‘The Public Enemy’ is, not a man, nor is it a character — it is a problem…” So ends The Public Enemy– a reminder that even the great and magnificent can fall to his knees. Of course, in the The Public Enemy, it isn’t the great and magnificent- it’s more the ruthless and powerful that falls to his knees. And¬†it is this thematic issue the director, William A. Wellman, uses throughout his impressive and thought provoking film.

Filmed in 1931, The Public Enemy (Warner Brothers) chronicled the life of a gangster during the 1920s. Of course, during the time the film was released, much of the audience were feeling the effects of The Great Depression. But, in a way, those dark times helped the movie succeed even more because it showed a low-level thug who stole to get by (which was what many Americans did during this time), then become lavish and rich. In a way, this was, more or less, the American Dream (rising and becoming a powerful individual from nothing) which was all but dead during the Depression.

The particular scene that envelopes the thematic issue of the great, falling is seen in the final “showdown” between Cagney’s character Tom Powers and the rival gang that killed his best friend. The scene starts with heavy rain falling throughout the setting- which may mean a foreshadow of something ominous and foul that is about to happen. The camera pans in to a medium shot of a member of the rival gang smoking. He is inside a building named “Western Chemical Company.” We can assume this is the gang hideout/meeting place. The camera then fades in to Tom Powers in a trench coat and hat, with a smug look on his face, waiting and leaning on a pole. Again, this is an example of foreshadowing of events to come. The camera then goes to a wide shot from behind Powers’, so we see the entire building. Suddenly, two cars come by and stop in front of the building. Around 10 individuals come out and enter the building. Powers’ hides- we now know that he is looking for them. This goes back to the thematic issue that, because of Powers’ rise as a gangster and his overall cockiness, he believes he can take out all of them.

The camera then goes back to Powers face in a medium closeup. His facial expression shows that of agitation and fury. Then a closeup of his face- he smiles and grimaces. Again, the thematic issue of the powerful comes back here. He doesn’t flinch- from that point on he KNOWS he’ll take out of all of them. The camera then follows him into the building. We hear multiple gunshots. Powers’ comes out of the building in obvious pain. As he comes out, he goes down and picks up what seems like rocks and begins to throw them into the building’s windows. We can tell that he cannot believe that he’s been shot. Powers’ begins to stumble around the street. The rain begins to pour harder (foreshadowing), and Powers stumbles to his knees. He then says, “I ain’t so tough” in a painful and shocked way. He then falls on the street curb.

The scene I analysed describes the perfect example of the thematic issue the director uses in The Public Enemy. Cagney’s character, the man that thought he could do anything, falls down on a street curb in the pouring rain. This scene, especially the last few shots, are the embodiment of the issue of how even the “all powerful” can’t stay away from his eventual downfall. It’s a powerful thought, and one that comes up again and again in later films.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply