Public Enemy, The (1930): Seminal Gangster Movie, Starring James Cagney

Decades after it was made, “The Public Enemy” remains intriguing, brutally realistic, and truly scary crime-gangster film.

“The Public Enemy” launched a cycle of gangster films in the early years of the Depression that also includes “Little Caesar” with Edward G. Robinson, and “Scarface” with Paul Muni.

In their narrative format (rise and fall) and visual style, all three became models for later crimers to emulate, and some were remade by other directors.

“The Public Enemy” made a star of its leading man, James Cagney, who in 1930 made no less than five films. It also established William Wellman as a major director of crime (and other) dramas.

The tale opens with two young Irish boys, Tom (Frank Coghlan) and Matt (Frankie Darro), growing up in the South Side of Chicago, circa 1909, learning a life of crime from Putty Nose (Kinnell), a fence.

The story then jumps ahead to their adulthood.  As adults, Tom (now played by Jimmy Cagney) and Matt (Woods) move into robbery but, on a warehouse heist, a panicky Tom fires his gun needlessly.  They barley escape the police, but in the process they kill a cop.

Moving up the crime ladder, the two young hoodlums get into boot-legging on the advice of Paddy Ryan (O’Connor).  Matt and Tom square their accounts with Putty Nose, in a scene that uses the off-screen sound of a discordant piano.

Working for Nails Nathan (Fenton), the two are successful in their new racket, and move into an apartment with Mamie (Joan Blondell) and Kitty (Mae Clarke). Tom later takes up with the seductive Gwen (Jean Harlow).

Tom, the more nasty and aggressive of the two, continues to rise up in the gangster world. When Nails is killed by a horse in a freak accident, tom shoots the animal.

Meanwhile, Tom’s good, crusading brother Mike (Cook) prevents their mother (Beryl Mercer) from accepting his money.

In the end, gang warfare takes its toll. The film’s final shot, with “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” playing on a victrola, is still one of the most horrifying images seen in a Hollywood movie.

One of the most realistic gangster films ever produced. Wellman’s mater-of fact direction is impressive.  Orchestrating a number of violent deaths off-screen, he spares no brutality of emotion, action, or thought in his grim portrayal of a lethal criminal.

Cocky, tough as nails, fast-moving and lacking any morals or conscience, Cagney renders a definitive portraiture of the rise and fall and death of a gangster.

By way of explanation, the movie draws on the familial and social contexts in which Tom grows up. The one cop shown in detail is Tom’s father, a brute who walks around the house in half his uniform, handling his unruly child with a razor strop.

Dev Jennings shot the film emphasizing sharp contrasts: glaring sunlit exteriors and grainy gray interiors that fade to black alleyways and gutters.

Tom’s casual brutality scars the memory in shot after shot. The moment best remembered, of course, is the one in which Cagney smashes half a grapefruit in Clarke’s face when she taunts him with the suggestion that maybe he’s found a new lover. Everyone connected with this famous scene recalls it differently–whose idea it was, was Cagney really supposed to hit her, was Clarke prepared, etc. Whatever the case, Clarke is unfortunately remembered more for this small role than any other she played, and Cagney was for years to come offered a grapefruit whenever he entered a restaurant.

Originally, Cagney was cast as the quiet, soft-spoken pal of Eddie Woods, who was assigned with the lead role of Tom Powers.  But director Wellman saw “Doorway to Hell” and became aware of the casting error. So Eddie and Cagney switched roles after Wellman made an issue of it with Daryl Zanuck

Cagney later reported that when he and Mae Clark played the grape scene: “We had no idea that it would create such a stir. I now had a reputation in pictures as a woman slugger”

Reportedly, this notorious scene was based on an actual incident in Chicago when hoodlum Hynnie Wein took an omelet at breakfast and shoved it in his mistress’s face.

Cagney recalls” “Invariably whenever I went into a restaurant, there was always some way of having the waiter bring me a tray of grapefruit.”

“The Public Enemy” is one of the first modest pictures to have grossed over $1 million at the box-office. The film’s budget was only $151,000 and it took just six days to make.

Oscar Nominations: 1

 Original Story: John Bright and Kubec Glasmon


Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner was John Monk Saunders for “The Dawn Patrol.”

In 1930, Cagney starred in three of the five films nominated for the Best Original Story Oscar.