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The Public Enemy

Year: 1931
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: William A Wellman
Writer: Kubec Glasmon/John Bright/Harvey F Thew
Cast: James Cagney, Edward Woods, Jean Harlow

This film is worth watching if you're a film fan because while it might not be the first hoodlum/gangster movie ever, it's regarded as ground zero for many of the styles, influences and hallmarks that have inspired generations of directors who've made crime thrillers their own since. In fact I think it was Scorsese who extolled its virtues to the extent that I decided to watch it.

And while it can't escape some of the stylistic trappings of the period, it has a surprisingly dark tone where it matters that makes it much more than just a period piece.

Apart from some theatrical flourishes, the biggest difference between then and now is the disclaimer the studio affixed to the beginning of the movie.

Like the sexploitation and extreme gore romps of the 1970s the filmmakers and distributors tried to get away with by promoting them as educational when both they and audiences knew they'd only be consumed as video nasty grot, Warner Bros probably knew adults would line up for the implicit thrills of a movie depicting organised crime.

But, deep in pre-Hays Code territory (it's a classic example of the sort of movie that was used as an example to enforce it) and its restrictions of portraying characters profiting from illegal activities, there's a slightly ham fisted post-title card explaining how crime is a rising scourge in society and the events and people like those depicted must be stamped out before it's too late.

Tom (to be portrayed by James Cagney as an adult, in the role he's still most known for) is a street hood who grows up with his best friend Matt (Edward Woods), running petty stings on the streets as kids in early 20th century Chicago.

From early on it's obvious Tom and Matt are irredeemable. They steal goods and fence them through a local hood named Putty Nose, eventually graduating to robbery when he recruits them for a job in a warehouse.

The boys' nerves send the job off the rails, resulting in the killing of a gang member. They panic and run back to Putty Nose's hideout to find he's skipped town, leaving them high and dry.

But they get a taste for more serious crime and while they rise through the ranks of the local underground, Tom's war hero older brother continually butts heads with him, rejecting Tom and the way he makes a living all while their mother seems to turn a blind eye out of love for her boy.

Prohibition starts and the guys make a killing out of alcohol, become crime lords in their own right under the patronage of a city-level boss, Paddy, pick up and discard lovers (including then-starlet Jean Harlow as Tom's moll) and enjoy the good life.

But in classic genre fashion that stands to this day (see countless examples like Goodfellas, The Departed, Scarface), the good times can't last and either rival gangs or the law is going to catch up with you.

In this case it's the opposing family of Schemer Burns. When another contact and senior syndicate member the boys work with, Nails Nathan, dies in an horse riding accident, Burns' army closes in to take advantage of the power vacuum, sealing their fates.

What happens to Tom is as well written a denouement as any organised crime drama to this day and even though the preceding scene telegraphs it a bit too much for modern audiences to miss, I can imagine the genuine gasps of shock audiences back in 1931 would have expressed.

Go to witness where one of the enduring genres in Hollywood cinema began, stay for some very real and well-handled ideas.

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