Double Take: ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931)

Maybe The Public Enemy is a swell dish. Or maybe it ain't so tough. The Steves take on the classic tale of beer and blood.

Steve Leftridge: Mr. Pick, you and I have just watched what many consider to be the quintessential gangster picture of the ‘30s from Warner Brothers: William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931). It’s also the film that made James Cagney famous. The film starts with a disclaimer from the studio that states its intention to honestly depict the “hoodlum” of the era and not to glorify him. I’d like to start by asking you how well you think the film accomplishes its stated goal of not romanticizing the criminal or his crimes.

Steve Pick: I like to think that once you see Cagney’s dead body fall from that doorway straight towards you in the audience, you’re going to realize he made a few wrong career choices. I can only imagine what that scene must have felt like to audiences in a 1931 movie palace. It’s made even more effective by that cross-cutting to the bedroom where his mother is preparing for his homecoming.

But I see where you’re going. It certainly can’t be a disincentive to a life of crime if you see the bad guy gets to sleep with Jean Harlow, can it? Cagney struts through the picture with a confidence that anybody would love to have. It’s his sense that nothing can’t be taken, that anything can be achieved through simple lawlessness. That’s hard to resist, even if you have to smash a grapefruit in a face now and then to express ennui.

Now, I do wonder about the specific chain of events which lead to his death in this film. Tom Powers is supposed to lay low in Paddy’s apartment to avoid the gang war in the streets. But, Paddy’s wife essentially forces him to sleep with her. Tom doesn’t like this, so he leaves with his best friend Matt, who dies immediately in a hail of bullets. Tom gets to survive long enough to have reconciliations with his family before that final scene I already mentioned. But it wasn’t Tom’s criminality which led directly to his death, it was the behavior of Paddy’s wife. That’s a bit of a mixed message in my book, and one which doesn’t attract as much attention as I would expect.

Leftridge: Tom Powers would have been a good candidate to lead the He-Man Woman-Hater’s Club from the old Our Gang shows, of which the early sequences of ornery young Tom in The Public Enemy reminds me. Some of these early scenes are (sort of) similarly played for laughs, as when Matt gets a swinging door in the face for asking a girl for a kiss (Tom: “That’s what you get for foolin’ with women”) or when Tom trips Matt’s sister, Molly, while she’s roller skating. When Matt protests, Tom says, “What do you care? It’s only a girl.” Such matter-of-course misogyny is both a sign of the times and part of the code of the streets for on-the-make ruffians like Tom.

I’m reminded of Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, an inheritor of the gangster realism on display in The Public Enemy. The difference is that Brando’s Terry Malloy has a vulnerability not far beneath his mob-underling tough-kid exterior, leaving him susceptible to the tenderness of a woman, for whom he can actually have respect, and the emergence of a conscience. With Cagney’s Tom, we might get a glimmer of a desire to make amends at the end, but his behavior is unremittingly ugly throughout the film, particularly towards women.

The point you hint at is that maybe it isn’t just Tom’s attitude toward women exemplified by the famous grapefruit scene (which I watched in slo-mo; Cagney really commits) that comes across; it’s Wellman and the film that depicts women as loose and weak (like Kitty, the grapefruit victim) or easy and begging for punishment (like Gwen, who tells Tom she loves him because he takes and never gives) or sexual predators (like Jane who essentially drunk-date-rapes Tom, which prompts him to bolt). Of course, if not for Tom’s life of crime, he’d never have been holed up in Paddy’s hideaway with Jane to begin with, so like Butch and Sundance, Tom’s demise is another matter of living and dying by the bullet. Do you have any sympathy for him?

Pick: No sympathy from my quarter. Cagney’s commitment to the role makes him perfectly deplorable on all fronts. Even in the scene in the hospital, when his near-death experience causes him to tell his family he will give up his life of crime, I’m not pulling for him. Sure, Cagney sells the scene to his family, but I don’t think he’s likely to stay clean even if he isn’t kidnapped from his sickbed, taken out, and murdered.

There is some complexity in the family, though, isn’t there? Tom points out that his older brother Mike, ostensibly the righteous one, doesn’t have a spotless record with human life. “Your hands ain’t so clean,” Tom tells him. “You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals holding hands with them Germans.” In 1931, just past the halfway mark between World Wars, it was possible for a pop culture product to point out the connections between killing on the battlefield and killing for profit. Either way, you’re taking a life.

Further, though, and I need your clarification on this: Didn’t Tom accuse Mike of making money from some lesser criminal action? Did that sweet old lady in the bedroom instill no discipline in her children?

