The Public Enemy is a clear-sighted look into the dark, rancid heart of American capitalism.
Most famous for one of its most insignificant scenes, James Cagney rubbing a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face, William Wellman’s seminal early gangster film dramatizes the life of a working-class Irish Catholic hoodlum from his rough boyhood in Chicago to his ghoulish demise. Wellman, who directed the very first movie to win an Oscar for “Best Picture” as well as the short, sharp, brutal masterpiece The Ox Bow Incident, has so much flinty, stripped-down artistic integrity that it makes me wonder if perhaps WASPs and only WASPs should direct gangster movies. Later films about organized crime like The Godfather, Scarface, and Goodfellas all seem marred by an operatic, overwrought, Italian sensibility. The TV mini-series Breaking Bad, in turn, feels like a short film padded into a 5-year-long mini-series. Why keep re shooting the same story in greater, more ornate, more baroque complexity when William Wellman put it on screen in its pure, distilled essence, all the way back in 1931?
It’s hard not to like Tommy Powers, the role that made James Cagney a movie star. We first meet him in 1909. He’s still a boy, but his personality is fully formed. He’s cynical. He hates girl. He’s belligerent. But he’s also clever, resourceful, brave. If he had the right kind of role models, he could probably be anything he wants. What he has are a physically abusive policeman for a father, and Putty Nose, a Fagin-like petty criminal, for a mentor. He also has a doting mother, a lifelong friend named Matt Doyle, and, most importantly of all, a straight laced brother named Mike.
We see Tommy and Matt a few years later as young men. They attempt to do a robbery for Putty Nose. It goes bad. One of their gang gets killed. They shoot a cop. Even though Putty Nose hangs them out to dry — a move that he will later regret —they don’t get caught. In 1917, Mike Powers enlists in the army, and goes off to France. We never quite learn what happens to the father. He simply disappears. Perhaps he just got sick of his family and abandoned them. In any event, while Tommy and Matt have jobs as streetcar conductors, they’re well on their way to being career criminals. New Years Day, 1920, the day Prohibition became the law of the land, is also the day they get their big break, the chance to make “real money”
One of the joys of The Public Enemy is the way it gives you a real sense of history. Filmed in 1931, on the eve of repeal, The Public Enemy stages the 1920, New Year’s Eve rush to buy alcohol in Chicago. It’s like any supermarket the day before a blizzard. People are stocking up while they can. But Matt, Tommy, and a local crime boss named Paddy Ryan are planning ahead. Alcohol will now be a hot commodity on the “free market.” Paddy is willing to buy all that Matt and Tommy can steal. He’s also willing to use them as muscle against saloon owners who don’t buy their beer. Paddy works for Nails Nathan, the biggest gangster in Chicago, and by signing on with Paddy, Tommy and Matt are signing on with Nails Nathan. Soon, Tommy is a rising star in the Chicago underworld, complete with a wad of cash, and a fancy new wardrobe. He’s a natural, brutal, clever, and efficient. He has no moral scruples to get in his way. When he’s ordered to kill Putty Nose, he does it with no more regret than he would have stepping on a centipede in the basement, or swatting a fly. Matt, by contrast, while an enthusiastic professional criminal, still manages to look a bit distressed as Putty Nose begs for his life, and Tommy guns him down in cold blood.
But it’s not Matt who serves as the main foil for Tommy Powers. It’s his brother, Mike Powers. While Mike may in fact be the petty embezzler Tommy accuses him of being — he may scam coins at his job as a streetcar conductor —he’s still a man who struggles against the temptations of a career as a gangster. That means long hours at work, night school, the slow, demoralizing grind of working-class men everywhere. Tommy’s mother pretends not to take sides, but it’s clear Tommy, not Mike, is her favorite. Whether or not Tommy has a grudging respect for Mike is the film’s most intriguing question. Tommy, to be sure, is a cold blooded sociopath, but when his brother punches him in the face, he let’s him get away with it. When Mike histrionically declaims that a keg of Tommy’s illegal beer is not just beer but “beer mixed with blood” Tommy makes a show of bravado, but we wonder if, deep down inside, he might not realize his brother is right, that he’s a doomed man headed for certain damnation.
The Public Enemy is a pre-Hayes Code movie. Wellman eschews simplistic moralism. There are vivid, realistic scenes of the Chicago underworld, a gangster’s mistress who gets Tommy drunk and seduces him, a swishy, gay tailor, that were censored for decades. Wellman doesn’t balk at showing us how much more fun being a gangster must have been then being a working man. Mike Powers might be the film’s moral center, but he’s a dull, ineffectual, mean spirited scold. William Wellman was under no obligation to bring Tommy Powers to a bad end. We can assume that, when he does, his motivation was to tell an honest story, not to live up to any kind of coercive requirement to show that “crime doesn’t pay.” So when Tommy does meet a bad end, it’s not a deus ex machina, not a clumsy tip of the hat to the censors. It’s the only logical outcome of Tommy’s story. Tommy, who is a sociopath may be a charismatic, entertaining man, but, inside, he’s rotten through and through. The are no happy endings. Crime doesn’t pay. It pays you good and hard.
Even 80 years later, the last minute of The Public Enemy is one of the most brutal, and vivid sequences ever put to film. Tommy Powers is snuffed out with no more sentiment than he snuffed out Putty Face. By comparison, Brian De Palma’s Scarface looks like a silly gore fest and Scorsese’s Goodfellas like bad, Italian stand up comedy.