Plot: What’s it about?
Tom Powers (James Cagney) has never been a social marvel, as he prefers a lifestyle of wine, women, and song. Even if he has to turn to crime to make this lifestyle happen, Tom obliges and does whatever he must to keep away from normal work and responsibilities. He and his friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) have been on the wrong side of the law since childhood. The climb into the big time came in the early 20s however, a time which saw these two chums start at the bottom, but look toward loftier positions. The rage is bootlegging, as alcohol is manufactured and shipped to patrons, all at a high price. After all, the police are always on the watch for such activities, so when the booze is available, it comes at no small expense. Tom’s mean streak becomes more brutal, even smashing a grapefruit into the face of a young woman over breakfast. As he lives his new fast lifestyle, Tom is still visited by his older brother Mike (Donald Cook) who tries to bring him back on the right side, only to be refused time after time. But in this world of dangerous games, will Tom find himself at the top of the heap or at the bottom of the river?
This was the picture that established one of Hollywood’s original tough guys, the rough, surly James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Roaring Twenties). This was one of his earliest roles, but he proves he has the skill to be in the big leagues, no doubt. I really love his performance here and while the rest of the film is solid, without him, the movie falls short. The role had to be tough, desperate, and hard nosed, all elements Cagney brings in spades. So we know the lead actor is up to snuff, but is The Public Enemy a good movie, or just a movie with a great performance? This is an old school gangster classic, a well crafted movie that uses social issues of the time to drive home more than fluff entertainment. I won’t claim that The Public Enemy is a deep, complex movie, but this is more than a standard mobster movie. The themes are typical of Depression era cinema, with an emphasis on the trials and tribulations of Prohibition. But the film also follows the basic formula of mobster movies, with tough guys, crime sprees, betrayals, and of course, beautiful women. The female side is covered by Jean Harlow (Red Dust, Hold Your Man) and Mae Clarke (Frankenstein, Lady Killer), so beauty is not rare here. The pace is brisk, the performances are solid, and the visuals are quite good too, so The Public Enemy earns a more than solid recommendation for all the old school wiseguys out there.
Video: How does it look?
The Public Enemy is presented in full frame, as intended. This is a very good looking treatment, better than I had anticipated. The print shows flecks, debris, and grain at times, but only in minor doses. The nicks never amount to much, while the grain never becomes a cause for concern. The image is quite sharp, with minimal softness I could detect, which is great news for a film from 1931. The black & white visuals come off as crisp and refined, thanks to great contrast. Even in darker scenes, the visuals shine through well. So Warner has done some solid work here, which is sure to delight fans.
Audio: How does it sound?
Not much to discuss here, as the included mono track is good, but not quite great. The track is clean enough in the end, but I would have liked it to be more distinct and crisp, especially in terms of dialogue. But you can hear all the vocals just fine and at a proper volume, so I suppose that is a small complaint. The music sounds decent and the minimal sound effects are ok, but again, this is on the mono scale. You can hear what you need to, which is all that counts in this case, I guess. This disc also includes subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.
Supplements: What are the extras?
As part of the Warner Night at the Movies line, this disc includes some short films, newsreels, and trailers, all designed to recreate that “at the movies” feel. I am not against such a prospect, but then again, I don’t need to see all this each time, so repeat value is minimal. Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public is an all new featurette, in which the film is discussed. The stories center on Cagney’s performance and with good reason, but other issues are also broached in this fine piece. The final supplement is an audio commentary track with film scholar Robert Sklar, who provides a solid session. A lot of the production stories are well known to film buffs, but Sklar still manages to dish out a few good tidbits. So not the most insightful session out there, but a brisk one with some nice stories, so well worth a listen.