Every great genre has a beginning. Horror movies can be traced back to the Germans, and comedies back to Ronald Regan. But the gangster drama can be traced all the way back to “The Public Enemy”, the movie that was Goodfellas before Martin Scorsese was chewing on the pacifier that gave him a super human brain.
Filled with numerous classic scenes—like James Cagney shoving a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face or him being “delivered” home at the end—the major takeaway is the grit and low-down dirty tone of the entire picture.
Following young Tommy Powers (Cagney) at a young age as he hoodlums, smirks and spits “Why I outta!” dialogue all the way until he is an adult whose mastered those very traits, “Enemy” is the true summation of a life of crime. He was born to be a crook, and Cagney was born to play the role.
You wouldn’t think that years after filming this he would win an Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy, which had him tap dancing and singing. Here he’s killing, robbing, using fruit as a weapon, smacking around anyone who tells him different and Cagney is smirking the whole way. A naturally young looking face and short stature, his devilish grin and bulging eyes make him such an imposing figure. He completely over-shadows his co-stars, but it’s his undeniable charm that makes him an early anti-hero.
However dastardly likeable he may be, the movie makes the case with statements at the beginning and end that illuminate the fact these kinds of people are real, and these foes cannot be tolerated. What better way to make the case than in the movie’s eternally haunting ending, which finds a dead (and presumably tortured Powers) propped up at the doorway only to collapse when the door is opened. There is no leaving this life unless it’s through death, and even then the cycle keeps going. The final scene sees Tom’s brother Michael—a well-to-do soldier— walking into the frame filled with rage and sadness. Will he avenge his brother and fall into a life of crime, or will he see this as a sign and leave forever? I like to think the statement that fills the screen at the end that says only we can end violence hints to the ladder, but the final shot is so mysterious any explanation could be right.
The focus on Powers engaging in crime at a young age and following him to death can be seen as a direct influence on what is the best mob movie ever, Goodfellas, even though that movie had a slightly (okay, totally different) ending. But “The Public Enemy” laid the foundation for every mob movie to come after and gave birth to not only a star in Cagney, but an entire genre that then inspired an entire culture along with it. Director William Wellman wouldn’t be happy there is still insurmountable crime in the world done by men like Powers, but he should be proud his movie has stood the test of time.