Review of ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931) is a movie. It has James Cagney in it. It was good.

The story follows Tom Powers from childhood to his older days. It tracks his criminal exploits through bootlegging, shootin’ people and picking up dames (along with shoving grapefruits in their faces.) He ends up feuding with his brother, who was in the military, while his naive mother continues to give him unconditional love as he tricks her into thinking he’s a politician. The movie is very overt telling you this is intended to be a gritty, realistic look at a mobster and there’s no intention to glorify it like other films.

The Public Enemy in The Great Movie Ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios
View of The Public Enemy set in The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

This film is very gritty. It’s rather violent, and the way Powers treats people is pretty cold and callous. The previously mentioned grapefruit scene could have been mistaken for slapstick, especially considering the era, but the reality is, watching it in context you see the anger in his eyes and the way he treats the woman (a girlfriend he’s grown tired of) is insanely disrespectful, and it really tells you what this guy is about. The fact that it’s in black and white adds to the grittiness of the film. The film makes great use of shadows and even some fog to really build an atmosphere. The film also does a great job utilizing the lack of music to add some aspects of realism. I also really loved how the sets looked. They somehow look like a combination of reality and Hollywood at the same time. The performance by Cagney is extremely well done, and it’s easy to see how he somewhat became typecast as a gangster character.

I do think, however, that there are certain aspects that took away from perfection. I think this film does lack a certain but of subtlety, which does take away from the realistic feeling of the film. For example, the opening title cards flat-out tell you that this isn’t a story of morality. His mom is so naive and honestly comes across as an idiot, and it’s so frustrating it just takes you out of the film.

James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)
Credit: Warner Bros.

The other aspect I didn’t really like is the fact that he kind of undergoes a redemption story ark. I think in doing so that also takes away from the reality of the story along with the fact that I think Tom Powers is a selfish psychopath. I have a hard time seeing him attempt any kind of redemption and without giving away the ending, his reason for getting into the situation that leads him somewhat towards redemption, did not seem to be within the character of the story.

But this came out in 1931. There’s definitely still an attempt to develop subtlety and realism and considering the way films and stories were presented in pop culture, I think this film did create a mostly realistic telling. I can see why they wanted the film to end, and the influence of this movie (or movies like this, I guess but this is definitely a classic mob tale) can be seen in so many movies that came after it.


This review is part of our project watching every movie featured in The Great Movie Ride. For more information on all of the films on the Disney’s Hollywood Studios attraction, read this post, or visit Josh’s blog for more movie reviews.

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