I've seen The Public Enemy at least three or four times now, but it's one of those movies that's always worth watching again. Since my most recent viewing came right after a documentary on gangster films, I've noticed a few things about this movie that I hadn't paid attention to on earlier viewings. In particular, I find the movie even more interesting now because I'm able to put it into proper historical context.
The Public Enemy was one of the first and most influential gangster films of the sound era. Released during the Depression, it provided audiences with a means of escapism that was relevant to their own lives. Tom Powers, thanks in large part to Cagney's performance, is a charismatic and even likeable character, to the point where moments such as the famous grapefruit scene which remind the audience how corrupt he truly is seem jarring. Part of what makes me, as a viewer, want to watch The Public Enemy again and again is that Tom is presented as being a regular guy, the product of a violent and twisted environment who has more or less the same goals as anyone else. He tries to do right by his mother, he competes with his older brother, and he values his independence; granted, he also shoots people for a living, but the character is so relateable that it's almost easy to overlook that minor detail.
It's very important that audiences can connect with the main character because of the violent nature of the film. Had Tom been played by a different actor, the violence may have felt gratuitous, but Cagney portrays Tom's motivations so clearly and the world that he lives in is so precisely rendered that each shot feels necessary. As a Pre-Code film, The Public Enemy had a lot of leeway as far as graphic bloodshed goes, but I don't feel that director William A. Wellman abused that freedom. According to the documentary, he did have to fight to keep the now-iconic final scene, in which Tom's body is left to fall forward into the hallway as soon as his brother Mike opens the door, but I think the fact that this scene in particular is still embedded in the public consciousness over 70 years later is proof that the censors were wrong. It isn't violent for the sake of being violent, such as Scarface, for example, which was made at the same time but held up by censors for two years according to This Distracted Globe. Rather, I think that the final scene of The Public Enemy is violent because it needs to be in order to dramatize the end to which every criminal will invariably meet. Of course, in real life justice often isn't served, but I don't think that audiences would have stood for such a lapse in fiction. Because Tom Powers was such a charismatic character, his death had to be gritty and hard to take, in order to make certain that the audience knew in the end that he was a terrible person.
Of course, not every filmmaker had the luxury of such a forceful ending. Tomorrow (well, tonight if I'm being precise) is the first screening in Rowan's Honors Film Series, and it just so happens to be a gangster film made under the Production Code. I'm going to take advantage of this excellent timing to take a look at On The Waterfront.
The Public Enemy (1931). (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022286/
Valdez, Joe. (29 August 2006). Scarface. from This Distracted Globe: http://thisdistractedglobe.com/2006/08/29/scarface-1932/. retrieved October 22, 2008.
Wellman, W. A.(Director). (1931 April 23). The Public Enemy. Warner Bros. Pictures.