Based on the novel Beer And Blood by the film's screenwriters, Kubec Glasmon and John Bright (who were nominated for an Oscar for their work on this film), The Public Enemy is widely considered a classic of the early gangster films that Warner Brothers pumped out in the 1930s. What the film is best known for, however, is James Cagney's maniacally enthusiastic turn as lead thug, Tom Powers.
The film begins in Tom's childhood, where he and his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) are a pair of Hell raising kids who get set up with the wrong crowd from the get go. They start off with some small stuff, petty crimes here and there, and as the years go on, they get involved in some serious prohibition era schemes that ultimately lead to them finding their way onto the police's hot list.
A sub plot involving Tom and his gorgeous mistress, Kitty (Mae Clark), culminates with the famous scene in which he smushes a grapefruit right into her face, winds up when Tom instead decides he wants Gwen (the equally beautiful Jean Harlow in her only starring role for Warner Brothers). Gwen pretends she's not interested in Tom until he decides to move on, at which point she falls head over heels for him.
When Matt finds himself on the receiving end of a bullet, Tom goes all out to track done and get revenge on the schmucks who killed his pal, proving himself to be true public enemy…
Directed with a whole lot of rough style by William Wellman in four weeks for just a hair over $150,000.00, The Public Enemy is a fantastic and violent showcase for Cagney's tough guy persona. Whenever he's on screen he's magnetic, and it's not at all hard to understand why the women in the film are so attracted to him – he's the king of cool, and tough as nails. Sure, Tom Powers is anything but a good guy, he's about as far removed from a traditional movie hero as you can get, but that doesn't stop Cagney from getting us to root for his character as he chews his way through the scenery.
While the basic storyline isn't too far removed from other classic gangster films of the era (the original 1932 Scarface being a very solid example), it was a timely film that took a look at the real life situations affecting the cops and robbers of 1930s America and put them up on the screen for all to see. It's probably not much of a stretch to say that Powers was inspired by the exploits of Al Capone, the similarities are certainly there, but apparently Cagney's character was based more so on the true life adventures of a lesser known mobster operating out of Chicago named Earl Weiss. Cagney makes his character larger than life, and in doing so, indelibly left his mark on Hollywood forever with this film.
The Public Enemy is presented a 1.37.1 fullframe aspect ratio. Print damage is kept to a minimum and it looks like Warner Brothers has done a nice restoration job on this title. Black levels are pretty solid and quite stable and the contrast levels on the black and white image look to be dead on. There is the odd scratch and speck here and there on the print but it's never too severe or overly distracting. A very natural looking coat of grain covers the picture from start to finish, but again, this isn't a serious problem and has to be expected to a certain extent. Overall, The Public Enemy looks great.
Presented in its original Mono mix, this Dolby Digital track has been cleaned up enough that it sounds very good, but not so much that it doesn't sound like an old film. Dialogue is crisp and pretty sharp and there aren't any problems with major hissing or popping on the mix, and what is there should probably stay there – if the mix were cleaned up much more the dialogue would lose so much of its charm that it just wouldn't be the same film, and the delivery would be off. As should be expected with a film that is almost seventy-five years old, The Public Enemy doesn't have the robustness or clarity of a more modern picture, but Warner Brothers has ensured that the mix on this disc delivers the goods in terms of an accurate representation of how the movie should sound.
Subtitles are an option in English, French and Spanish, and Warner Brothers has included an English closed captioning option on this DVD as well.
Film historian Robert Sklar provides a very in depth and fast paced commentary track over top of the main feature. Sklar goes quite in depth in the his telling of the film's history, and gives a commentary that is scholarly enough to be educational, but light enough to remain a fun listen. He's got a lot of enthusiasm for his subject, and he really knows his stuff as evidenced by the interesting film analysis that he goes into as well as the historical notes he makes during the session.
Up next is a nineteen minute documentary entitled Beer And Blood: Enemies Of The Public. This segment takes a look at the history behind the film and does a good job of painting a pretty concise picture of the key players in the movie through interviews and comments with directors like Martin Scorcese and film historians like the aforementioned Robert Sklar.
Leonard Maltin hosts a Warner Night At The Movies featurette that brings an interesting assortment of extra bits to the disc that may have played in theaters around the same time that the feature did. A trailer for Blonde Crazy (also starring James Cagney) is in here, as is a newsreel about women competing in the 1932 Summer Olympic Games. There's also an old Merry Melodies cartoon entitled Smile, Darn You, Smile! and a comedy segment with ventriloquist Edgar Bergan, accompanied of course by his dummy, Charlie.
Rounding out the extra features is the original theatrical trailer for The Public Enemy, which is a blast to watch. There are no subtitles available on any of the extra features.
Warner has done a fantastic job on their release of The Public Enemy. The film holds up extremely well, the audio and video are far better than I'd expected them to be for a film of this vintage and the supplements all make nice companion pieces to the feature itself. Highly Recommended. This one is a classic for a reason…
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.