The prototype for nearly every crime movie ever made. Released under the guise of being a morality tale – the opening titles insist that the movie isn’t meant to glorify a criminal lifestyle – The Public Enemy is a rousing story of Prohibition bootleggers nonetheless.
Any lessons learned here are decidedly contradictory. Though most of it takes place offscreen, the movie’s treatment of sex and violence is shockingly alive. We’re introduced at the start to classic antihero Tom Powers getting a whipping from his father as a young boy – director William Wellman’s camera zooms right in on the lashes – and the blows only increase from there. The movie traces Tom’s rise from a childhood of small-time crime to big bootlegging money as an adult. That is when James Cagney arrives on the scene, bringing with him the same flinty, cocksure attitude that would define his career. With his sleepy eyes and incongruous physical grace, Cagney’s outbursts were unpredictably frightening. Tom gets what is coming to him, of course, as all the bad guys in these gangster dramas do. Crime may not pay, but The Public Enemy was one of the first pictures to recognize that it sure can be exciting to watch.