Elegance Meets Violence: On The Public Enemy

Note: This is the hundred-and-sixty-fifth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1931 film, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, directed by William A. Wellman.

Much has been written and said about THE PUBLIC ENEMY, one of the “Big Three” gangster films of the early 1930s, as a star-making vehicle for one of the great screen presences of moviedom: James Cagney. Cagney had appeared in a few things before his last-minute switch into the lead with now-sidekick Edward Woods, but William A. Wellman’s brutal depiction of Prohibition-era violence in THE PUBLIC ENEMY bristled with an electricity that many traced to Cagney as Tom Powers. Wellman’s incredible direction, it’s true, contributed to that power, but as Martin Scorsese put it (as told to him by an unnamed viewer of the film in preparation of production for THE AVIATOR [2004]), when Cagney came on screen, “modern screen acting began.” Cagney was just the right kind of person for the part, an example of one of those kinds of fate-changing decisions that shape an entire movement of art. With Cagney in the lead, and Wellman’s journeyman ability to channel all kinds of disparate influences, THE PUBLIC ENEMY exceled at an elegant depiction of brutality, at commodifying and rendering real, through the Hollywood artifice, the emotions and violence of gangs on the street.

I mentioned the “Big Three” earlier. In addition to THE PUBLIC ENEMY, that includes LITTLE CAESAR (1931) and SCARFACE (1932), both tremendous films in their own right. But for whatever reason, they don’t measure up to THE PUBLIC ENEMY. All three were directed by masculine journeymen who applied their talents to all kinds of genres; Mervyn LeRoy (LITTLE CAESAR) and Howard Hawks (SCARFACE) were of a kind with Wellman. But among these peers and with THE PUBLIC ENEMY, Wellman especially applied a poetic grace to the gangster drama, centered by Cagney’s unparalleled acting choices.

That term, “choices,” is kind of used vaguely in terms of acting technique. But I don’t know how else to describe the incredible movements Cagney brings into his role, moments that, skilled as he was as a director, I can’t imagine that Wellman thought up. These movements are informed by Cagney’s background as a dancer and a stage performer. And yet, his body, his face, his hands, they’re all built for the screen. He’s small, pretty slight, but he moves like a tiger. His face, placid for much of the movie, reacts instead of awaits the next line, which you’ll often see in comparison to Woods’ approach, his face in frame with Cagney’s a lot of the time. The star-making moments of THE PUBLIC ENEMY come for me in the quiet spaces; I remember seeing Cagney react to Robert Emmett O’Connor (Irishman emeritus in this era of Hollywood movies) in their first meeting, subtly and yet powerfully in what could be seen as an exposition-setting scene, and being taken aback by his assured power. And then of course, when Cagney explodes, unleashing Tom Powers’ impotent, boyish frustration, the psychopathy is frightening…and thrilling.

Cagney is like quicksilver, and Wellman ably matches this energy, or Cagney perfectly fits the structure of the movie. If I seem to be trading “credits” for the brilliance of THE PUBLIC ENEMY, it’s because I am still beholden somewhat to that pesky auteur theory, or to the power of the charismatic performer, in lieu of the true acknowledgement of moviemaking as an inherently collaborative medium. But then, of course, THE PUBLIC ENEMY is brilliant beyond Cagney and Wellman. The script adapted by Harvey Thew, based on an unpublished novel by newspapermen John Bright and Kubec Glasmon (who had their own experiences in Chicago gangland), structures the story into fast and almost sudden vignettes. Reflecting on the drive of the movie, it’s actually hard to define a significant plot. Tom Powers and his buddy Matt Doyle are rising in the gang scene, of course, and Tom is constantly clashing with his more responsible brother Mike (Donald Cook), often in view of saccharine-sweet (and yet impossibly unlikeable) Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer). But part of THE PUBLIC ENEMY’s power is how it captures the multifaceted lives of “psychopaths” like Tom Powers (who, I should point out, I don’t believe is actually a psychopath), in brief, compelling moments.

Now, I’ve credited the elegance that’s brought to THE PUBLIC ENEMY to Cagney. But Wellman’s placement of the camera, supported by cinematographer Dev Jennings (this was one of a couple great movies he worked on, including THE GENERAL [1926]), is novel for the early sound era. There’s a movement here that calls to mind the mobility of the silent era that had ended just a couple of years before, which had given way to more static, stage-y productions as talkies took root. Crane and tracking shots, deep shadows and close ups, and bright and airy nightclubs and luxurious apartments serve to enrich the “grittiness” for which THE PUBLIC ENEMY is known.

Wellman also employs diegetic sound to great effect. “In-universe” popular music scores THE PUBLIC ENEMY’s saddest and lightest moments; ambient sound, like rainfall, supports violence when punctuated by barking gunfire; and off-screen surprises, like a coal truck or a car backfiring, misdirect our expectations. It’s smart stuff, and it’s enabled by the increasingly flexible capabilities of sound recording technology. Wellman wasn’t the only one, in Hollywood or beyond, who was experimenting with sound in this way, but he has a significant hand in transforming the landscape of the sound picture.

Wellman was making a million movies a year at this point in his career (five in 1931 alone, six the following year, etc.). In spite of the quick production of his pictures, which was actually reflected in the quality of some of them, THE PUBLIC ENEMY is crafted with incredible restraint. One more example of the movie’s finery-meets-ferocity: all of the movie’s fatal acts are committed offscreen. And to quote the eminent gangster director of our day Scorsese again, that makes it “so much worse.” A number of aspects of THE PUBLIC ENEMY, in spite of this avoidance of graphic depiction, were called into question even by the Pre-Code censors, and the whole movie, like many others in the crime genre at the time, was framed as a warning against the kind of life Tom Powers lived. But of course, the work speaks for itself in that regard. One only needs to see Cagney, wrapped up like a mummy, his wonderful, sprightly body trussed up like a dead piece of meat, fall dead to the floor of his family home to understand the tragic arc of the movie once and for all. THE PUBLIC ENEMY’s engaging film grammar makes the exploits of Tom Powers and his gang of “found family” thrilling and sympathetic, but with this final, crashing moment, we are brought back into the reality that the movie so wonderfully dramatizes.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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