The Public Enemy is dated, a little corny, with dialogue that now seems full of cliches...one of those movies that some who disdain "old" movies might point to as how over-rated "old" movies can be. But I challenge anyone who has the least appreciation for solid direction and acting to watch this movie and not quickly get beyond all that. William Wellman, one of the great American directors, has constructed a movie that just keeps moving, with startling set pieces, wonderful photography and a visual narrative that matches the story. James Cagney, in the role that made him a major star, completely dominates the screen. He gives a performance of magnetic ruthlessness, casual yet precise physicality, and just plain contemptuous anger. You can't keep your eyes off him. For those who read further, be aware that there are as many spoilers ahead as bullets in a gat
The story is relatively simple: The rise and fall of a criminal during Prohibition, with a little social background thrown in. The movie says at the start, "It is the ambition of the authors of 'The Public Enemy' to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal." Of course, glorify the criminal they do. Cagney and his buddy may die at the end, but in between they live a life of increasing affluence, tailor-made clothes, easy women and plenty of cash.
Tom Powers (Cagney) and his friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) grow up in the slums, start out with petty thievery and are soon recruited to bigger things. Tom's older brother, Mike (Donald Cook), is the straight arrow who loves his brother and hates what his brother is becoming. Their mother just loves her baby and doesn't have the slightest idea of where he's getting his money. Tom moves up the Prohibition crime ladder from petty thievery to strong arm inforcement to murder. Eventually, a gang war starts up, Tom's gang boss dies in a riding accident, and Tom decides to avenge his boss and wreak havoc on the other gang. In a great scene Wellman doesn't show but which we can hear, Cagney arms himself, barges in on the other gang and does just that. But he's badly wounded. The last scene is one of the classic closers in movie history. Tom has been kidnapped from his hospital by his enemies. His mother and brother are told he'll be delivered to their home. The doorbell rings while Tom's mother is preparing a bed for Tom. Tom's brother goes to the door and then steps back in horror. Balanced in the doorway is Tom, wrapped in bandages and blankets like a mummy, immobile, only his bruised face showing. He teeters for a second or two, and then falls face down on the floor, dead. The sequence is shot from a low camera angle The surprise and dread of the scene is startling.
During the course of Tom's career he takes up with Kitty , tires of her, and does the grapefruit-in-the-face routine. As often as that scene has been shown, it still packs a punch. Kitty (Mae Clark) doesn't see it coming and Tom means it. Later he meets a platinum-haired, plump and knowing Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow). The scene where he picks her up is uneasily funny because of Tom's charm and barely concealed lust. In another scene Tom and Matt meet up with the fellow who began giving them criminal jobs to do and then ran out on them. They take him to his townhouse where Tom plays a hardened game of cat-and-mouse, and then calmly murders him. The movie is full of these kind of dramatic piece-parts that build Tom's character and which keep driving the movie forward.
It's interesting to compare the two bookend gangster movies of Cagney's career. He was 32 and looked younger when he made The Public Enemy in 1931. He was 50 and looking middle-aged and thick when he made White Heat in 1949. He completely dominated White Heat just as he did The Public Enemy. It's impossible to think of any other actor who could have handled so dynamically either role.
If you want to see the work of a professional Hollywood director at the top of his game, you won't go wrong by checking out the films of William Wellman. Among many excellent movies he gave us were Beau Geste, Roxie Hart, Nothing Sacred, Yellow Sky, The Ox Bow Incident, Battleground.