The Public Enemy (1931) – The shaping of the classic film gangster


‘Why that dirty, no good, yellow-bellied stool. I’m gonna give it to him right in the head the first time I see him’.  James Cagney The Public Enemy (1931)

by Paul Batters

In my last article, the focus was on the gangster film: its’ inception and how it both reflected and was created by the context of the times. As a genre, it would change almost right after it emerged – in great part due to the new Hays Code but also because it expanded into new forms, across genres and most importantly, it had other things to say.

The original trilogy looked at the rise and fall of the gangster. Little Caesar and Scarface particularly feature a cold, cruel and brutal rise to power and an equally cold and brutal fall. The final scene of Enrico Bandello is a testament to how far he has fallen. The mis en scene of a lone figure in coat and hat, seeming small as he walks by a large billboard (ironically advertising his former friend turned dancer), as the cold, harsh wind and snow howls around him, certainly illustrates how pathetic and sad Bandello looks, adding to his deluded claims that he’ll be back one day at the top.

Two films that look at the gangster’s rise and fall still hold true to the fate of the gangster being one of futility. Both would star James Cagney. Both would be made at Warners Brothers. And both would have that special stamp of production that only Warner Brothers could bring to the gangster film, in terms of script, casting and direction. Both would arguably be bookends to the classic gangster film cycle.

This article will focus on the first film; one which made Cagney a star – The Public Enemy.

Directed by William Wellman, The Public Enemy deserves its’ reputation as a classic and a landmark film. The year of its’ release saw the world in the deep midst of the Depression and it still resonates with audiences today, even if it was a product of its’ time.

Even before we are launched into the story, Warner Bros. were cautious enough to begin with a written declaration, with the claim that the intention of the authors of The Public Enemy to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than to glorify the hoodlum or the criminal”. It is easy to see such a declaration from a pessimistic standpoint as an attempt to keep the critics and social watchdogs happy. However, as Richard Maltby pointed out in his 2003 review, ‘the complex and contradictory cultural position occupied by Hollywood’s representations of criminality in the early Depression’ is what needs to be considered. Variety, in 1931, saw the film as a ‘hard and true picture of the unheroic gangster’. Warner Bros. were aiming to make a tough, violent film that grabbed everyone’s attention – and they certainly succeeded.

From the opening titles, we are greeted with a staccato version of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’, which not only acts as a theme song throughout the film but speaks universally of ‘dreams fading and dying’ and ‘fortune always hiding’. Whilst the lyrics are not sung, the audience would have been more than familiar with what was a hit tune and a standard from 1919 onwards. On occasion, it returns to it’s dreamy ¾ waltz time but sharply snaps back into it’s jumpy jaunt, as if bringing us back into the harsh reality that the film purports to show its’ audience.

The use of music works in tandem with the documentary style of director William Wellman. Music acts as a ‘time-stamp’, not only creating atmosphere but also setting the context and educating us. Americans in 1931 were still under Prohibition, even though its’ death knell had sounded but they are taken back to 1909 via an opening montage of the streets, the saloon and boys buying and drinking beer – a reminder of that pre-Prohibition period. It is a quick social history lesson on why Prohibition was introduced and the Salvation Army Band marching along the street further adds to the lesson, without needing dialogue.

Likewise, the director William Wellman’s use of diegetic sound also expands the experience of stepping back in time. The camera work belies the myth that early talkies became anchored and stationery to accommodate sound equipment. In the opening scene, the camera moves with fluidity as we absorb the sounds of the streets, combining with the visual montage. Wellman brilliantly uses diegetic and non-diegetic sound, colouring the story and giving it a deeper impact in the key moments of the film.

