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A Movie A Week: THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)
… I ain’t so tough…

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Week. [For those who new to the column, A Movie A Week is just that, a dedicated way for me explore vintage cinema every week. I’ll review a movie every Monday and each one will be connected to the one before it via a common thread, either an actor, director, writer, producer or some other crew member. Each film, pulled from my DVD shelf or recorded on the home DVR (I heart TCM) will be one I haven’t seen.] After last week’s disappointing William A. Wellman flick (TRACK OF THE CAT which was a boring melodrama disguised as a kick-ass cat & mouse thriller) I was very happy to finally dive into his classic THE PUBLIC ENEMY, the film that made James Cagney a superstar and set the tone for a decade of gangster pictures. Story-wise, there’s nothing much of note about the movie. The plot is pretty typical gangster fare - a young hood works his way up the underworld ladder until he’s a well respected and feared underworld leader. What makes this film stand the test of time are the characters and how far Wellman and screenwriter Harvey Thew are willing to go.

This is a pre-code film and as such there are some pretty surface level references to sex, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. The main character, Tom Powers, is a particularly well-written complex douche of a character. I’m not kidding when I say the man either slaps, punches, kicks or shoots damn near every living thing in this movie… including a horse. It’d be so incredibly easy for us, as viewers, to write Cagney off, to disconnect, but there’s a reason why this film made him a star. As diabolical as he acts, as trash as he comes off you can’t help but feel empathy for him. You’re rooting for him to succeed the whole movie. I wouldn’t call it a likeability factor because I sure as shit wouldn’t want to hang out with Tom Powers in real life. Cagney, yes, but his character here? Not at all. He treats everybody like shit, including Mae Clarke in the now famous grapefruit scene.

The reputation that scene has is one of levity in an otherwise tense movie, but look at it! That’s a step away from domestic violence! He might as well have hit her with his open hand, the intent and effect is the same. So, yeah. Powers is not meant to be likeable, but through sheer force of charisma Cagney makes him someone interesting.

Less impressive is Donald Cook as Cagney’s brother, the only one that can put him in his place. The character is fine and, again, surprisingly complex. When writing the script I can imagine it would have been very simple to make this selfless war hero a one-dimensional goodie two shoes, but by the end of the movie you’re not sure if you witnessed his well of purity contaminated to the point where he might follow in his younger brother’s shoes. But Cook as an actor lacks the spark that Cagney has. He’s not horrible in the role, but he spits out his dialogue in a way that immediately dates him and the picture. It’s the kind of old timey gangster picture speak that might as well have every sentence end with “eh?” Cagney owns this movie through and through, but they don’t make him invulnerable. When the top dog, Nails Nathan, is accidentally killed (thrown by a horse) that throws the underworld into a bloody scramble as everybody jockeys for position. With Nails gone a giant target might as well be hanging over Cagney’s head and attempts are made on his life. These aren’t lame attempts, either. Each one takes something from him, even if it’s not his life. By the end of the movie he’s decided to take the fight to those bastards and he might or might not be of sane mind and body when he does so.. In fact the look on his face as he enters the warehouse headquarters is that of an asylum escapee… In fact, watching that scene I couldn’t get it out of my head just how amazing it would have been to have seen Cagney play The Joker.

What amazing fantasy casting, right? The end of the movie really does kick you in the guts and is what I’m finding sticks with the most the more distance I get from the flick. I won’t spoil it here if any of you haven’t yet seen the movie, but it’s pretty fucked up. Final Thoughts: It’s always good when a classic lives up to its reputation. The Public Enemy is not immune to the passage of over seven decades, but it holds up surprisingly well thanks mainly to a brilliant central performance. And it’s always fascinating watching the birth of a star. Whether it’s James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or Harrison Ford in Star Wars or Cagney here there’s some added electricity, some extra bit of movie magic at work that can’t help but transcend the movie itself.

