1931’s The Public Enemy is still at this stage one of the best gangster films ever made. James Cagney achieved fame and movie immortality from his performance as Tom Powers, and time has done nothing to diminish the impact of either Cagney’s work or the film itself. It tells the cautionary tale of Powers from a youth spent building from standard childhood mischief into actual criminality and, as bootlegging brings him enormous wealth but just as much trouble, and his eventual starkly violent end.
It’s directed with a docudrama approach by William A. Wellman, and takes us through a little over 20 years of Tom’s life, stopping on the way at the years where the big events shaped Powers’ eventual fate. Cagney’s ambitious hoodlum is clearly inspired by Al Capone but takes in elements of any of the Prohibition-era criminals who built criminal empires from the ban on alcohol. In that, the story is not a surprising one nor does it go anywhere you wouldn’t expect. Given that this is almost the template for so many gangster films that followed it’s not surprising, but it’s worth keeping in mind these problems were contemporary for viewers at the time, and concerns over the explosion of violence that hit American cities were one of the most important issues of the day.
Warner Bros got around any accusations of wallowing in pre-Code displays of crime by advising audiences to view the film as a warning. Another film of nearly 60 years later, Goodfellas, essentially tells the same tale of glamour and desire, success and decline but comparably The Public Enemy has style to spare too. Wellman’s direction is flawless, his camera swooping and prowling and threatening, but finding poetry too. Cinematography, editing and a solid screenplay all contribute to the film’s ultimate success. Performances are all very good, but of course Cagney absolutely dominates as Powers. He is extraordinary, a mix of charisma, vulnerability, but most of all a bruising, burgeoning sociopathy. It’s tough, hard and bleak stuff. An outstanding, all-time classic.
As for this HMV-exclusive dual-format release, like their other recent gangster reissues there’s nothing new extras-wise but everything that has been on previous DVDs shows up here: an informative commentary, their nifty Warner Night at the Movies presentation which showcases the films along with a newsreel, comedy short, cartoon and trailers, as well as a good 20-minute featurette (with Martin Scorsese) and the foreword that accompanied the 1954 re-release. As for the transfer, though not a new scan, it’s in generally good shape, clear and sharp for the most part. A nice HD release of one of the great films of American cinema.
THE PUBLIC ENEMY / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: WILLIAM A. WELLMAN / SCREENPLAY: KUBEC GLASMON, JOHN BRIGHT / STARRING: JAMES CAGNEY, JEAN HARLOW, EDWARD WOODS, JOAN BLONDELL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW