Two years into the Great Depression, Warner Brothers delivered William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy. Released in 1931, the film starred James Cagney, Edward Woods and Jean Harlow.
The Public Enemy is based on Beer and Blood, an unpublished novel by journalists John Bright and Kubec Glasman.
One of six Bright/Glasman stories adapted for the screen, the text is a fictionalized account of Al Capone’s rise to power in prohibition-era Chicago.
With a $150,000 budget and box office returns exceeding $550,000, The Public Enemy followed Little Caesar in a string of commercially successful gangster movies produced during Old Hollywood’s Pre-Code period.
The Public Enemy was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1998. With seven songs on its soundtrack, including I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, it was among the last films to use Warner’s Vitaphone sound-on-disc system.
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‘The Public Enemy’ (1931): Spoiler-Free Synopsis
As children, Matt Doyle and Tommy Powers run wild in their poverty stricken Chicago slum. But what begins as petty crime soon gives way to larceny and bootlegging. And when a fellow thief is killed in a bungled robbery, there’s no turning back for either one of them.
With prohibition fueling the black market, Matt and Tommy double down on crime, pulling heists, collecting debts, running liquor rackets for the mob.
But the war on booze creates a battleground for rival syndicates.
Matt and Tom are in the trenches.
And the price of beer is paid in blood.
‘The Public Enemy’ (1931): Full Plot Summary
After an obligatory foreword denouncing “the hoodlum or the criminal,” The Public Enemy opens with an extended prologue set in the year 1909.
A montage shows the day-to-day happenings of a working class neighbourhood. We see a slaughterhouse and some factories, horses pulling wagons, taverns and a brewery and the salvation army marching band.
Short vignettes illustrate the delinquent childhoods of protagonists Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) and Tommy Powers (James Cagney). We see them drinking beer, terrorizing department stores and running from police.
We meet Tommy’s older brother Mike (Donald Cook). Even at a young age, strait-laced Mike disapproves of his brother Tommy’s reckless behavior. The sequence ends with Tommy’s father (Purnell Pratt), a police officer, disciplining his belligerent son with a leather strap.
We also see Matt and Tommy visit a social club run by a man called Puttynose (Murray Kinnell). The place is basically a hideout occupied by street urchins of similar age and demeanor.
Tommy wants to unload a batch of stolen pocket watches. Puttynose haggles with the boys until they’re forced to sell the goods at an unfair price.
The film skips ahead to 1915. Now teenagers, Matt and Tommy arrive at Puttynose’s club. We learn through dialogue that Tommy’s older brother Mike is now a college student. We also learn that Puttynose has summoned the boys for a specific job.
Puttynose needs a team to carry out a midnight robbery at The Northwestern Fur Trading Company. He insists the warehouse is an easy target and the risk of getting caught is low. Hesitant at first, Matt and Tom are swayed when Puttynose gives each of them a pistol and promises to protect them from police.
The crew arrives by truck. The driver stays with the vehicle while Tom, Matt and the crew force their way inside. As they start collecting furs, Tommy becomes startled by a huge stuffed bear and fires his gun into the trophy.
The shots alert a nearby cop who shoot their driver dead. The crew scatters in a desperate panic. Amidst the chaos, Matt and Tom return to the club. They knock on the door but their entry is denied. The bungled robbery has rendered them pariahs. Puttynose has broken his promise.
We jump to 1917. Matt and Tom are working as delivery drivers. A newspaper headline tells us America has entered World War One. We also learn through exposition that Mike intends to marry Matt’s older sister.
The duo enters a pub to meet with Irish gangster Paddy Ryan. The boys make him a proposal. As delivery drivers, they have access to cargo that can be “re-routed” for illicit profits. Sensing an opportunity, Paddy Ryan enthusiastically accepts.
Mike has enlisted in the Marines. His deployment date is imminent. Upstairs, in Mike’s bedroom, a key scene unfolds. Tom’s criminal reputation has gotten around. Mike accuses Tom of being involved in “crooked’ ventures. Tom fires back, complaining Mike is domineering and holier-than-thou.
