One of the great pre-Production Code gangster films, William Wellman's The Public Enemy made James Cagney a star, providing him with his defining role: Tom Powers, a bitter Chicago gangster driven to a tragic end. Like its contemporaries Little Caesar and Scarface, The Public Enemy was surprisingly ambitious in its examination of the social causes that drive young men into a life of crime, closely examining the allure of street gangs to working-class youths. Although the film goes to great lengths to claim that it does not glamorize criminal activity -- providing a moralistic introduction and conclusion designed to ward off censorship -- many powerful people felt otherwise, and the film's notoriety helped install the more draconian Production Code of 1934. The film's mixed message occurs largely because Cagney is so charismatic an antihero, especially compared to his straight-arrow brother, played woodenly by Donald Cook. Though the film is sometimes visually static, a common problem given the constraints of early sound cinema, it remains bracing and brutal, filled with an air of menace and hopelessness. It features talented newcomers Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell, but its most (in)famous scene -- a shocking episode in which Cagney smashes a grapefruit into his moll's face -- features the little-known Mae Clarke.
by Mark Pittillo review