The “Public Enemy”

“The Public Enemy,” starring James Cagney and Jean Harlow was a sensational film depicting the lives of two gangsters during the prohibition era. Before I begin discussing what I found particularly interesting about the film I would just like to point out the scene in the beginning of the film, where hours before the prohibition law was to be enforced, countless Americans hurried to stock up on as much booze as the can lay their hands on. One woman even carried her child while strolling the liquor she had purchased in her baby carriage. The reason this scene struck my attention was because only a few days before watching “The Public Enemy” I had watched “Boardwalk Empire” on HBO. “Boardwalk Empire”, a television series about gangsters during the prohibition, much like “The Public Enemy”, used an almost identical scene to convey the same point; Americans thrive on the consumption of alcohol. It’s amazing how nearly 80 years later (1931-2010) directors are using the same methods in film to accentuate the same point.

Now onto the deeper stuff…”Good vs Evil” ,”Right vs Wrong,” what do these words really mean? James Cagney’s character, Tom Powers, on the surface was meant to be construed as the evil doing Public Enemy. His brother Mike, meant to signify the good, the noble, the proper American citizen. Obviously I don’t condone crime or any other wrongdoings, but the year was 1931,  times were tough. An honest buck wasn’t easy to come by. Immigration was at a high, and the promise of the “American Dream” was surely surfacing at that specific place in time. Gangsters were not what they are today. “Classy” would be one word to describe the Gangster in the 1930’s. Take Tom’s friend Matt Doyle for example, a proper dressed, well manored, man of his word. Soooo he may have murdered some people behind the scenes…It was all for a common cause, to make a living. It is easy for us to say now in our modern “swell” times that simply working in a factory and making the “honest buck” would have been the better way to carry out your life. To start a family, and live out a noble life, rather than to die in infamy as a notorious gangster. Tom and Matt may have been meant to convey the evil of society, but some may identify them as visionaries. Men who will stop at nothing until they reach their goal, find their proper place in this world.

“Which would be worse, to live as a monster or die as a good man?,” a line from the 2009 film “Shutter Island,” directed by Martin Scorsese. At this point in the movie the main character Teddy Daniels (Leo DiCaprio) discovered his true identity as a so called “monster.” He chooses death over salvation, just like Cagney’s character Tom who witnesses the death’s of so many close to him, including his best friend. The “rational” man would have just moved on with his life, in a sense “started over.” But no, not Cagney, he seemed to never learn his lesson. Toward the end of the film we see Cagney’s demise, his death was meant to signify life in 1930’s America brought to you by the United States Government. Do bad thing and expect to be punished.

“The Public Enemy” was a great film, I really did enjoy it.

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3 Comments so far

  1.   khan on October 12th, 2010

    I totally agree with you about the fact the the movie in a way seemed like a threat from the U.S. government so as to deter the common man from committing crimes and viewing the gangsters as role models. The 1930’s like before were hard times but even worse due to the great depression. The government had enough on their hands in terms of the ravaged economy and add it to the fact that the amount of crimes occurring were on a rise due to poverty. The film did as you said “advertised” for the government that criminal activity leads to your eventual demise and you are better off avoiding it,as you will wreck not only yourself but your loves ones as well. Nice post well written.

  2.   Amy Herzog on October 12th, 2010

    I think that even in 1934, audiences responded with great empathy toward Tom and Matt, and the limited options they had in terms of picking a path in life. While we certainly see the inevitable outcome of this choice, even today filmmakers return to the same scenarios to illustrate the same quandaries– we still haven’t learned, and we still like the “bad” characters more than the “good.” I’d love to know if the Boardwalk Empire scene was an homage– my guess is yes!

  3.   nickvirgintino on October 19th, 2010

    This movie can be compared to Shutter Island (great movie). “To live as a monster or die a good man”, Cagney’s character chose to live as a monster, he never realized that there was anything else to live. He lived as a monster and died as one. DiCaprio’s character in Shutter Island chose to die a good man, make up a new identity for himself so he didn’t have to live with the fact that he murdered his wife.

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