Mike hits Tom in the face and knocks him to the ground. After he storms out, the camera lingers on Tommy. We see his jealousy and indignation. We see shadows of what lies ahead.
The second act opens in 1920, on the eve of Prohibition. A montage shows the public’s fevered efforts to acquire as much alcohol as possible before the statute takes effect.
Meanwhile, at Paddy Ryan’s pub, Matt and Tom agree to help him pull a heist. With black market prices soaring, their target is a local brewery.
Wearing their delivery uniforms, Matt and Tommy park an empty gasoline tanker outside the warehouse. Paddy’s crew breaks into the compound and uses fire hoses to siphon booze from the kegs to the truck.
The robbery goes off without a hitch. Matt and Tom become official members of Paddy’s little gang. Drunk on cash, they splurge on tailored clothing and a shiny car and meals in upscale restaurants.
On the heels of the heist, Paddy Doyle (Robert O’Connor) expands his business. He strikes a deal with Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton), a big-time Chicago mobster. They join forces to distribute booze on behalf of Mr. Leehman, a liquor magnate getting squeezed by prohibition.
Distribution soon gives way to racketeering. Nathan wants every tavern serving his bootlegged beer and nothing else. The penalty for defiance is brutal violence, delivered by none other than Tom Powers.
Mike returns from war a decorated hero. But the homecoming is spoiled by a keg of beer. Mike seethes through supper, barely touching his food. Before the meal is over, he explodes, accusing Tom and Matt of being murderers and thieves.
Instead of reacting, a dapper Tom keeps his cool. His newfound wealth and notoriety have cooled his blood. He grins and sips his beer. He savors every moment of his older brother’s rage.
Nails Nathan makes a call to Tom’s apartment. When Tom’s girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clarke) answers the phone, we realize the two of them are living together.
The infamous “grapefruit scene.”
After the call, a tense breakfast scene reveals just how badly Kitty has misconstrued Tommy’s intentions. They argue briefly, until Tom grabs a grapefruit and shoves it hard into her face.
Act three begins with Tom gawking at a female pedestrian (Jean Harlow). Matt pulls over and Tommy offers her a ride. Tom sits beside her in the back and we learn some details of her life. We also learn her name is Gwen.
We jump forward to a wedding celebration at a fancy restaurant. Matt has married his girlfriend, Mamie. As Tom and Gwen circle the dance floor, he catches sight of a familiar face seated at a nearby table. It’s Puttynose.
Tom and Matt quickly grab their coats and follow him outside. As they escort him back to his lodgings, the celebratory tone gives way to something dark and ominous. Sensing his impending doom, Puttynose pleads for his life, invoking memories of the old neighbourhood, even sitting down at the piano to play them a nostalgic song. The camera pans away and focuses on Mike. Two quick shots are fired and something heavy thuds onto the floor.
Tom pays his mother a visit, bearing his usual gifts. Mike confronts him in the kitchen and refuses the money. When Tom stands up to him, Mike slaps him the face. Tom tears the bank notes in half and storms out.
A romantic scene at Gwen’s apartment implies the she and Tom are falling for each other. As they’re about to consummate their relationship, Matt bursts into the room. Nails Nathan is dead, kicked in the head by a horse.
After Nathan’s funeral, Tom and Matt visit the stables. They buy the horse and shoot it dead.
A newspaper headline tells us Nathan’s death has weakened the clout of Paddy Ryan’s gang. A rival mob is gathering strength, threatening to break off territory for themselves. In a drive-by bombing, Paddy’s pub is destroyed by four grenades.
Paddy survives the attack. He vows to get even and makes a plan. But his strategy is suspect. He collects their money and tells them to lay low in the hotel for a few days. He tells his girlfriend Jane (Mia Marvin) to look after them. Then he gets into his car and drives away.
Later that night, Jane takes a drunken Tom up to his room and seduces him.
Meanwhile, a coal truck pulls up outside the hotel. Although it’s emblazoned with a company logo, we see a machine gun hidden in the back.
The next morning, a fully sober Tom sits down for breakfast. Jane begins to flirt with him, implying they had intercourse the night before. Disgusted, Tom storms onto the sidewalk. When Matt follows after him, the men hiding in the truck open fire, killing Matt in a hail of bullets.