Leftridge: Tom definitely calls out Mike’s hypocrisy for killing Germans but being outraged that Tom’s keg of beer has “the blood of men” in it. (And how about that keg, right up on the dinner table, gangster-style.) And, yes, earlier Tom calls Mike a “sneak thief” and a “nickel snatcher” for robbing the streetcar company. Mike decks Tom for saying so, rather than denying Tom’s allegation, certainly acting as though Tom had hit on the truth. Tom doesn’t strike back in this scene (kicking the bedroom door instead), parallel to the later scene in his ma’s kitchen when Tom tries to give her money but Mike intervenes. Mike again hits Tom, but Tom just rips up the money and throws it in his brother’s face. Those are the two times in the film that Tom shows restraint, and it makes the final scene when Mike watches Tom’s corpse fall to the ground in front of him that much more powerful.

Just after that moment, the final post-script declares, “The END of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. ‘The Public Enemy’ is, not a man, nor is it a character — it is a problem that sooner or later WE, the public, must solve.” You mentioned that you have no sympathy for Tom, and likewise the film’s final claim seems to indicate that some people are just simply bad and need to be removed from society one way or another. Yet doesn’t The Public Enemy try to provide at least some environmental factors for why Tom was, as Molly called him, “the meanest boy in town”? How about when his father — wearing half of his policeman’s uniform — whips Tom with a big leather strap? Where does the nurture/nature divide show up in this movie?

Pick: There isn’t enough of the nurturing being shown, though clearly Tom comes from a rough upbringing, and he doesn’t have much in the way of options. He could have gone overseas for the war, but I think Wellman doesn’t see that as an inherently “good” guy role, either. On the other hand, he is a real go-getter, and once he sets his sights on being a criminal, Tom doesn’t mess around. Everything he does ups the ante in the “bad” guy game of poker.

Robbery quickly leads to murder, murder leads to being in a syndicate, grabbing any available woman leads to bringing Jean Harlow into his life, having a woman makes him want to seem even tougher, increasing his manliness gives him the idea to shoot the horse, shooting the horse leads to a gang war, and eventually, his inability to stay hidden away (even if the reason is complicated) leads to his death. So his father’s whipping didn’t exactly make him feel loved, and his mother may have overcompensated. At any rate, Tom is constantly looking for bigger and more “rewards” for his actions, until he reaches the ultimate reward of not being a part of any world, let alone this one.

I think The Public Enemy is a powerful film and a great ride throughout all the stops in a life of crime. (The kid playing young Tom nails Cagney; an even more impressive feat when you realize this was the movie that made Cagney a star, and there weren’t impersonations of the man on every single street corner in America as of yet.) Wellman’s direction is neat and clean, with just the right amount of breaking away from the limitations of early sound to remind us that movies are supposed to move. I enjoy the experience every time I catch any of this film. Do you think it deserves to be considered “great”?

Leftridge: Its Greatness is irrefutable, but I think we can legitimately question its greatness. That is, it is obviously a landmark of the gangster genre — we mentioned the Kazan connection, and we can trace The Public Enemy forward to Scorsese (including Mean Streets, the film we started with here at Double Take) and Coppola, who paid tribute to The Public Enemy with The Godfather’s decapitated racehorse scene. The film was also a groundbreaker in terms of its provocative depiction of violence and sexuality, which did indeed strike me as shockingly bold for 1931 as I revisited it this time, and the film is credited for bringing about new censorship codes for the movies. And if nothing else, it launched the career of Cagney. It was his fifth film overall, but it’s the one that made him a major star, and rightfully so.

Still, 80-odd years later, it’s clear that The Public Enemy has its flaws. You point out the mixed messages in the film, and I do think the film garbled its purported intention of doing some sort of public service of illuminating the menace of the hoodlum. We also discussed the troubling depiction of women, and the role of the Jean Harlow character strikes me as especially odd and does nothing but glamorize Tom’s life of crime. At other times, I found the picture badly balanced — moments of clunky pacing and attempts at humor that don’t land now, if they ever did. But I’ll give you the last word on this one, Mr. Pick. What’s your final takeaway on The Public Enemy?

Pick: I think it’s a fascinating transition from the world of silent movies to the faster-paced talkies. It came out four years after The Jazz Singer, but it still sits on the edge of the new thing. By this time, the early, stilted appearance of talking pictures made necessary because of the limitations of microphone placement was giving way to a more elaborate, less stagy filmmaking method. Wellman was drawing from the camera techniques of the silents, and editing in a faster paced style which matched the machine-gun dialogue delivered so masterfully by Cagney. So, it’s not perfect, but in some ways, it feels like the beginning of a new thing, and as such, it remains captivating even after 85 years.