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Film / The Public Enemy

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"I ain't so tough!"

"I know what you've been doing all this time, how you got those clothes and those new cars. You've been telling Ma that you've gone into politics, that you're on the city payroll. Pat Burke told me everything. You murderers! There's not only beer in that jug. There's beer and blood — blood of men!"
Mike Powers, confronting his brother

The Public Enemy is a 1931 pre-Code Warner Bros. gangster film directed by William A. Wellman. The film that made James Cagney a star, it also typecast him as a tough guy and gangster, and he'd keep on playing roles like that throughout The '30s.

The "Public Enemy" of the film's title is Tom Powers (Cagney), a young Irish-American growing up in the projects of Chicago. He starts out with petty crime as a juvenile, but Prohibition offers him a chance to graduate to bootlegging and murder. Crime doesn't pay, though, and Tom, the public enemy, is destined for a bad end, "the end of every hoodlum."

Jean Harlow appears as Gwen, Tom's moll. Joan Blondell plays an earlier girlfriend that gets thrown over in favor of Gwen. Mae Clarke plays yet another girlfriend, who has a memorable encounter with a grapefruit.


This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Title Change: The Public Enemy was based on the novel Beer and Blood.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Putty Nose begs and pleads to Tom and Mike when they are about to kill him. It doesn't work.
  • Ambiguously Gay: There is a scene right after Tom comes into a lot of money where he is getting measured for a new suit. The tailor has a bit too much fun taking the measurements...
  • Anti-Hero: Tom Powers.
  • Ballistic Discount: Possible Trope Maker for film. The gun shop owner is so dumb he even loads the gun for Tom, while the gun is in Tom's hand.
  • Battle in the Rain: Subverted—a torrential rain is falling in Chicago as Tom goes into the rival gang's headquarters to shoot it out, but all of the shooting takes place off-screen.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Seen from Matt after he is gunned down in a hail of bullets.
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  • Bookends: Opens with a message that this film's purpose isn't to glorify gangsters, and closes with the message that 'The Public Enemy' is a problem in society that must be stopped.
  • Cool Guns: Tom's Colt Police revolver.
  • Corporal Punishment: It's suggested that one of the reasons why Tom became a vicious bootlegger was because his father regularly spanked him when he was a kid.
    Young Tom: How do you want 'em – up or down this time?
  • Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: Tom Powers and Matt Doyle - they get all the girls, the snappy suits, and the cars.
  • Dead-Hand Shot: One of the thieves that Putty Nose sends out on a job with Tom and Matt is shot down in the street.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Tom and Matt shooting a horse after a friend of theirs dies riding it. This was based on a real incident.
  • Domestic Abuse: The infamous grapefruit-in-the-face scene.
    Tom: Ain't you got a drink in the house?
    Kitty: Not before breakfast, dear.
    Tom: I didn't ask you for any lip. I asked you if you had a drink.
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: In-Universe—in fact, explicitly stated in the opening title card.
    "It is the ambition of the authors of 'The Public Enemy' to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or criminal."
    • And again in the closing title card.
    "The end of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum."
  • Downer Ending: Tom's in the hospital due to his injuries from avenging a fallen comrade, and when it looks like he's about to redeem himself, he gets kidnapped by the surviving mob members. But then his family gets a call from a stranger, presumably one of Tom's pals, that Tom's coming home immediately! As the mother and sister tidy up Tom's room, his brother Mike opens the door and watches Tom's dead body collapse before him.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Tom adores his Ma, and she seems to willingly overlook his crimes.
  • The Fagin: Putty Nose, the fence and petty crook who steers young Tom and Matt into crime. Another mobster even calls him that.
  • Fight Unscene: Tom tracks down the gangsters who killed Matt to their headquarters, marches in and kills them, getting wounded in the process. All the while, the camera stays outside the building.
