Movie View: The Public Enemy (1931)

(Response to The Public Enemy screening)

I learned two things from this movie.

One, people who own gunshops in the 1920’s…were goddamn idiots.

Two, crime doesn’t pay.

Let’s be honest. That’s more of a “reminder” rather than something I learned. People these days have already learned their Crime 101 through other, more modern gangster films such as Goodfellas and The Godfather. Does that make The Public Enemy some bad ripoff? Certainly not. After all, it did come before them.

For it’s time period, The Public Enemy  ain’t half bad. There’s no doubt it did to the 30’s what Goodfellas did to the 80’s. Among the movie’s unique factors were it’s violence and sexual implication. It’s not easy to get away with films involving gun fights, seduction, and bitch slapping women with a grape fruit.

You will eat your daily fruits AND LIKE IT!! OR ELSE!!

Actually, the film didn’t get away with some scenes…sort of. Scenes were removed from re-releases, though mainly scenes of implied sex, and one involving a rather hilariously homosexual tailor (thus goes to show that back in the 1900’s, gays were much scarier than death itself).

Pretty much all releases after 1954, with and without censorship, had “cards” added to the beginning and end. Basically, it says despite being based on true events, the story of the film is not to be condoned. Rather, it’s a story that should teach what you shouldn’t do. It was obviously necessary, ’cause without those cards, people will be running around and shooting guns at baby kittens.

Now, let’s go on with the story. An awesomely named Tom Powers (played by the very talented James Cagney) and his less awesomely named friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) start a life of petty crimes such as stealing watches and junk. As they grow up, they climb to the top of the gangster food chain, mainly through bootlegging. Conflict brews between Tom’s “good” brother, Mike Powers (Donald Cook) and a rival gang he messes around with.

Also, his mother is oblivious to all of what Tom does. That annoyed me. A LOT. Mainly because Tom and Mike would argue about the crimes Tom did, and she’d only have a problem with the fact they are arguing. Tom could drag a naked dead body on the floor and she would still daydream about her “Wonderful boys!” It’s almost like she has Alzheimer’s. I’d bet people with real Alzheimer’s would find her lack of perception of reality laughable…for the time they remember it, of course.

The face of a charming guy

Tom Powers makes for an interesting character. He’s got a classic case of Dunnowhatitscalled, but the bare bones of his character is being edgy, having trouble with women (hence forcing a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face and what not), and having even more trouble expressing himself. He does that old’ “knock on the chin” to show his sympathy and regards. He does this to his friends and even his own delusional mother. It shows that he’s not comfortable coming out of his shell, and if he can’t even express himself with his family, he’ll have trouble expressing himself to anyone. Asking for help or love is beneath him. It causes frustration and stress, and that combined with the arrogance he gains with his power makes him a troubled adult. It’s a character you feel is a victim of his own insecurities.

There’s a strong emphasis on the effects of the prohibition era. Remember, this movie was made in 1931, just TWO YEARS before the ban on alcohol was lifted. If there’s another note to take other than “crime doesn’t pay,” it’d be that life finds a way to things it wants. Even back in those “black and white times,” people thought banning alcohol would only encourage crime since it was so desired, but how can it be allowed without people abusing it? The answer is obvious: we learn to control our lives and make the right decisions…okay, since when did this become philosophy blog? Enough morality crap, what was I talking about?

Right! The film! Umm….let’s talk about the filmography.

For 1931, there were shots like these and ones that followed people down hallways in a style that reminded me of some more modern film shots.It’s hard to find a clip of ’em, but there’s definitely some neat shots done through the film. The beginning shot has a very nice choreography involving the framing, all while making a long shot. Reminded me of that one movie by Albert Hitchcock (which I never saw yet) which was edited to seem like it was made using one long shot. If ANYONE can tell me the name of it in the comment, you will be rewarded a cookie.

I'll just leave it riiiiiiight here

The biggest problem I had with the movie was the fact that I’ve seen it before. Indeed, I give it mad props for setting an example for other gangster movies, but it’s hard to capture the modern audience with gangster films outside of the top guns of the genre. Look at all of the gangster films you saw: don’t you notice a formula?

A troubled/poor/trouble-making kid since youth grows up to be a top dog gangster, yet loses it all in the end (possibly by death or betrayal). That’s a lot like a decent amount of films involving gangsters. They follow this formula, only to be separated by some plot details, setting, and of course, the audience it was meant for.

People who enjoy modern films more than the “Black and White ones” may or may not enjoy this movie as much as the guy who tolerates a fair share of monochrome. However, I think people should at least try it. The Public Enemy may be familiar and sticking to the formula of most gangster films, but it’s not a bad formula, is it? Not to mention it may have a decent amount of influence on those modern gangster flicks you happen to enjoy.

Check it out: 2.5/4 (add another point if you like gangster films/old movies in general)




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#1   lyoung101 on 09.03.11 at 1:13 pm

I believe that Hitchcock film to be “Rope.” I’ll just take my cookie now…

#2   Tom Schalk on 09.03.11 at 7:54 pm

You most certainly may, Mr.Young. Congrats.

#3   lyoung101 on 09.05.11 at 3:30 pm

Thank you, thank you

#4   coursemedst144 on 09.07.11 at 3:41 pm

Even though the formula may be common among this genre I don’t think it may be a bad thing. When I think of old movies I don’t really think of things that I would be able to talk about. I think because it’s so overused that even people from this generation would be able to understand what it means despite it being an old movie.
Sometimes even cliche things can be good.

#5   Tom Schalk on 09.08.11 at 2:03 pm

True, true, Mr.Coursemedst144. They do say don’t change what isn’t broken. And I still give it props for being one of the first to initiate it, but let’s be honest:

Most gangster movies are very similar, and the modern audience isn’t too crazy about them “Black ‘n White” flicks out there. Between the choice between this and other more newer films, the latter have the favor of this generation.

#6   Roberto Rodriguez on 09.17.11 at 12:48 pm

I dont think all gangster movies are the same and some are obviously better than others and it all depends on your preferences whether you like comedies or dramas or action, gangster movies have it all.

#7   marvinb1228 on 10.21.11 at 2:16 am

It is true that lots of gangster films are the same but this movie gets more respect than its future executions as it focused on the problems happening in real life at its time, the time of prohibition where bootlegging was the most profitable crime business while now most of the films are the same hitman/bankheist crap

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