The Public Enemy (1931) Review

The Public Enemy (1931) Director: William A. Wellman



James Cagney delivers a terrific and shocking performance as the brutal gangster, Tom Powers, in William Wellman’s The Public Enemy. Cagney’s character was based on a real Chicago gangster named Earl “Hymie” Weiss. Jean Harlow plays a small role as a call girl -her only role opposite Cagney in a film. The Public Enemy is one of the first and also greatest ‘gangster’ films to emerge from Hollywood, however the only Academy Award nomination it received was for the screenplay, which was based on the novel Beer and Blood.

Little Caesar was released around the same time as The Public Enemy and was also directed by William A. Wellman, both key gangster/crime films. The Public Enemy, which glamorized violence and illicit activity, was a significant cause of Hollywood’s infamous Hay’s code that censored unwanted violent or sexual material. In The Public Enemy, Tom Powers and Matt Doyle grow up together, but Tom causes mischief around town to shop owners and kids. He is the son of a policeman who spanks him whenever he makes poor decisions. Tom gets involved with a robbery that goes awry when someone accidentally shoots a stuffed bear, and Tom also shoots a police officer while fleeing the scene. He lays low for a while.

While running trucks during the great war -and after in 1920- Matt and Tom begin bootlegging beer. Tom begins to become cruel and cold-hearted, as evidenced when he breaks up with his girlfriend by shouting her down and shoving a grapefruit in her face.


A rival gang begins to develop as Tom rebels against Puddy (the bartender who is cut in on the alcohol deal). The rival gang guns down Matt in the street. In retaliation, Tom goes to their headquarters and shoots them all, but he is shot to death, as well. Stumbling out in the rain, he collapses and dies in the street. His last words are: “I ain’t so tough.” His body is returned to his sorrowful mother’s house. The film closes with the following title:

“The END of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. ‘The Public Enemy’ is, not a man, nor is it a character — it is a problem that sooner or later WE, the public, must solve.”