Even from a young age, it was abundantly clear that Tom Powers (James Cageny) wasn’t on the path to being a law-abiding citizen. Along with his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), they grow from being young punks to real gangsters under the guidance of “Putty Nose” (Murray Kinnell). But when Putty Nose betrays Tom and Matt, they get in close with “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton) and move into the bootlegging syndicate. Meanwhile, Tom’s brother Mike (Donald Cook) has taken a completely different path in life. While his brother is getting rich by breaking the law, Mike enlists in the military to serve in WWI and works hard to earn an honest living when he returns. Mike deeply resents how his brother is getting rich by breaking the law while he tries so hard to lead an honest life and gets nothing in return.
Tom and Matt become quite well known in the criminal underworld and Tom is particularly ruthless. Given the opportunity, he kills his old mentor Putty Nose. Tom is also awful to the women in his life. When he gets tired of seeing Kitty (Mae Clarke), he ends it by shoving a grapefruit in her face and starts taking up with Gwen (Jean Harlow) instead. After Nails Nathan dies in an accident, Tom gets even more aggressive and gets involved in a nasty mob war that ends up being his downfall.
Not only is The Public Enemy one of my favorite pre-codes, it’s one of my favorite movies in general. When I saw it for the first time, I wasn’t terribly interested in gangster movies, but I picked up a copy of it because I’d heard it was good and because I like Jean Harlow. The Public Enemy isn’t Jean Harlow’s finest moment, but this is the movie that made me a fan of the gangster genre. With Cagney’s tour de force performance, its well-written script, and fast pace, how could I not be pulled in by it? The Public Enemy is a prime example of why I adore the early 1930s style of film making so much. It clocks in at just 83 minutes, but has a very complex, layered story that is fast paced, but never feels rushed. There’s a very fine line between “fast paced” and “rushed,” but The Public Enemy walks that line flawlessly. And then there’s Cagney. I just can’t say enough about how much I adore his performance as Tom Powers.
The Definitive Pre-Code Moments
Tom’s gay tailor.
Tom’s derogatory behavior towards women, most infamously when Mae Clarke gets the grapefruit in the face.
All of Tom’s criminal activities.
Tom being raped by Paddy Ryan’s girlfriend:
Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code
You know a movie is tough when they have to add an introduction explaining that the movie you’re about to see isn’t meant to glorify this behavior. Gangster movies had their first real golden age during the pre-code era. Not only was there The Public Enemy, there was also Little Caesar and Scarface. There were certainly gangster movies that came after the production codes were being enforced, but the pre-code era allowed them to be more violent and be a bit more ruthless and sinister. A lot of the more violent scenes were edited out when The Public Enemy was re-released under the influence of the production codes.
In one noteworthy scene, Tom goes to a tailor to be measured for a suit and the tailor is meant to be a flamboyantly gay man. When the movie was re-released, the bit where the tailor comments on Tom’s arm muscles ended up on the cutting room floor along with some of the movie’s more violent moments.