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The Public Enemy (1931)

by on 2012/03/24

“You’re a swell dish. I think I’m going to go for you.”

* * * *

This is your brain. This is your brain on crime.

Hmmm, that’s not right, is it?

I didn’t have cable growing up, so I missed a whole lot of important back-to-school specials and public service announcements.

Before One To Grow On and The More You Know, there were films like The Public Enemy. In this case, The Public Enemy seeks to teach us that crime doesn’t pay …and stuff. The prologue warns us that “the hoodlums and terrorists of the underworld must be exposed and the glamour ripped from them.”

It succeeds in its stated mission. And how.

1930s classic The Public Enemy has so much more going for it than the hokey 80’s hairspray and moralizing back-to-school special. Like many things of its era, this feature-length public service announcement was built to last.

The Public Enemy has a solid story, complex performances and beautifully detailed, hard-boiled dialogue.  Director William A. Wellman knew to construct a timeless morality play. None of this shoddy modern plastic construction. (Well, except for this incredible One to Grow On which truly stands the test of time).

James Cagney plays scrappy criminal Tom Powers. We get to travel alongside Tom and his best friend and partner in crime, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) from their days as adolescent hooligans to their more grown up endeavours as bootleggers.

There’s not a lot recommend a life of crime in this movie. Tom never really breaks into the big time. He never really gets the girl – in this case, Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow).

There’s no honour among thieves. Each crook is itching to sell the other out, rival gangs butcher each other in the streets, and there’s only cheap booze and loose women at the end of a long day.

It is enough to make a mother cry. Ma Powers, Tom’s long-suffering mother played by Beryl Mercer, does her best to put her crooked child on the straight and narrow. Her big saucer-sized eyes would be enough to break most wayward children’s hearts. But it is no good.

Tom’s brother, Mike played by Donald Cook is a war veteran and all-round prig. He’s constantly waggling his finger at his rum-running brother when he isn’t cuffing Tom across the kisser.  None of this dissuades Tom.

Tom never, ever gets ahead. In fact, he loses what he values most. When he’s forced to go to the mattresses by his crime boss Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmet O’Connor), Tom and his buddy Matt hole up in an apartment. When hot-headed Tom storms out, Matt pays the price.

Cagney’s portrayal of a crook’s downward spiral hurts to watch. It really does. You pity the hapless thug to the point of aching. Cagney’s magical. Magical.  As Cagney teaches us, crime isn’t sexy, cool or much fun. As the credits roll on this 1931 classic, crime does look pretty weak indeed. The Public Enemy, however, isn’t.

* * * *

83 minutes

Rated PG

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