The thirties start out with three gangster movies, in many ways so similar that I have a hard time remembering one from the other. “The Public Enemy” is the second of these and in my opinion the best of them. The easy explanation is that it stars James Cagney, who became the iconic tough guy (though he was actually an excellent dancer, which he showed plenty in “Footlight Parade” a few years later), but there is more to it than that. Where the other two follow the rise and fall of a particularly tough gangster boss, there is nothing special about Tom and Matt, the leads of “The Public Enemy”. They start out as small scale thieves and die only slightly better than that. At the onset of the prohibition they become the thugs of Paddy Ryan, a bootlegger who compared to the gangster bosses of the other movies is downright decent, well, until he walks out of his men in the end. Paddy has the gangster “Nails” Nathan to run the day to day work and Tom and Matt are his muscle guys.
As business intensifies money gets plenty but so does the dirty work and both Matt and Tom end up as victims themselves. Simply shot down in the exchange of retribution going on between the gangs.
There is very little glorification in “The Public Enemy”. Even from the beginning we recognize Tom as a guy with a need to be recognized as a tough and important guy. He is restless with an anger burning in him. He needs to be cool in the typical gangster fashion and his eagerness for appreciation by his family, the girls and the other thugs come out a bit pathetic. In that sense this is more like a phycological profile of a gangster and based on the prologue and epilogue of the movie that is exactly what this picture is about.
With that focus, as a character study, “The Public Enemy” gets interesting. We follow how Tom becomes a hotshot and takes a lot of pride in that. We see how he is leading Matt on, the more decent of the two, who probably would not have been a gangster if it had not been for Tom and interestingly we see him with the girls.
Matt and Tom pick up two girls at a dance hall and where Matt eventually marries his girl Mamie, Tom soon grows tired of Kitty resulting in the famous grape fruit scene (which I will try to find a picture of for this commentary). He is ready for something new and pick up a random girl, Gwen, on the street to hit on. Then later we see Tom together with Gwen and she gets him exactly right when she tells him that other women are afraid of him but she loves him for being strong and dangerous and she is not going to let him go. She is tapping into his narcissistic streak by gratifying him but also giving him the sense of being needed and belonging that he is so hungry for.
Another relationship is that with his brother. Mike Powers is working at the trams and studying at night. He goes to the army during the war and is so much the good and decent kid. Tom hates him and envy him and his actions is as much a reaction to his paragon of a brother. When he shows up with big money it is a double blow to Tom’s face that he is rejected by Mike. He has become something but is not good enough for his brother.
Tom only gets to see that what he is doing may not be so smart after all when it is too late.
We are getting a lot of gangster clichés, but not as many as in the other two. One of the persistent ones is the exaggerated use of flowers at gangster funerals. I believe the newspaper article said that the flower bill at Nails Nathans funeral was 75.000$. That is funny.
Another gangster cliché albeit not as funny is that a gangster kill must be revenged. Since it was his horse that killed Nails the horse must die.
I have mentioned before that I am not a big fan of gangster movies. I just do not buy into the fascination of the gangsters. However as gangster flicks go this is one of the better ones and truthfully I could manage with just this one and let “Scarface” and “Little Cesar” go. This one is slightly less template than the others and better made.