Movie: The Public Enemy (1931)

We are in a city and it is late at night.  There is no traffic, car or pedestrian.  A hard rain is coming down.  Bundled against the rain, a figure in coat and hat is closing in on a darkened storefront.  That rain has to be cold, yet we can almost feel waves of hate radiating from the figure.  The camera stays on a wide, static shot of the storefront as the figure enters and walks through a door at the back of the room.  We hear multiple gunshots, screams and finally a lone voice moaning in pain.  The figure staggers out of the store.

This is not a scene from a Scorsese picture, but it might as well have been and I’m certain it was an influence on him.  This is 1931’s The Public Enemy, a film with violence that may startle contemporary viewers who approach a movie of this vintage with certain expectations.

James Cagney plays the gangster who commits this off-screen massacre, all the more potent because of what we only hear but don’t see.  Somehow, that long static shot of the storefront while the mayhem is happening makes it more disturbing. 

The Public Enemy instantly and justifiably made Cagney a star.  I am not familiar with the work of co-star Edward Woods, but it is hard to believe he and Cagney were initially cast in the opposite roles.  One unusual quirk of the picture is, when it begins with the two characters in childhood, the child versions of these two are inexplicably still cast as if it the Woods is the lead.

The bulk of the action takes places in the prohibition era, when violent crime skyrocketed as bootleggers used every means possible to protect and expand their territory.  To the collective relief of all Americans, prohibition was eventually repealed and the US government learned its lesson from then on.  Just ignore the long list of drugs still illegal today, the gang violence associated with that trade, and that effort and expense to curtail the distribution of those items and the violent crime that comes with it only because those items have been banned.

For those who don’t know, the extent of violence in the prohibition was astonishing, even when compared to that in today’s drug trade.  A disclaimer at the start of the movie explains what follows is meant to be a realistic portrayal of an era and is not meant to glorify the gangster life.  I agree that appears to be their intention, yet the tone of the film feels quite objective, with condemning or condoning.  Thankfully, this movie was made in the years before the Production Code (aka Hayes Code) went into effect.  In re-releases afterwards, the picture was edited to the extent it was effectively neutered.

This is a justifiably famous film, and full of memorable moments.  One in particular is an unexpected bit of domestic violence where Cagney shoves a grapefruit half into his girlfriend’s face.  That scene didn’t shock me, but I was by a scene where Cagney and Woods shoot a horse dead in its stall.  Much like the massacre I described in my opening paragraph, this bit is all the more shocking because the camera hangs back in a static wide shot the entire time.  It doesn’t matter we don’t actually see the horse get shot, because we see it all in our minds.

The Public Enemy is a fascinating glimpse into a dark moment of American history that was fresh in the collective consciousness at the time.  Unfortunately, the movie could still be made today just by substituting illegal booze with marijuana, cocaine, heroin, crystal meth or any number of banned drugs.  I won’t pretend to have any ideas as to what the ideal solution would be, but it appears legalization fixed this problem once before.

Dir: William Wellman

Starring James Cagney, Edward Woods, Jean Harlow

Watched on blu-ray