  • Food Slap: Famously done with a grapefruit.
  • The Film of the Book: The film was adapted from the then-published novel Beer and Blood by Chicago newspapermen turned screenwriters Kubec Glasmon and John Bright. After the film's release it was published under the film's title.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: When Putty Nose walks down the street he sees a black cat crossing his path before Tom and Matt kill him.
  • Freudian Excuse: It's suggested that Tom grew up to be such a violent Jerkass because he got spanked a lot when he was a kid.
  • Gangland Drive-By: Matt is killed this way.
  • The Irish Mob: They seem to be the only mob that exists in Chicago; all the turf wars in the film are between different Irish-American gangs, every gangster has an Irish name, and no references are made to the Italian-American mafia or the Jewish-American mob (save for an immigrant businessman who agrees to set up a bootlegging operation with Nathan's gang, who is implied to be a Jewish German).
  • Ironic Echo: When Tom and Matt are kids, they and some other kids listen to Putty Nose singing and playing on the piano, and interrupt him before he finishes. When Tom and Matt are adults, they kill a pleading Putty Nose at the same part of the song.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Putty Nose's song is cut off at the same point as earlier in the film, when Tom and Matt were kids.
  • Kubrick Stare: Tom as he walks into the rival mob's hangout, right before the shooting starts.
  • Market-Based Title: It was released as Enemies of the Public in the UK.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The first scene is Tom and Matt as schoolboy hoodlums.
  • "Mister Sandman" Sequence: Each time the movie moves to another year.
  • Mob-Boss Suit Fitting: The Trope Maker, although the tailor's taking measurements, rather than Powers and his accompanying mook, discuss a certain recent liquor warehouse heist.
  • No Honor Among Thieves: When teenaged Tom and Matt botch a robbery, their boss Putty Nose ditches them. But when they see Putty Nose again during Matt's wedding and follow him back home...
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: The climactic shootout, in which the camera stays outside the building and we hear a multitude of gunshots, followed by a badly wounded Tom stumbling outside.
  • Officer O'Hara: A stereotypical Irish cop is friend to the Powers family.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. There are two guys named Patrick, but most of the time they're called Paddy Ryan and Pat Burke, so there's no reason to get confused.
  • Parental Favoritism: Ma Powers favors her 'Tommy boy' over elder son Mike.
  • Pie in the Face: The film's iconic scene has Tom smashing a half grapefruit into his girlfriend's face.
  • Pretty in Mink: Gwen Allen wears some lovely minks.
  • Rape as Drama: A rare male example: while Tom is lying low at Paddy Ryan's house, he gets shitfaced one night, and Paddy's girlfriend (who is sober) takes advantage of him off-screen. The next morning, when Tom finally remembers what had happened, he angrily slaps Paddy's girlfriend and storms out of the house. This gets Matt killed, as he follows Tom outside in an attempt to bring him back in, which exposes himself to a rival gang.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Tom is the quick-to-anger gangster (red), while his older brother Mike is the calm, respectable type (blue).
  • "Rise and Fall" Gangster Arc: One of the earliest examples of the trope, along with Little Caesar.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Tom's reaction to Matt's death is to steal a pair of pistols from a merchant and charge into the rival mob's hangout.
  • Sibling Rivalry: A great deal of the film's conflict is between Tom and Mike.
  • Sickbed Slaying: This is implied to happen when Tom winds up in the hospital and some rival gangsters decide to pay him a visit. He is delivered home dead.
  • Slasher Smile: As he sees Matt gunned down in the street, Tom smiles. He has another psycho grin on his face as he walks into the rival mob's headquarters, seeking revenge.
  • Sound-Only Death: The camera cuts to Matt sitting at the side of the room when Tom shoots Putty Nose.
  • Tragic Hero: Arguably Tom. He dies just as he promises to go straight.
  • Video Credits: Before the film starts to introduce the main characters.
  • Villain Protagonist: Tom, again.
  • Would Hit a Girl: More like shove a grapefruit into a girl's face.