During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
“The Public Enemy” from 1931 was a movie in which Diane and I both struggled to see its significance. While many of the pieces were in place for a proper gangster movie, none of them seemed to fall into place. Outside the horror of the final scene, “The Public Enemy” kept me engaged while I waited for something to happen. Nothing much did.
The film begins with an all-text PSA about how they do not intend to glorify hoodlums. It then opens on the streets of Chicago and two children drinking from a pail of beer. Prohibition folks! The movie quickly establishes (FADES TO BLACK) that Tom (FADES TO BLACK) is an already rotten kid (FADES TO BLACK) and that his best friend Matt (FADES TO BLACK) will follow him anywhere. (FINAL FADES TO BLACK THANK GOD MY EYES WERE STARTING TO HURT FROM THE ON AND OFF SCREEN BRIGHTNESS)
Tom and Matt belong to a local club where a man named “Putty Nose” plays them and a bunch of other kids songs on his piano. He also fences their stolen goods and I presume teaches them how to steal. It isn’t explored.
Years later, all of the kids in the club have turned into men of approximate age with Putty Nose. Tom and Matt return to the club to do their first real job as older teenagers. Putty Nose hands them guns, tells them to rob a fur store, Tom and Matt get scared by a stuffed bear which they promptly unload their guns on. The noise attracts a cop who starts firing on their lookout man before finishing, “Don’t move.” Tom and Matt gun down the cop and run. The only real fallout is they lose their contact with Putty Nose and have to go in with an Irish mobster, Paddy Ryan.
I have seen some reviews that praised the acting. Outside of Tom (James Cagney) and Matt (Edward Woods), Diane and I both thought the acting was overall sub-par. All of the female side characters – besides Tom’s mother – act like the props they are. There’s also next to no screen time or character development devoted to them, though there is a whole scene where Tom admits to his girlfriend that he doesn’t understand her and she chats him up about how she likes bad boys. It was a waste of time.
The movie was very violent though. I am not sure if this is the first movie to feature blood, but when Matt is gunned down by a machine gun, they show him coughing up blood. There was also an instance of domestic violence, the film’s most famous scene, where Tom hits a woman in the face with a grapefruit.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH TOUCHES ON SEXUAL VIOLENCE. FEEL FREE TO SKIP OVER IT.
Though I doubt they would’ve called it rape at the time, there was a very peculiar part late in the film. Tom and Matt, along with other members of Paddy Ryan’s gang, are hiding out at Paddy’s when he leaves to round up the rest of his mob. Paddy’s woman friend is thirsty for Tom’s dick and she plies him with hard liquor all night long. When he leaves to go to bed, she follows him soon after and helps him undress despite him covering himself up and not wanting her to be there. He is in no state to give any kind of consent, but she persists.
The movie doesn’t explain or explore this plot thread other than the morning after when she pours him a cup of coffee and references their night before. This causes him to storm out, clearly upset and violated.
Finally, the film’s climax and my personal favorite part, was easily one of its most heart wrenching and horrifying scenes. After Tom goes on a shooting spree to avenge his friend Matt, he wakes up in the hospital with a head injury. His family rushes to his side, despite the fact that his brother has spent the entire film using his morals to put Tom down for the path he has chosen for himself. When it seems like Tom is set to come home, he is kidnapped by the rival gang. His brother finally gets a call that he has been found and will be home soon. He lets his mother know, who immediately rushes upstairs to prepare a room for Tom.
When Tom’s brother opens the door, a restrained Tom, clearly dead, falls face first into the house. The scene cuts back and forth from the totally oblivious and happy mother to the brother who knows Tom has finally reaped what he sowed.
I would not put “The Public Enemy” as last on this list thus far, but Diane certainly considered it. While there were elements of a better movie sprinkled throughout, this relatively short film never seemed to amount to much. The movie attempted to be a realistic portrayal of the life of a gangster, including the dangerous rise and the deadly fall, but it fell flat for us both.
- “All because you saw a stuffed bear …”
- “Fuck the baby! We gotta put a bunch of booze in this stroller.”