90 Movies in 90 Days: The Public Enemy (1931)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: The Public Enemy
Release Date: April 23, 1931
Director: William A. Wellman
Production Company: Edward Michael McDermott

Like Scarface (1932), on-screen text at the beginning and end of The Public Enemy warn of the dangers and evils of a life a crime, while in-between depicting how cool and fun it is to be a gangster. It’s actually impressive how much of the basic gangster movie structure later explored in Once Upon a Time in America and Goodfellas is already present here.

Jimmy Cagney stars as Tom Powers who from childhood is drawn to the quick money and flashy lifestyle of Chicago’s criminal underworld.  With his lifelong friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), Tom comes of age just as Prohibition makes bootlegging a profitable undertaking.  Tom and Matt become enforcers for the sale of beer brewed by bar owner Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor) with the backing of gangster Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton).  Donald Cook plays Tom’s straight-laced brother Mike who tries to set Tom on the straight and narrow path.

Cagney’s charisma shines through in this film, making Tom likable despite his cruelty and arbitrary violence.  The rest of the cast doesn’t rise up to Cagney’s performance, with some of them acting as if they were in a stage play (perhaps they hadn’t figured out the whole “talkies” thing yet).  The movie has some iconic shots, such as a Cagney beneath the El in a rainstorm, that really work well in the language of film.  As a pre-code film it is also surprisingly frank about violence and sex (although actual acts of killing and sex are still off-screen).  And the twist ending is quite shocking! I’m not a big fan of gangster films in general, but for the time of it’s making this one stands out as pretty good.

Rating: ***1/2

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