The Public Enemy

Published June 16, 2009

[In summer 2009, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series of films under the rubric of “Crime and Punishment” at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (Go to for details or to register to attend.) The series opened on Tuesday, June 16, 2009 with The Public Enemy (1931) by William Wellman. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about the series in general and this movie. Here is what I said. To hear my introduction in MP3 format, click here.]

Welcome to the first in this year’s EPPC movie series – and welcome especially to those of you who have been with us in the previous two summers when we followed the progress of the American Movie Hero and the Movie Romance from the days of the early “talkies,” now over eighty years ago, until the cinematic idiom in which both subjects are treated took on its present form. This year I hope to do the same thing with the theme of “Crime and Punishment,” though we may notice less of a clear division between the movies made before the mid-1960s and those dating since that time. The cultural understanding of both heroism and romance changed in comparatively obvious ways in the ‘60s. There were also changes in the culture’s view of crime and, especially, punishment, but they are likely to be a bit harder to spot. However, we’ll do our best to find them in the weeks to come.

This week we’re once again kicking off with a movie from the early 1930s, William Wellman’s classic gangster film The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney and – well, a bunch of other people whom nobody but film buffs now remembers. Even the 20-year-old Jean Harlow, the original platinum blonde, hasn’t aged well on film, or not to my eye anyway. This is doubly unfortunate for her, since she hardly aged at all in real life, dying of kidney disease only six years after making this movie. She, along with everything else in The Public Enemy except for the star, now looks very much of the period. Only Cagney is as electrifying on screen today as he seems to have been to the original audience. With this performance, says Martin Scorsese, “modern screen acting begins.” He meant that in a good way, but it is hard to disagree with him.

Cagney was originally hired to play the role of the sidekick, Matt Doyle, here played by Edward Woods, while Woods was the lead. But somewhere early on in the proceedings – perhaps, as some say, when Wellman saw the first rushes – somebody spotted Cagney’s screen charisma and the actors’ roles were switched. Nor was Wellman the only one to spot this. The audience of 1931 was as impressed by Cagney as we still are today, and his role as Tommy Powers, the eponymous Public Enemy, made him into the star he remained for the rest of his life. If modern screen acting begins with this role, so does the gangster film which has remained a hardy Hollywood perennial ever since, down to and including Scorsese’s own Goodfellas (1991) to which tonight’s movie bears a certain resemblance. But there is also an important difference between it and the movies that come after it.

Most gangster movies, Goodfellas among them, derive their emotional force from the sense of belonging – familial, tribal, ethnic – that they romanticize. The family drama of The Godfather or The Sopranos is at least as big a part of their attraction as the daring deeds of their magnetic central characters. Cagney’s Tommy Powers in The Public Enemy forms strong bonds with particular people, but he is very much at the center of things as an individual. Even his close friend and constant companion, Matt, he often dismisses as nobody or nothing. “I don’t even know you’re here,” he says when they meet Mamie and Kitty in the nightclub. The family, in this film, is not what draws him into a life of crime but what tries, without success, to draw him away from it, while “the mob” is often referred to but is in fact almost invisible as such.

In this respect, though ostensibly a gangster film, The Public Enemy fits in better than any other such film I can think of with the rest of those that we’ll be seeing in this series. They have been selected partly because they have at their center a similar sort of individualism. These are all movies about little guys who think big, people who start out poor and despised and told they’ll never amount to anything – or, like Tommy, that they’ll end up in jail. And yet, by their own efforts all of them seem to find their way to “A Place in the Sun,” to appropriate the title of one of them, until they become the victims of – well, what they’re the victims of will remain to be seen. But, as they are a sort of parody of what we have since learned to call “The American Dream,” there will always be plenty who see them as the victims of America.

When The Public Enemy was made, it would have been easy to see Tommy as the victim of “the system” (another variation on the theme of American guilt), or of an economic catastrophe unprecedented in American history. Yet there is no hint of this in the movie itself. In 1931, people were beginning to get the idea that the Great Depression wasn’t just another downturn of the business cycle, but it is still the Roaring 20s up on the screen. I mention this economic and political background to the film because, looking back from the vantage point of more than three-quarters of a century later, commentators on the films and other cultural artifacts of the period almost invariably do bring it up. What everybody now knows, particularly about those Depression-era movies, is that hard economic times produced an appetite for (a) “escapism” – for example in the elaborate Hollywood musicals of Busby Berkeley – and (b) romantic gangsters like Cagney’s Tommy Powers.

I have my doubts about both these articles of conventional wisdom, but it would be foolish to deny that there is a certain romance and glamour about Tommy’s energy and vitality, those animal spirits that the Greeks would have called thymos. You can tell that people at the time saw it, too, because of the nervous little announcements on screen cards both before the movie begins and after it ends. The one at the beginning reads:

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.

Such a disclaimer is a pretty reliable indicator that what follows, intended or not, will glorify the hoodlum or criminal and, sure enough, Tommy Powers has subsequently entered the American imagination as the very image of the glamorous criminal. A few years ago, Cagney’s performance was ranked 57th on list of the one hundred Greatest Movie Characters of All Time as compiled by the late Premiere Magazine. That’s a lot of glorification for a character whose behavior is almost uniformly repellent.

