During the pre-Code era of Hollywood, when censorship laws were changing with the evolution of the medium, The Public Enemy represented something truly unique. Often considered to be one of the first gangster films ever made along with Scarface and Little Caesar, William A. Wellman’s 1931 gem undermined the conservative censoring of cinema by portraying a world that was as grim as prohibition-era America.
Due to the strict enforcement of the Hays Code (a censorship law that prohibited the depiction of “immoral” themes) during the mid-1930s, the production of gangster films became a scarcity in the country for the majority of the next 30 years. That’s exactly why The Public Enemy and its contemporaries still serves as a brilliant insight into cinema’s relationship with reality. The film’s disclaimer stated that: “It is the intention of the authors of The Public Enemy to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than to glorify the hoodlum or the criminal.” However, these cinematic gangsters signalled the rise of a new kind of anti-hero whose subversive presence became a symbol of resistance.
Based on an unpublished novel that was inspired by the mob wars that Al Capone waged, The Public Enemy stars James Cagney as a young hoodlum named Tom Powers who climbs the criminal hierarchy of the underworld. Very graphic for the conservative standards of that period, the film presents a vision of the urban landscape that is plagued by acts of crime and violence. The Public Enemy also brilliantly compares the widespread destruction caused by the First World War to what was going on in the country. When Tom’s brother Mike (who served in the war) confronts him about his illegal activities, Tom memorably responds with this scathing criticism of such hypocrisy:
“Your hands ain’t so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”
The Public Enemy relied on the melodramatic value of its narrative more than the shock of the spectacle, featuring the deaths of its characters as a natural consequence of their involvement in such a world. In the quest for pursuing realism, Cagney had to endure a lot during production. During one fight scene, he actually had one of his teeth broken by Donald Cook but kept playing the part despite the obvious pain. The use of live ammunition was also very common for those films and one of the bullets almost hit Cagney in the head. Other memorable scenes from the film have also gone down in cinematic history, especially the grapefruit incident where Cagney smashes a grapefruit into the face of Mae Clark.
In an interview with William Wellman Jr., he recalled: “At Warner’s, ‘The Public Enemy’ was one of his favourite projects. Or, let’s put it this way: the writers came to him because nobody was moving on the project, while my father loved it. He then took it to Darryl F. Zanuck who produced a lot of the movies that Warner Brothers were making at that time—he also was my father’s producer—and my father talked him into making that picture.”
After the release of The Public Enemy, the police started conducting a survey on the public’s reaction and concluded that they found that the films portrayed the police in a favourable manner. However, the censorship board did not agree with the findings and proceeded to remove around 2000 crime scenes from 1930 to 1932. When The Public Enemy was released again in 1941, three scenes were removed from the film and the 1954 re-release contained a prologue which stated that gangsters are “a menace that the public must confront.”
Despite these attempts to suppress the artistic vision of the film, it served as an inspiration for New Hollywood filmmakers like Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola who revitalised the genre.