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William A. Wellman
James Cagney, Edward Woods, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, Beryl Mercer, Donald Cook, Mae Clarke, Mia Marvin, Leslie Fenton
Writing Credits:
Kubec Glasmon (story, "Beer and Blood"), John Bright (story, "Beer and Blood"), Harvey F. Thew

He was a streetwise ghetto kid, caught in the slum's web of poverty and violence. Then Prohibition came along ... and Tom Powers saw a chance to make some real dough. The Public Enemy showcases James Cagney's powerful 1931 breakthrough performance as Powers - but only because production chief Darryl F. Zanuck made a late casting change. When shooting began, Cagney has a secondary role but Zanuck quickly recognized that Cagney dominated the screen and gave him the star part. From that moment, an indelible genre classic and an enduring star career were both born. Bristling with '20s style, dialogue and desperation under the masterful directorial eye of William A. Wellman, The Public Enemy is a virtual time capsule of the Prohibition era. It's taut, gritty, hard-hitting - even at breakfast when grapefruit is served.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural

Runtime: 84 min.
Price: $19.97
Release Date: 1/25/2005

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Robert Sklar
• “Warner Night at the Movies”
• “Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public” Documentary
• 1954 Re-Release Forward
• Trailer


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The Public Enemy (1931)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 15, 2005)

People never seem to tire of films that focus on the exploits of criminals, and that tradition goes back many, many decades. Most associate the early Thirties as the first great era of gangster flicks, and it’s from that period that we find 1931’s Jimmy Cagney classic The Public Enemy.

Enemy opens in 1909, where we encounter young Tom Powers (Frank Coghlan Jr.) and his buddy Matt Doyle (Frankie Darro). Already a pair of trouble-making juvenile delinquents, Tom comes across as fairly sadistic and he clearly doesn’t worry about punishment. When his stern policeman father (Purnell Pratt) whips him, Tom remains defiant. We see that his older brother Mike (Donald Cook) is the straight arrow of the family. Tom steals items and sells them to adult fence Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), a Fagin-type figure in the boys’ lives.

The film then jumps ahead six years to find Tom (James Cagney) and Matt (Edward Woods) as teen hoods. They continue to work for and with Putty Nose as they get involved in various capers. Putty Nose enlists them for one really big job to steal some furs and also gives them their first firearms. This goes poorly, as one of the gang gets shot by the cops and our two boys barely escape.

When we leap to 1917, the boys remain up to their old tricks. A complication ensues when we see Tom’s brother Mike enlist in the military to head into World War I. 1920 comes next along with the start of Prohibition. Paddy Ryan (Robert O’Connor) enlists Tom and Matt to act as booze smugglers for him. They do very well in this regard and start to rake in the big bucks.

From there, Enemy follows Tom’s rise as a gangster. It shows his exploits over the years and also some personal relationships. We see him get involved with Kitty (Mae Clark) and eventually meet up with sultry Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow). We also watch the impact his lifestyle has on his brother Mike and mother (Beryl Mercer).

Two things about Enemy stand out as particularly positive. One comes from Cagney’s star-making performance as Tom. Like others such as Humphrey Bogart, Cagney didn’t have classic leading man looks, but he brought a ferocity to his work that allowed him to succeed. We see that intensity in Enemy, as Cagney presents a truly brash, arrogant turn.

He doesn’t sugarcoat Tom and make him sympathetic. Instead, Cagney creates a thoroughly reprehensible personality for Tom. Forceful and confident, we can see why the character prospered, but we also view him as a scary threat. A true psychopath, the cold and heartless Tom rarely presents any form of compassion or emotion. It took guts to play the role in such a vicious manner, and Cagney’s portrayal stands out as memorable.

In addition, director William Wellman delivers a surprisingly vivid visual presentation. I’m used to older flicks that stick with still cameras and unimaginative angles, but those problems never mar Enemy. From the very start, as we get a long tracking shot through town in 1909, Wellman imbues the flick with movement and life. Various elements like pans and zooms heighten our involvement in the tale and make this a dynamic program.

Unfortunately, Enemy loses points because the story itself lacks depth. A flick with little plot, it essentially just follows Tom from era to era without much continuity. Threads and people come and go but we don’t get much insight. It feels like a greatest hits reel at times as it leads us through Tom’s life and career. Not only does this result in little insight into Tom’s character, but also it makes the pacing awkward, as the presentation often feels arbitrary and somewhat incoherent.

Add to that a bizarrely abrupt - and moralizing - ending and The Public Enemy suffers from a few more problems than I’d like. Nonetheless, its best elements hold up well after almost 75 years. That span hasn’t diminished the forcefulness of Cagney’s star turn, and the movie’s visual inventiveness allows it to continue to look fresh. This isn’t a great gangster flick, but it’s usually an interesting one.

