The Public Enemy

William Wellman, USA, 1931, 84 minutes

With prohibition still in force in 1931 the illicit beer rackets were still big news, and Warner Bros almost had a monopoly on the gangster pictures; with this picture and Little Caesar both coming out this year, the society-versus-the-gangster films had reached its zenith.

Public Enemy is regarded as the toughest of the gangster films, with the possible exception of UA's Scarface in 1932. It shows two youngsters in Chicago being drawn into the criminal underworld, their activities spiralling to the murder of a cop, then as they grow older they work their way towards the top of the bootlegging gang. This film made a major league star out of James Cagney, forever identified with the ambitious, ruthless, strutting antihero of the title. Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell, as the two girls the racketeers pick up in a night club, were both destined for stardom in a year or so; Harlow oozes the sexuality that was as much her trademark as her platinum blonde hair was later.

The violence is suggested rather than seen, most of the killings take place out of view, but the atmosphere is that of the threat of brutality. The scene which provoked the most raised eyebrows was the infamous 'grapefruit' scene, wherein Cagney pushes his breakfast into his molls face. Mae Clarke's surprise was genuine; Cagney had promised not to actually hit her with the grapefruit, but got carried away during shooting.

Director William Wellman forces this rather short film along at a tommy-gun pace; the ending is a bit sudden, but still able to shock.

Review by Martin Hunt
Taken from EUFS Programme 1993-94