Tom Powers and Matt Doyle are young boys – ruffians who get up to mischief, with Tom particularly drifting into delinquency. Despite the warning from his older brother Mike and the beatings from father, Tom is not tamed. Even here, the film offers commentary on the usual explanations for social ills – poor parenting or lack of it. Despite a father who is also a policeman and beats him regular, the old adage of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ seems to be ineffectual and defunct. Tom’s father does not even speak to him and it appears the only relationship they have is one of violence, in complete contrast to the one Tom has with his mother. Even as he is about to be beaten, Tom shows no fear and indeed challenges his father asking ‘Well, how do you want them this time, up or down?’ as he indicates his trousers. As Tom is beaten, he neither cries out nor breaks into tears, accentuating the challenge that all the beatings in the world didn’t work before and won’t work now. Nearly 60 years later, Scorsese will amplify the same attitude in Goodfellas, as Henry (Ray Liotta) is beaten by his father, who reflects ‘every once and a while I’d have to take a beating. But by then, I didn’t care. The way I saw it, everybody takes a beating sometime.’ Tom Powers would have agreed wholeheartedly and understood the sentiment perfectly.


Tom and Matt’s furthering into petty crime becomes more apparent when we are introduced to the Faginesque Putty Nose (Murray Kinnel) – who runs a ‘club’ for boys as well as other miscreants. He plays a song to amuse the boys on an upright piano, which ironically will serve as his own funeral dirge later on. Putty Nose cheats the two boys by paying a pittance for the petty theft of some watches.


Jump forward a few short years and both Tom (James Cagney) and Matt (Edwards Woods) are now young men, whom Putty Nose convinces to help in a warehouse robbery. Despite his assurances that he will help them if they face trouble, Tom and Matt find Putty Nose gone after having to shoot a policeman. So much for honor among thieves!

Tom and Matt begin playing for larger stakes and their rise in the gangster world is accompanied by cold, brutal violence. The lesson is simple – the only way to the top is through violence, intimidation and murder. Those that do not learn that lesson are not only ‘soft’ but doomed to be stepped on. Working for Paddy Ryan, their rise is as fast as it is brutal.


As Tom and Matt drift into larger criminal enterprise, Wellman contrasts this with another issue still very familiar to audience in 1931; those young American men who would join World War One and return to become ‘forgotten men’, broken by the war in body and spirit. Later when Tom’s brother Mike returns from France and a party is thrown, he and Tom again have an altercation but it is punctuated by Mike’s haunted face, screaming that the provided keg is filled with ‘beer and blood’ (reflecting Harvey F. Thew’s novel on which the film was based). The pain of returned soldiers betrayed by their governments, the Depression and society at large, was a very real issue and though not explicitly focused on by Wellman, there is an implicit undercurrent concerning the problem. Tom berates his brother’s moral attack on his life of crime when he fires back at him saying ‘you didn’t get all those medals holding hands with them Germans’. Again, the themes of choices comes to the fore – two brothers choosing two different paths; one of honesty, truth and honor. The other one of crime, money and power on the streets. What price will each one pay?

Movies can be attacked for their lack of reality yet there is a certain truth to the gangster attitude towards women. Both Tom and Matt meet Kitty (Mae Clarke) and Mamie (Joan Blondell) at a speakeasy and take up with them. However, only Matt has greater designs on Mamie, falling in love with her and later marrying her.

However, Tom sees Kitty as a passing object to enjoy until he tires off her, which he does soon enough. The famous ‘grapefruit’ scene had been discussed at length and will not be re-analysed here except to say the following; Powers’ misogyny is evident when he arrives at the breakfast table. When asking for a drink, Kitty’s questioning his need for a drink so early in the morning is followed by a brusque ‘ I didn’t ask for any lip. I asked if you had a drink’. Tom sees Kitty as nothing more than something to sate his needs and desires. The violent grapefruit in the face highlights his lack of respect for women but also points out that he isn’t the ‘marryin’ kind’. After leaving Kitty, he and Matt are driving down Michigan Ave, only to discover Gwen (Jean Harlow). Gwen, however, knows the rules and the suggestion that she prefers bad men also makes clear that she too is not the marrying kind. But she fits his need to look successful, using her as an object to advertise his success, along with his car, his flash clothes and his reputation. The domestic life that Kitty represents is not on the cards for Tom Powers.


A particular scene removed from the film after the Production Code was established (and subsequently edited back in) also illustrates Powers’ attitude toward women. Later in the film, Powers is hiding out in a woman’s apartment, who seduces him whilst he is drunk. His reaction is one of violence and distaste. Tom Powers is the quintessential gangster – it is he who uses and seduces, not the other way around and control must be his. A sharp contrast to the gangster portrayals by Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), where he seems to be a ‘one man woman’ and treats women with respect.