Upcoming A Movie A Week Titles: Monday, September 7th: THE MAYOR OF HELL (1933)

Monday, September 14th: MIDNIGHT MARY (1933)

Monday, September 21st: AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Monday, September 28th: THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955)

We have more Cagney next week in 1933’s THE MAYOR OF HELL… James Cagney in a movie with the awesome title THE MAYOR OF HELL? Yep, gonna be awesome. See you folks then for that one! -Quint Follow Me On Twitter

Previous AMAWs: April 27th: How To Marry a Millionaire
May 4th: Phone Call From A Stranger
May 11th: Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte
May 18th: Too Late The Hero
May 25th: The Best Man
June 1st: The Catered Affair
June 8th: The Quiet Man
June 15th: Rio Grande
June 22nd: The Getaway
June 29th: The Mackintosh Man
July 6th: The Long, Hot Summer
July 13th: Journey Into Fear
July 20th: How The West Was Won
August 3rd: Call Northside 777
August 14th: Rope
August 17th: The Seventh Cross
August 24th: Track of the Cat Click here for the full 215 movie run of A Movie A Day!

Readers Talkback
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  • Aug. 31, 2009, 11:08 a.m. CST


    by berserkrl

    Far, far from being one of Hitchcock's best, but if you go into it without too inflated expectations, it's actually quite enjoyable.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 11:09 a.m. CST

    My first first

    by berserkrl

    Hey, I was first! That's a ... first.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 11:19 a.m. CST

    The Trouble With Harry

    by Kief_Ledger

    is interesting to watch. It's a strange experiment from Hitchcock, definitely his most outward comedy, yet still with one of his typical murder plots. The humor is very understated and British, but you might enjoy it Quint. It also has a great Bernard Herrmann theme.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 11:19 a.m. CST

    Awesome oldie.

    by Hint_of_Smegma

    Can't say I'd have liked to see Cagney as the Joker though....would just have been Jack Nicholson's performance, only decades sooner.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 11:22 a.m. CST

    Here's a fun fact

    by Tindog42

    According to IMDB "The machine gun attack on Cagney and his best friend Matt Doyle actually used real machine gun bullets. An expert with the gun stood 15 to 20 feet away from the target, and when Cagney's face disappeared behind the corner of the wall, he opened fire and created that tight circle of machine gun bullets." I had heard this in a film class once. The instructor had still of the shot being setup that showed the marksman in the foreground.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 11:25 a.m. CST

    The grapefruit assault

    by YackBacker

    Oh, I'm sure that qualifies as actual domestic violence in many jurisdictions. If he used a plum, maybe not so much...

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 11:38 a.m. CST

    That’s a step away from domestic violence!

    by The_Ad_Wizard_Who_Came_Up_With_This_One

    Slapping someone in the face with a grapefruit IS domestic violence, Quint. I also couldn't detect the supposed levity in this scene. <p> Awesome movie, this one btw.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 12:30 p.m. CST

    Youse guys is nuts!

    by Wee Willie

    Shovin' a grapefruit in a mouth dames face ain't domestic violence, it's domestic management. Now get outta here, you mugs, or I'll show youse some real violence... and I ain't gonna use fruit. I'll use bullets, see? Real bullets, the kind made of lead. Which what you've got for brains if you don't scram!

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 1:19 p.m. CST

    Would have loved to have seen the reaction.......

    by Aloy

    ...from the audience when this was first shown. From the kids who think they have a hero at first to the adults who think they have this figured out(or was the crime doesn't pay message broadcast in the ads?). <p> The final shot could have come from a horror movie.<p>

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 1:38 p.m. CST

    Donald Cook's best scene...

    by Superponte

    was at the dinner table, the scene where the keg (illegal back then) is sitting in the center of the table, and he is just sitting there- not blinking, staring at the Keg. Mesmerized with hatred towards it and what it represents- how it has infected his family. Then he starts speaking and it becomes the "high pants, fast talker" character from Family Guy.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 1:43 p.m. CST

    also Quint...

    by Superponte

    ya better be careful with the headline of "The Trouble with Harry". Head Geek might misread it at first and think ya wrote something nasty about him.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 1:43 p.m. CST


    by berserkrl

    Also, FWIW, Shirley Maclaine at her loveliest.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 2:41 p.m. CST

    Wee Willie

    by Jackie Boy


  • Aug. 31, 2009, 3:27 p.m. CST

    Dane Cook's best scene...

    by SuperflyTNT

    is when he tongues that falafel in Good Luck Chuck

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 3:32 p.m. CST

    Cagney was the Nicholson of his time

    by blade_walker

    My friends and I watched this recently, and it plays pretty good for being almost 80 years old (we're in our 20s). Cagney's performance is never boring. One scene that was really fascinating is when they depict the final night before alcohol became illegal, when everybody was literally making a mad dash to buy up all the booze.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 4:04 p.m. CST

