William Wellman’s The Public Enemy is to my mind the best of the early pre-Code gangster films (not to take anything away from Scarface or Little Caesar). James Cagney is basically perfect as the Irish gangster who rises from nothing into becoming an important gangster, only to be brought down by the same violence that led to his rise. The story takes Cagney and his good friend Edward Woods from their start as little thugs in 1909 to their first big action in 1915 to their real rise in bootlegging during Prohibition. Cagney is restless, hungry for action. He has a girl but she’s no good moll. He’s sick of her and then he runs into Jean Harlow who isn’t really given much to do except be a moll with a long sexual history (“The men I’ve known–and I’ve known dozens of them) who is Cagney’s match in every way, although I definitely would not call Harlow a good actor. Woods marries Joan Blondell who is as open-faced and welcoming as always, though not much of a mobster’s wife.
These early sound gangster films are so full of life, so energetic. I love the camerawork here, with Cagney walking almost straight into the camera as a threat, a shot we see a lot in these days and that largely disappeared by the mid-30s. He’s a tough man and a threat to the audience as well as all good and decent people out there.
I do find the title interesting because Cagney really isn’t the big Public Enemy No. 1. He doesn’t even lead the gang. He’s really a good soldier and nothing more. His ambition is simply not the same as Scarface or Little Caesar, nor does he use the same ruthless tactics. He’s a thug does his job well. He settles scores and he offs his enemies, but that’s rather par for the course. And when he is killed, it isn’t a blaze of glory by the righteous cops but rather it’s just another hit from another gang.