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USA 1931
Directed by
William Wellman
84 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Public Enemy

This classic Prohibition-era gangster movie traces the rise and fall of mobster Tom Powers (James Cagney). Very much in the “social issue” spirit of the time (it was based on actual criminal figures of the day) we are first shown various episodes of Tom's childhood with the corrupting influences of liquor, the pool hall and bad company as the once brash and street-smart kid works his way through the bootlegging ranks and becomes a ruthless gangster, a degeneration epitomised in the infamous scene in which Cagney grinds a grapefruit into the face of his nagging girlfriend (Mae Clarke). In keeping with the film's agenda, Tom is eventually shot down like a dog in the pouring rain where he utters the famous line “I ain't so tough”.

Cagney is outstanding in his first starring role and despite the film’s putative moralizing against crime it is also easy to see in it, thanks to Cagney’s empathetic performance, the beginnings of romanticising the gangster as the outsider with his own manly, in some way more honest, moral code, something which became an increasingly popular myth in Depression-era America and entrenched in the Hollywood psyche.

FYI:  Modern prints are struck from the 1949 reissue, which was shortened from 92 to 83 minutes deleting various characters based on real-life hoodlums.




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