Along with LITTLE CAESAR (1930) and SCARFACE (1932), THE PUBLIC ENEMY is one of three seminal gangster films that had strong influence in establishing the Production Code in 1934. The films were thought by some to glorify a life of crime, and none of them glorified it more than THE PUBLIC ENEMY, thanks in large measure to James Cagney's career-defining performance as Tom Powers. The film's attempt at a "crime doesn't pay" message is undercut by Cagney's charisma, especially when placed in contrast with Donald Cook's one-note portrayal of Cagney's incorruptible brother, who comes off as a platitudinous stuffed shirt.
Moral considerations of the 1930s aside, THE PUBLIC ENEMY still works as a gripping and fast-paced little gangster film despite some of the technical awkwardness characteristic of early sound filmmaking. Cagney provides nearly all of the film's memorable moments: spitting beer into the face of a helpless bartender, his agonizing cry of "I ain't so tough!" after he has been shot, and of course the famous grapefruit-in-the-kisser business with Mae Clarke. No matter how dated THE PUBLIC ENEMY may become, Cagney alone is enough to ensure its enduring classic status. ½ - JL
While most of the gangsters in this film do their best to sound like 1930s movie gangsters - the kind so wickedly parodied in The Marx Brothers' A Shot of Elegance in our Ready for the Closeup section.of the same year - James Cagney became a star with his graceful dancer's athleticism, his tough but unforgettable mug and his talent for rapid-fire dialogue that sounded natural. The film hits some dull stretches, but for the most part William Wellman's camera placement and movement are above average for a film of this period. He really had an eye for making what could have been a mundane shot into something really memorable. For a photo essay on a long take at the beginning of the film, see
Martin Scorsese loved this film, and if you don't believe me, you can ask him. Otherwise, just watch the scene in which Cagney and his partner kill someone in an apartment, followed by Cagney walking out as if nothing had happened. It is a direct parallel to a similar hit by Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS, in a scene most fans will remember as "Make that coffee to go!". - JB