Likewise, the teaming up of Tom and Matt with the flash ‘Nails’ Nathan, also reflects the reality of the bootleg gangster. They flaunt their wealth and achieve their success through brutal violence against all who either step in their way or refuse to buy their product. Again, this is not dissimilar to the way gangsters worked during Prohibition and Wellman wants this raw realism to come across on the screen. These gangsters lack compassion and their criminal lives are normalized to such a degree that violence and murder barely make a mark on their conscience.

This cruel streak is best illustrated in two particular scenes, both which Wellman cleverly crafts.

The first is their re-uniting with Putty Nose. Now both high profile members of the Nathan outfit, Powers spies Putty Nose at a nightclub and he wants his revenge for what happened years before. It appears that Putty Nose has also moved up a little in the world, as Tom, reluctantly accompanied by Matt go back to a definitely improved abode complete with grand piano. Putty Nose pathetically begs for his life, trying to use sentimentality as his savior. He even plays on the piano for them, singing the very song he performed to them as kids (which will now become his funeral song), hoping that Tom will show a shred of compassion for him. But it is futile. It is here that Wellman’s brilliance shines – as the murder occurs off camera. The unseen violence seems even more graphic as it is left to our imagine, aided by the sound of the gun firing, followed by staggered piano keys as Putty Nose’s now-dead body falls across them. It is a cold, brutal killing, giving the moment an almost psychopathic element when Tom adds afterwards ‘Well, I guess I’ll go call Gwen..’. Matt says nothing but just contains the horror on his face. For Tom Powers, murder is as common and ordinary as blowing his nose.

The second is their response to the death of ‘Nails’ Nathan. However, rivals do not gun him down. Instead, he dies in a horse-riding accident. Again, there is not compassion even for an animal and Tom and Matt head straight to the stables, gunning down the horse in its’ stall. Again, Wellman uses sound and the violence occurs off-screen. We hear the gunshots and the horse’s grunts as it dies. Our shock is matched by the horror of the extreme violence. Again, the cold, cruel violence of these gangsters is more than apparent and actually finds basis in reality; gangster Samuel ‘Nails’ Morton was killed in a riding accident and ‘revenge’ was taken on the horse by his underlings.

An interesting aspect of the filmmaking process is the murder of Matt by the rival ‘Schemer’ Burns gang. The setting up of a machine-gun across the road from Tom and Matt’s hiding place,

Wellman’s manipulation of the new sound opportunities for story telling is not a hand that he overplays. Appropriated from the real life murder of Hymie Weiss in 1926, Matt is gunned down in broad daylight, with Tom just escaping the bullets. Hiding behind a building corner, the bullets that Tom ducks away from which strike the masonry are not special effects; in fact they are real bullets fired from a real machine-gun controlled by veterans from World War One, who knew how to use a machine gun. It would be a few years before special effects could re-create bullets being fired.

The ending combines the best of Wellman’s direction. Tom seeks revenge on those who have cut down his long time friend and decides to deal it out himself. Standing in the pouring rain, Tom’s face breaks into a terrible grin before he heads into a gunfight where he will end up second-best. Only the gunshots and screams are heard, leaving the audience to picture the scene. Tom staggers into the pouring rain, which symbolically acts as a cleansing and finality to the violence. Or so it appears.

The film’s turn as family drama also takes another step into redemption at the end of the film. Hospitalized and recovering, the family go to see him and it is the first time that Mike and Tom connect and find some reconciliation between them. The whole film sees a family fractured by Tom’s descent (or ascent depending on your opinion) into crime but also by Mike’s refusal to allow Tom any leverage in the family. The one family member who seems to suffer the most, is Tom’s mother – kind, gentle and soft, and desperate to see the family happy and re-united. Her final happiness seems secured after the hospital scene and her lively singing and demeanour contrasts tragically with what will unfold. There seems to be some hope that all will end well until the final horrific ending – which still shocks today, despite the extremely graphic violence portrayed on today’s screen.