That evening, completely unhinged, Tom wades through a torrential rainstorm, approaching the rival gang’s hideout.
We see him enter the building. We hear screaming and gunfire. We see him stumble back outside, bleeding from the head. We hear the police approaching in the distance. Tom collapses in the rain, mumbling this reproachful line: “I guess I ain’t so tough.”
Tom wakes up in the hospital, bandaged and barely conscious. His mother and Mike approach the bed. Tom takes his brother’s hand, whispering apologies. Mike forgives him, begging him to move back home upon his release.
We cut to Powers family home. Mike is working at his desk when the doorbell rings. It’s Paddy Ryan. Tom’s been kidnapped from the hospital. The rival gang is holding him for ransom.
Paddy offers them a deal. In exchange for Tom’s release, he agrees to shut down his operation and leave town. Mike seems satisfied and wishes Paddy well.
The following evening, the telephone rings. It’s one of Paddy’s men. They’re bringing Tommy home. Mike tells his mother the good news. Elated, she rushes upstairs to prepare his bedroom.
The bell rings. Mike opens the door. It’s Tommy, wrapped in a blanket and tied with coils of rope—with a bloody hole shot through his head.
As Tom’s mother sings in the background, Mike kneels beside his brother’s corpse, horrified. The Public Enemy comes to an end, with another message presented in bold white text:
“The end of Tom Powers is the of every hoodlum. “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.”
Opinion: My Review of ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931)
The Public Enemy’s extended prologue takes up the majority of act one. The remaining story unfolds in a straightforward, linear fashion, almost like a personal history. Diverging from contemporary counterparts like Little Caesar (1931) or Blood Money (1933), it relies on historical events to ground its narrative in both place and time.
It also makes a concerted effort to create character arcs for its protagonists. Unlike Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello, The Public Enemy shows us Tom and Matt as children, at the very moment when they go astray. Although the origin story amounts to very little in the end, it’s a choice that sets the film apart from its contemporaries.
For a ninety year old film, The Public Enemy’s opening credits are striking. Live action shots of the cast are superimposed next to their names, not unlike the infographics shown during player introductions at the outset of a modern sports broadcast.
Any notion that The Public Enemy is some kind of docudrama can be dispelled by simply watching it. Although it uses historical events as framing devices, the film contains no factual information, nor are its characters facsimiles of real-life gangsters.
While it’s impossible not to stumble over names like Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, or Al Capone when one reads about Pre-Code gangster movies, THIS film provides little biographical context for any of the aforementioned gangsters.
The idea that The Public Enemy somehow glamorizes crime is also patently absurd. Watch it closely, perhaps without the sound. What exactly about the visual composition glorifies criminality?
The violence isn’t stylized. The music is undramatic, doing little to punctuate the actions of the crooks or to glorify their crimes. The gangsters are never shot from below or made to look superhuman. There are no visual effects, no fantastical imagery, no aesthetics that make allusions to Christ or any Greek or Roman Gods. Every set piece ends in mishap or tragedy, and there’s not a single instance in which a gangster performs a redeeming act of bravery, heroism or strength.
Although it lacks a full symbolic order, The Public Enemy deploys a number of individual symbols to deepen its narrative resonance. Consider the following:
- The Pocket Watches: The stolen package Matt and Tommy sell to Puttynose as kids contains a total of six pocket watches. Six represents the number of years left until the failed robbery that makes Matt and Tom accessories to murder, thereby cementing their respective fates.
- The Stuffed Bear: The huge stuffed bear that Tommy mistakenly shoots during the robbery represents the fate of all predators. Here, the film foreshadows Tom’s death, as he too will eventually be killed by a superior predator. Tom’s inanimate corpse, swaying in his mother’s doorway, also closely resembles that of the aforementioned bear.
- The Grapefruit Scene: While the infamous scene mainly serves to illustrate Tom’s tendency to violence and his growing sense of infallibility, it also symbolizes his rejection of the family unit and domesticity. Tom’s childhood was unhappy. His household was a stifling, abusive environment. The moment Kitty’s expectations begin trending toward marriage, Tom violently humiliates her with the very food she uses to convey her domestic ambitions.