    Dang, that photo _does_ look exactly like Nicholson as Joker

    by JasonPratt

    Well, as Jack Napier anyway, when raiding the chemical factory. Dang. I wonder if Nicholson and/or Burton were intentionally shooting for that resemblance.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 4:41 p.m. CST

    Cagney as a good guy

    by kalel21

    Though G-Men isn't quite the classic Public Enemy is, it's still a lot of fun to see Cagney using his tough guy persona to enforce the law rather than break it. Details here:

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 4:53 p.m. CST

    After this, other period gangster movies are nuthin!

    by Larry of Arabia

    I think your writing on this entry isn't as sharp as usual. This picture is a wild ride with complex characters. Jean Harlow manages to make a character that could become a simple doormat/batter woman something more complex. You are correct that Cook is a weak link and the brother/brother relationship a little too on the nose. A better actor could have done something with it but I think overall the story thread was even a little cliche back then. This film is the 30's gangster template, and not many others have been able to match it.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 5:07 p.m. CST

    Also a shoutout to Beryl Mercer

    by Larry of Arabia

    I can't knock on actors like her and Cook being told to act in the style of the time. That Cagney was better than that is his success not their failures. Also, wow!, a Spanish woman playing an Irish mother. Why, that's almost insane as a sweed playing an asian!

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 5:14 p.m. CST

    Ya gotta check out White Heat Quint.

    by Sal_Bando

    Trust me. If you haven't yet--that's his best in this genre. He's great.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 5:20 p.m. CST

    Cagney as the Joker...

    by Manos

    Quint, that is inspired. The 'what ifs' are mind blowing.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 5:52 p.m. CST

    Fuck it..................

    by cheyne_stoking_DMS

    trying to avert our attention from the previous headline, eh? Fuck you.

  • It also had James cagney slated to play the Joker..To bad it was all bullshit because it would have been magnificent. it also could have been the greatest film noir ever made..

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 6:32 p.m. CST

    That was Orson Welles starring and directing

    by mr dark

    In the Batman..It cut of my sentence..

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 6:34 p.m. CST

    Batman can never be a film noir Mr. Dark

    by Continentalop

    The very essence of film noir is no heroes. It could have the visual iconography of noir, but it wouldn't be a noir (wouldn't even be a detective movie really).

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 6:35 p.m. CST

    Cagney as Joker, Robinson as The Penguin.

    by Continentalop

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 6:36 p.m. CST


    by lockesbrokenleg


  • Aug. 31, 2009, 6:36 p.m. CST

    I don't consider batman a hero as much as a

    by mr dark

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 6:40 p.m. CST

    I dont consider the batman a hero as much

    by mr dark

    as a detective. I also do believe the article may also have mentioned Eddie G. as the penguin too..It was someones wet dream albeit a very good one.. They even used some pictures and the fact that Welles was a comic book collector to back up the stories truth...but alas "bullshit"

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 6:43 p.m. CST


    by mr dark

    Did you read that article too. I thought someone went to a lot of trouble to manufacter that bullshit..

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 7:16 p.m. CST


    by shatnerd

    I must agree with Mr. Sal_Bando. I went on a short Cagney movie spree last year, and was very thankful that it led me to find White Heat. I was SHOCKED at how well that movie holds up in a present-day viewing.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 7:26 p.m. CST

    white heat is spectacular

    by mr dark

    Not only does it hold up most cases hard to top.. Cagney gives a performance as Cody Jarrett that is down right excellent..I will never forget the first time I veiwed it.. I went back the next day and saw it again..It was that of the world ma of the world..

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 7:32 p.m. CST

    Is every thread here about Batman

    by lockesbrokenleg

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 7:51 p.m. CST

    ... the Nicholson of his time, or ...?

    by madCanada

    Bobby DeNiro owes Mr Cagney more than a couple of bucks. Marty Scorsese, you too.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 10:02 p.m. CST

    Mr. Dark I read that article

    by Continentalop

    Have you ever seen the fan fake Orson Welles trailer? <P>

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 10:04 p.m. CST

    Lockes, of course we are talking about Batman

    by Continentalop

    What am I going to add to this discussion about Public Enemy? I think this movie is flawless for its time - one of the very first sound movies that got the idea of how to have dialogue without compromising the cinematic aspects. <P> And Cagney, along with Robinson and Spencer Tracy, who knew how to act in sound movies.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 10:08 p.m. CST

    more like..

