The Public Enemy
"Made when Hollywood was still raw"
Dir. William Wellman; writ. Harvey Thew; feat. James Cagney, Edward Woods, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell (UNRATED)
Long before Jack Valenti was paid millions to tell concerned parents how well his Motion Picture Association of America was keeping their children safe by labeling nasty movies "R" or "NC-17," Hollywood had a thing called the Hays Code, this was a set of self-censorship guidelines that forbade depiction of things like mockery of clergymen, profanity, and miscegenation. "No picture shall be produced," it insisted, "which will lower the standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." As you might imagine, this institution put a crimp on that beloved cinematic staple, the gangster movie.
Fortunately for mobster lovers everywhere, a few classics sneaked out before William Hays forbade us to identify with the bad men — and they don't get much more classic than The Public Enemy. This movie gave us, among other things, the James Cagney archetype; for the rest of his career, Cagney would be identified with the brash, explosive criminal he plays here (a fate which also befell Edward G. Robinson, star of that other gangster classic, Little Caesar). These movies generally cloaked their violent thrills in the guise of social conscience, so the criminal protagonists were allowed to be somewhat less sympathetic than they would be in years to come. For that reason, the movies still have some power to shock; the scene in which Cagney smashes a grapefruit into a woman's face remains one of the cinema's most referenced acts of callousness.
Beyond story and sociology, though, Enemy merits attention for its technical achievements, with daredevil director William Wellman refusing to be constrained by the static camera placement used in most early sound films. Instead, he sticks the camera under a passing car, keeping in mind that Wellman was the man behind the aviation classic Wings, it's clear Cagney wasn't the only larger-than-life personality on the set. — John DeFore