- The Rain: As a vengeful Tom infiltrates his rival’s hideout, he is completely drenched by torrential rain. He sustains serious wounds in the shoot-out and stumbles back outside, eventually collapsing in the flooded streets as the rain continues pouring down. In addition to being an iconic early Noir sequence, these scenes represent a figurative baptism. By avenging Matt’s death, he makes good on a blood oath, absolving his sins. His repentant deathbed apologies only proves this point further.
But the most important symbols in the film occur outside the confines of its story, in its text-based foreword and afterword. For more on this, keep reading.
Interpretation: What’s ‘The Public Enemy’ Really About?
Movies that announce their intentions are usually lying. Despite its mission statements, The Public Enemy does little to glamorize the criminal lifestyle.
What IS glamorized, however, is the acquisition of wealth.
Within the context of the film, acquiring wealth means dispensing with the drudgery of the normal 9-5 job exemplified by Tommy’s brother.
Wealth provides the freedom to reject the status quo—normal everyday things like getting married, joining the army or paying taxes.
Wealth also grants permission to indulge in vapid material pleasures, even in a time of general economic strife. Once their racket begins bearing fruit, Tom and Mike are never far away from expensive clothing, cars, food and women.
Although they have more in common with Paddy Ryan, Matt and Tom model themselves after Nails Nathan instead. In this Marxist/Feminist reading of the film, Paddy represents the exploited proletarian working class, whereas Nathan represents the managerial bourgeois elite.
The Public Enemy is thus a Trojan Horse.
Using its moralizing foreword and afterword, it tries to disguise itself as an anti-crime polemic.
In reality, The Public Enemy is a pro-capitalist, pro-corporate film released at a moment in history when the hardships of the Great Depression were lending strength to progressive political movements like socialism, collectivism and communism, ideas that threatened traditionally American notions of free markets and individual exceptionalism.
Is ‘The Public Enemy’ Worth Watching?
The Public Enemy‘s main value is as a historical and a cinematic artifact.
Gangster movie fans will appreciate its canonical elements. Film Noir enthusiasts will take interest in the Puttynose murder, the rain scene, and James Cagney’s overall performance as an early anti-hero.
Notable attributes aside, enjoying The Public Enemy might not be possible for every viewer.
Despite its cradle-to-the-grave type story, plotting is virtually absent. Every time we sense a plot twist coming, it never actually happens. Tom’s character arc commands most of our attention, but in the end his death adds up to nothing. When the credits roll, we’re left wondering if anything that happened in the film really matters.
In my opinion, these deficiencies are the result of a peculiar absence: The Public Enemy has no antagonist.
No police are present in the film. The rival gang that murders Tom appears only in expository dialogue. Puttynose poses no real threat and is eliminated just a few scenes after his re-emergence.
Films populated by criminals still require a villain. As a genre, Film Noir understands this perfectly. Imagine The Third Man (1949) without Harry Lime. Imagine Night and The City (1950) without Kristo. You can’t do it.
The most interesting aspects of the film are therefore metaphysical: the ideas that exist outside the movie are more compelling than those on the inside.
To truly enjoy The Public Enemy, my suggestion is to watch it in conjunction with other Pre-Code gangster films, or perhaps in tandem with articles like this one.
The Public Enemy can be rented on most streaming platforms. A free version is also available on the Internet Archive’s Film Noir Collection.
William A. Wellman directed over eighty motion pictures. In 1973, he won an Oscar for his work on A Star Is Born.
James Cagney’s acting career spanned five decades, during which he was awarded an Oscar, a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, the 1980 Kennedy Center Honors, a Presidential Medal Of Freedom and a 33 cent US Postage Stamp.
Jean Harlow’s time in the limelight was brief but brilliant. As Hollywood’s original “blonde bombshell,” she starred in more than forty films in just nine short years, before tragically succumbing to Kidney failure at only 26 years of age.
If you enjoyed this post, check out Michael Mann’s Thief.
The Public Enemy
Director: William A. Wellman
Date Created: 2023-12-07 20:48