1931 saw Warner Brothers release two movies that define the gangster movie of the 1930s. The first was Little Caesar, followed a few weeks later by The Public Enemy. Both were huge box-office hits. Little Caesar remains a classic, a movie that is as impressive today as it was 80 years ago. The same cannot be said of The Public Enemy, a middling movie saved by a stupendous performance by James Cagney,
Tom Powers (Cagney) and his childhood buddy Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) are poor Irish immigrants living on the mean streets of the big city. Tom’s brother Mike is a hard-working law-abiding citizen. Tom is a thug from the word go. As a kid he’s a petty thief with a mean streak. As an adult he’s a mobster in the making.
Prohibition gives him his opportunity. They team up with an older Irish crook, Paddy Ryan, and soon Tom and Matt are big shots. Meanwhile Tom is tiring of his live-in girlfriend Kitty, and he becomes even more tired of her when he meets the glamorous Gwen Alllen (Jean Harlow).
The rise of their gang causes concern among rival racketeers and a full-blown gang war is ready to erupt.
Interestingly enough Edward Woods was originally cast in the lead role with Cagney in the supporting role as Matt but Wellman decided Cagney was the one with star quality and reversed the roles. Woods is good, but he’s no Jimmy Cagney.
I’m a huge fan of Jean Harlow but she really is terrible in this film. It isn’t really her fault. At this stage of her career no-one had yet discovered that her forte was comedy.
The picture was helmed by William A. Wellman, an erratic director at best although he had his moments. It’s a reasonably good movie but pales in comparison with Little Caesar. While Rico in Little Caesar achieves a kind of twisted grandeur Tom Powers remains just a cheap thug (despite Cagney’s best efforts). The Public Enemy just doesn’t quite generate enough interest in either the plotting or characterisation departments to make it a real classic of the gangster genre, but it’s still one of the movies you have to see if you have an interest in that genre.