The DVD Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B-/ Bonus B

The Public Enemy appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Most movies from the early Thirties look flawed at best, but Enemy presented a stunningly good transfer.

The main distraction I encountered came from grain. That element looked a little heavier than normal, though not terribly so. A few scenes - such as the one in which Cagney got measured for a suit - were messier than most. Otherwise, Enemy suffered from a shocking lack of source defects. The occasional mark or speck occurred, but these were amazingly rare for a movie of this one’s vintage. Again, that suit sequence was dirtier than most of the others, but that was a brief disturbance in an otherwise exceptionally clean image.

Sharpness wasn’t perfect, but the movie maintained good clarity most of the time. Despite the occasional soft or muddy shot, most of the film maintained solid delineation. A few off elements stood out, though, like some oddly blurry takes of Cagney around the 51:30 mark. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I noticed no edge enhancement.

The DVD reproduced the black and white elements splendidly. While periodic exceptions popped up, most of the movie displayed nice contrast and definition. Blacks consistently came across as deep and firm, while shadows were usually smooth and distinctive. A few slightly dense shots appeared, but not enough to cause distractions.

I found it tough to decide on a grade for Enemy. Objectively, it had a mix of flaws; they stayed minor but they existed. However, when I compared it to other movies of its era, it looked vastly superior to what I might expect. I flip-flopped between a “B+” and an “A-“ but went with the higher mark simply because the flick looked better than pretty much anything else from its period.

While the monaural soundtrack of The Public Enemy didn’t impress me as much as the visuals did, the mix merited a mildly above-average mark. Speech remained intelligible but tended to be metallic and brittle. Effects showed similarly thin and weak tones most of the time, though little distortion occurred, and I also noticed some pretty decent low-end. For instance, a shot with some trucks offered good rumble.

Not a lot of music popped up through the movie; most flicks of this era lack much score, though this one used those elements a little more frequently than most. The music sounded tinny and too bright, but not badly so, and the elements were acceptably clear. Hiss was present most of the time, and a little popping and background also appeared on occasion. Unlike the visuals, the audio of Enemy didn’t stand out as terribly strong for its era, but the soundtrack worked just fine.

A nice set of extras comes with The Public Enemy. We get an audio commentary from film historian Robert Sklar. He offers a running, screen-specific discussion of the film. Sklar covers topics such as the story’s origins and path to the screen, character and story themes, the careers of the movie’s participants, a historical perspective, and subsequent censorship.

When he speaks, Sklar sticks with good information. Unfortunately, an awful lot of dead air occurs, especially given the length of the movie. If Enemy ran for two-plus hours, I could forgive the gaps more readily, but this one lasts a mere 84 minutes, and he should have been able to find material to occupy that period. Nonetheless, it’s a generally solid track.

Next comes the 40-second 1954 Re-release Forward. This text essentially says the same thing as the postscript at the end of the 1931 version. The main difference is that it also mentions 1931’s Little Caesar.

A creative and fun addition to the set, Warner Night at the Movies attempts to replicate the cinematic experience circa 1931. As explained via a three-minute and 10-second introduction from Leonard Maltin, this feature includes a trailer for Blonde Crazy, a flick from the same era as Enemy, plus a period newsreel, an animated short called Smile, Darn Ya, Smile and a live-action short entitled The Eyes Have it. The latter is notable for an early appearance of Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy. These are the kinds of pieces that might have preceded a theatrical showing of Enemy, so if you activate this feature, you get an attempt to duplicate a night at the cinema. I like this program and think it’s quite clever. Use the “Play All” option to run each of these features and then automatically launch into Enemy.

In addition to the trailer for Enemy, the disc includes a new documentary called Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public. This 19-minute and 30-second program presents movie clips, archival materials, and interviews. We hear from Sklar, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, filmmaker/film historian Alain Silver, USC professor of film Dr. Drew Casper, and author Mark A. Vieira.

The participants cover the roots of the project, casting and facets of the performances, director William Welllman and his approach, the famous grapefruit scene, the film’s depiction of violence, its music, and the flick’s legacy. Inevitably, some parts of the documentary duplicate elements from the commentary. However, a lot of new information pops up here as well. Scorsese proves particularly enlightening, especially because he discusses the way the film influenced his own work. This is a tight little program.

A seminal gangster flick, The Public Enemy doesn’t always satisfy. However, much of it works well due to strong acting and directorial creativity; those elements help balance out a lackluster script and awkward pacing. The DVD presents shockingly good picture with solid audio and a mix of quality supplements. Enemy is a flawed classic, but it still merits a look.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.1428 Stars Number of Votes: 21
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