Yet I don’t think we should quite dismiss the disclaimer as a hypocritical attempt to stay on the good side of respectable public opinion either, the way that Oliver Stone’s ultra-violent Natural Born Killers (1994) makes a show of being opposed to “media violence.” On the contrary, everything in The Public Enemy suggests sincere moral disapproval of Tommy’s way of life. The romance and the glamour of it come, in part, from the film-makers’ sporadic efforts to intellectualize, to approach his behavior from a psychological or sociological point of view. Much o
f what we see is meant to explain Tommy with reference to the poverty and oppressiveness of his upbringing or his psychological quirks. Such explanations of behavior, which have become much more familiar in the decades since 1931, are always bound to excuse it, at least to some extent.

It must, for instance, be almost impossible for an audience today to see the scene in which Tommy’s silent father, wearing his policeman’s helmet, thrashes the boy with his razor strap without a nod of assent and intellectual self-congratulation when the film cuts directly to the evidence, in the form of the stolen watches, of the life of crime which may be presumed to have ensued. Yet I’m not so sure that a contemporary audience would have seen it that way. For one thing, the movie is also pretty insistent throughout on the presence of Tommy’s big brother, Michael, played by Donald Cook, who is as good as Tommy is bad. Presumably, both brothers would have been subject to the same degree of patriarchal oppression, which must therefore have had radically different effects on them.

For another thing, in Tommy’s case, rebellion against paternal authority mostly takes the form of his becoming rather a mama’s boy. The unspeaking father disappears from the picture after his act of corporal punishment, when Tommy is still a child, and everything we see about the latter’s adult life suggests that, by then, he has long been accustomed to being cosseted and indulged by his mother, played by Beryl Mercer, who still calls him her “baby.” And there is something babyish about him, too, for all his toughness. You can’t help notice the number of times the adult Tommy is referred to as a “boy,” not only by his mother (“Tommy boy!” she cries when she sees him in the hospital) but by the other women in his life. Then as now, not being “the marrying kind,” as Matt tells Joan Blondell’s Mamie Tommy isn’t, is a way of refusing to grow up.

Tommy seems to treat these women badly – and the grapefruit in the face of poor Mae Clarke in the role of Kitty is one of those “iconic” moments in the history of the movies that even people who have never seen the film tend to know about – in proportion as he is tenderly sentimental towards his mother. Jean Harlow’s Gwen holds Tommy’s head to her breast and calls him “my bashful boy,” an epithet which might seem spectacularly inappropriate for such a ruthless killer, but that there does seem to be an element of sexual shame in him that is the other side of the coin to his constant need to prove himself and his masculinity, even though this need is everywhere belied by his swaggering self-confidence. It may not be too far-fetched to see that same sexual self-doubt hinted at in the scene with the gay tailor.

Tommy also attaches himself to various father-figures whom he has a childish eagerness to please. Most notable is of course Nails Nathan, played by Leslie Fenton, but there’s also Paddy Ryan (Robert O’Connor) and Putty-nose (Murray Kinnell) whose betrayal of him, as he sees it, is forever afterwards unforgivable to Tommy. The operatic vendetta he treasures in this quarter and so ruthlessly puts into effect is difficult even for his friend Matt to watch. Matt watches it for us, in fact, since like most of the violence in the movie it takes place off camera. But this cold-blooded, merciless killing is the negative counterpart of the exaggerated loyalty shown to Nails, who is in no position to appreciate it, when Tommy kills the horse who has kicked him in the head. Such extremes of emotional dependency are suggestive of a boyish, immature temperament, which must also be what lies behind his lonely, apparently suicidal assault on the rival gang of Schemer Burns. There are hints of a new-found maturity in his muttering to himself, “I ain’t so tough” and his subsequent apology to his brother, Mike. But even if you regard these as persuasive, they can’t be allowed to develop without changing this into a very different movie.

That scene where he collapses in the rain, along with the grapefruit-in-the-face and the final scene, which I won’t describe here in case some of you haven’t seen it before, is the one everyone remembers from the movie. The look on Tommy’s face as he goes to meet his fate is more terrifying, in its way, than anything else in the movie and one of many reasons it gives us for quarreling with its own closing exhortation, in the form of another card displaying words of explanation on the screen which insist that “‘The Public Enemy’ is not a man, nor is it a character – it is a problem that sooner or later WE, the public, must solve.” That is exactly wrong, in my view. The Public Enemy is a man and a character before he is anything else, and if he is also a problem, or part of a problem, the prospects for us, the public’s, being able to “solve” it are very far from being encouraging.

And that, in my opinion, is the great virtue of this and most of the other films we will be seeing in this series. They are, however much they may nod in the direction of social policy and social engineering, and therefore often in spite of themselves, essentially anti-utopian in their tendency. The British Labour party used to say, before it became a joke, that their policy was to be tough on crime and on the causes of crime. Alas, it turned out that they had no better understanding as to what those causes were than Darryl F. Zanuck, whose idea it was to appeal to progressive opinion with those sociological disclaimers to the fore and aft of The Public Enemy. But the one thing movies can do that sociologists and politicians and utopian “projectors,” as they once were known, cannot do is to show us the dark side of human aspiration in all its mystery and terror – as we imagine it really is, and not as a social problem to be solved. I hope we’ll find this to be the case in the other films in this series, but I’m pretty sure we’ll find it so in The Public Enemy.

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