The brilliant work of director William Wellman cannot be overstated. A veteran pilot of World War One, Wellman was often accused of being difficult, contemptuous of actors and even a bully. Yet he was also an innovator, looking outside the apparent limitations of the new sound technology (and perhaps even inventing the boom microphone!). Wellman’s pacing, sense of story and interesting use of camera shots and angles give Cagney the framework within to work. Esquire’s Dwight McDonald, known for his scathing reviews, praised Wellman’s direction of the film and his subtle use of his main actor, allowing Cagney’s portrayal to grow as the plot unfolded.

But Wellman’s greatest asset to the film, as John McCabe outlined in his biography of Cagney, was his recognition of talent. Edwards Woods was initially signed to play Tom Powers, with Cagney in the secondary role. Yet Wellman was impressed with Cagney and could see no-one else in the main role of Tom Powers. Sticking to his guns, despite the studio politics that interplayed with the decision, Wellman won through. Wellman could see that Cagney could bring to the role something that the gentle Edward Woods could not; the tough realism and New York city smarts that Cagney possessed.

Indeed, James Cagney himself pointed out that his portrayal of Tom Powers was based on a friend of his father ‘not as a character but the way I played him’ (Cagney); a gregarious raconteur with a great sense of humor, who ended up in Sing Sing for a pointless murder. Like his father’s friend, Cagney saw Tom Powers as a ‘damned soul’ but played him without the humor as there was ‘no time to do that’.

The Public Enemy stands tall today for one main reason – James Cagney. Whilst the rest of the cast do their job well and assist Cagney in his performance, Cagney is electric and dominates the screen. Variety in 1931 lauded his performance, though were less enamored with Jean Harlow (though they felt she had great presence, Variety felt her voice needed work). Cagney is all New York – in attitude as well as dialogue and speaking voice. Unlike the other actors, who carefully annunciate their words (an expectation during the early talkies), Cagney doesn’t hold back with his fast-talking banter, bringing a ‘realism’ to the role. The audience is also drawn to the physicality and sense of movement that Cagney possessed. Being a dancer, Cagney was aware of how to utilize space around him and move with a deftness and fluidity that his fellow cast members seem to lack. As a result, the audience cannot help but look at Cagney constantly, adding his own personal mannerisms that bring a uniqueness to the role. Cagney would employ a particular gesture that his father used; a gentle and affectionate tap to the jaw – a perfect example of such a mannerism. Furthermore, Cagney’s interactions with characters are filled with an energy that never tires.

Everything about Tom Powers does not make him a likeable character; his treatment of women, his use of violence, lack of compassion and overall career choice are all character traits that are deplorable. Yet Cagney became a star – his portrayal of Tom Powers was what a great, breakthrough role is to any actor seeking stardom. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of Tom Powers. It is Cagney’s courage and determination to play the role as totally unsympathetic. And yet the audience still has sympathy and connection with Tom Powers.

Variety in December, 1930 said this in its’ review of The Public Enemy: ‘There’s no lace on this picture. It’s raw and brutal. It’s low-brow material given such workmanship as to make it high-brow’.

That review still rings true today.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

3 thoughts on “The Public Enemy (1931) – The shaping of the classic film gangster

  1. Nice writeup. I saw it not too long ago and despite its mostly technical shortcomings – early talkies all have them – this is a great movie because of Cagney. His was often called the first modern performance in film. And it’s true, his acting contrast sharply and favorably with everybody else’s. Most of the other actors are still in Silent Movie mode, sometimes painfully so. Especially Tom’s brother.
    Actually Jean Harlow is amazingly bad in this movie, but she would soon learn.

    The ending indeed still packs a punch. It’s positively nasty and I’m glad we didn’t have to see his poor mother’s reaction (as far as I remember).

    About the grapefruit scene, it never in the least bit bothered me. Mae Clarke plays an utterly annoying broad (let’s call her that) and really had it coming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Margot. I agree that the film has shortcomings, particularly due to technical aspects that are over-shadowed by Cagney’s brilliance. Harlow just doesn’t have any screen presence but as you correctly point out – that would soon change! The ending is cold and brutal – and I agree that it still shocks. For my money, it’s the best of the canonical three gangster films of the early 1930s.


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