of shock was in fact real.
Although there is little sex and violence by today’s standards once the Hollywood Code was introduced the film was cut for a 1941 re-release. The grapefruit scene was axed along with a second in which Cagney is seduced while hiding out and a third in which he is measured for a suit by a camp tailor. The third shamefully gives insight into Hollywood’s perception and repulsion of homosexuality during the period. The Public Enemy is a film which I’d wanted to see for years, ever since my interest in the modern gangster film and early cinema lead me to discovering the existence of it, Scarface and Little Caesar. It seemed like the perfect crossover but I turned off my TV feeling a bit disappointed. Perhaps it is the lack of sex and violence or the poor acting or the simplistic storyline but I didn’t think it was as good as I’d been lead to believe. The Public Enemy is listed as the 8th greatest Gangster film of all time by the AFI and has a rating of 7.8 on IMDb but I wasn’t enthralled by it and sometimes felt bored. I think Scarface (1932) is a better picture.