One of the earliest true gangster films, The Public Enemy charts the rise and fall of gangsters Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) through the first third of the twentieth century. From street hoodlums tripping up girls in 1909 to prohibition era bootleggers, Powers and Doyle become top dogs in a world of crime, money, women and violence before getting their studio orchestrated comeuppance.
The movie starts with some fantastic streets scenes set in the first few years of the twentieth century. Anyone who has read my reviews of Chaplin films or other early cinema will know what a huge fan I am of seeing these sorts of shots, especially if they’re real. Here they look like sets but are still great. Early on there is a sort of Oliver-Fagan dynamic featuring Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) as a gangster who employs children to do his thieving. It is soon obvious that he is ripping them off and the two boys strike out on their own. Although the film was produced in the pre-code era the violence is very tame by today’s standards and my DVD copy was rated as PG. The story is the driving force here though and the plot has been repeated numerous times in both versions of Scarface, the similarly titled Public Enemies and countless others.