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Classic Cinema: The Public Enemy

The Public Enemy (1931), directed by William (“Wild Bill”) Wellman, is not only a classic Depression-era American gangster film; it is also the film that propelled James Cagney to overnight stardom. The Public Enemy chronicles the rise of a street tough and hired gun to the top of the mob, and then dispassionately depicts his inevitable downfall and death. It does so in a brutal, unflinching manner, typical of Wellman, who often carried a loaded gun on the set, and thought nothing of using live ammunition in some scenes where it would give added realism to the film.

Tom Powers (Cagney) and his brother Mike (Donald Cook) come from a poor but honest family; in fact, their father is a policeman, who pounds his beat each day with dogged dedication. The film follows Tom and Mike from childhood; Mike is an eager, bookish sort who will obviously make something out of himself, but Tom and his pal Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) begin lives of petty thievery and robbery that culminate in their rise to the top of the underworld. At first they throw in with the double-crossing Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), who sets Tom and Matt up in their first real job; a fur heist that goes horribly wrong, and leaves them on the run, wanted by the law.

When the heat dies down, Tom and Matt find work with crime boss Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), a tough bootlegger who takes advantage of Prohibition to sell cheap beer to a strong of speakeasies. Tom and Matt are the “enforcers” who strong-arm the reluctant owners of the illicit taverns to take Paddy’s beer, or else. But rival mobs are soon trying to muscle in on Paddy’s racket, and Tom is kidnapped by Paddy’s competition. In the film’s justly famous final sequence, Paddy negotiates Tom’s “release” and his return home; not alive, however, but as a bloodied corpse, falling over the family doorstep like a package of day old meat, as his mother makes his bed upstairs.

Cagney almost didn’t get the part that made him a star. Filming started with Donald Cook in the role of Tom, and Cagney as the straight-arrow Mike, but within days, Wellman realized that the small, tough Cagney was much better suited to the role, and reshot the scenes to make the switch. In one scene, in which Tom is nearly killed in a machine gun ambush by members of a rival mob, Wellman did in fact use a sharp shooter with a real Tommy gun to shoot bullets at a brick wall, just second after Cagney dodged around the corner. That wall still stands on the Warner Bros. back lot to this day, bullet holes and all.

Shot quickly on a tight budget of roughly $150,000, The Public Enemy defined the gangster film for a rough, violent era in American society, and clicked resoundingly with audiences of the era, who saw the film as a modern morality tale, once again proving that in the end, “crime does not pay.”

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About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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