    by Aeghast

    "A movie a month"

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 10:37 p.m. CST


    by lockesbrokenleg

    Poor James Cagney. A stellar career. Now in some wasted column on AICN.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 10:49 p.m. CST

    David Chase's inspiration

    by GaryDellabate

    Great write up Quint. This is the film that stuck with David Chase since he was a small child and partly shaped his masterpiece "The Sopranos." In fact the end of "The Public Enemy" was an inspiration for the end of "The Sopranos." Just go to page 2 to utterly convincing, logical, and really quite captivating essay on the final episode:

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 11:10 p.m. CST


    by Nasty In The Pasty

    God, I LOVE 30's gangster movie dialogue. Also check out Angels With Dirty Faces for one of Cagney's best performances. The finale will haunt you for DAYS afterwards.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 11:33 p.m. CST

    Continentaltop Thanks that was great..

    by mr dark

    I watched part 1&2 and 1 other fan trailer that was there..I am impressed that someone also looked forward to seeing something like that..I liked the Conrad Veidt choice for the Joker from The Man Who Laughed..That was almost as good a choice as Cagney..Conrad Veidt also looks a lot like Marilyn Manson if he ever had a shit eating grin...Thanks again for the tip on the trailer.

  • Aug. 31, 2009, 11:35 p.m. CST

    Oh yeah Locke !!!

    by mr dark

    Who pissed down yer broken leg today?..or..are you just in a foul mood?

  • Sept. 1, 2009, 8:57 a.m. CST

    Look at that last picture and tell me that

    by Grammaton Cleric Binks

    if Cagney was alive he would have had dibs on The Joker role. The funny thing is I've only seen one Cagney movie in my life, and that was Yankee Doodle Dandy, a muscial based on the life of Broadway writer and performer George M. Cohan. Since that's all I've seen it's hard for me to picture Cagney in gangster mode even though I know he excels in it. Made it ma, top of the world.

  • Sept. 1, 2009, 9:56 a.m. CST

    It was Raiders Of The Lost Ark which made Harrison Ford a star

    by AsimovLives

    Had Raiders never happened in his life, he could had had the same fate as Mark Hamill. In fact, ford's career was stagnant when he made Raiders, to the point that the first actor chosen for Raiders was Tom Selleck. Consider that, oncep upon a time Selleck was a bigger star then Ford, even after Star Wars.<br><br>Raiders made Ford a star, not Star Wars.

  • Sept. 1, 2009, 9:58 a.m. CST

    Stanley Kubrick was a big fan of James Cagney

    by AsimovLives

    He instructed or manipulated Jack Nicholson into acting in a very Cagney fashion for The Shining.

  • Sept. 1, 2009, 10:02 a.m. CST

    Heya Mugsy!!!!

    by AsimovLives

    Sweet mother of god, is this the end of Rico?

  • Sept. 1, 2009, 12:19 p.m. CST

    Little Caesar never did it for me

    by Continentalop

    Besides Robinson who was awesome in it. Public Enemy and Scarface I thought were the vastly superior gangster films.

  • Sept. 1, 2009, 3:19 p.m. CST


    by AsimovLives

    I saw all those movies when i was very young, a kid. Back thennational TV showed a lot of those old movies, be they gangster, pirates or serial adventure movies. I think i need to rewatch those gangster movies you mentioned above.

  • Sept. 1, 2009, 3:44 p.m. CST

    AsimovLives: pre/post code

    by Larry of Arabia

    There is a decent chance that the movies you saw were the post-code edits of the films. TV stations would do that years ago to make sure they didn't run afoul of the government, especially if the movie was shown on UHF or in the early days of cable. Look for the pre-code edits if you can. In some cases it's almost two different films.

  • Sept. 1, 2009, 7:50 p.m. CST

    Mayor of Hell will Blow Your Mind

    by themayorofhell

    Mayor of hellis fucknutz Crazy. It really is A forgotton gem. Well gem may not be the right word, its like lord of the flies on acid. BTW I thought the brother did great in the scenes with Cagney. Cagney usually blew his co stars (Bogie included) off the screen but the brother in this really holds his own. In a pre Deniro move, Cagney and Wellman got Donald Cook so mad off screen that Cook really puched Cagney in the face on screen during one of their fights and Cagney lost a tooth. Great Scene