The Public Enemy (1931) - Rotten Tomatoes

The Public Enemy1931

The Public Enemy (1931)



Critic Consensus: No consensus yet.

The Public Enemy Photos

Movie Info

William Wellman's landmark gangster movie traces the rise and fall of prohibition-era mobster Tom Powers. We are first shown various episodes of Tom's childhood with the corrupting influences of the beer hall, pool parlor, and false friends like minor-league fence Putty Nose. As young adults, Tom (James Cagney) and his pal, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), are hired by ruthless but innately decent bootlegger Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor). The boys quickly rise to the top of the heap, with all the accoutrements of success: custom-tailored tuxedoes, fancy cars, and gorgeous girls. All the while, Tom's loving (and somewhat addlepated) mother (Beryl Mercer) is kept in the dark, believing Tommy to be a good boy, a façade easily seen through by his older brother Mike (Donald Cook). Tommy's degeneration from brash kid to vicious lowlife is brought home in a famous scene in which he smashes a grapefruit in the face of his latest mistress (Mae Clarke). Some dated elements aside, The Public Enemy is as powerful as when it was first released, and it is far superior to the like-vintage Little Caesar. James Cagney is so dynamic in his first starring role that he practically bursts off the screen; he makes the audience pull for a character with no redeeming qualities. The film is blessed with a superior supporting cast: Joan Blondell is somewhat wasted as Matt's girl, Mamie; Jean Harlow is better served as Tom's main squeeze, Gwen (though some of her line readings are a bit awkward); and Murray Kinnell is slime personified as the deceitful Putty Nose, who "gets his" in unforgettable fashion. Despite a tacked-on opening disclaimer, most of the characters in The Public Enemy are based on actual people, a fact not lost on audiences of the period. Current prints are struck from the 1949 reissue, which was shortened from 92 to 83 minutes (among the deletions was the character of real-life hoodlum Bugs Moran).

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James Cagney
as Tom Powers
Jean Harlow
as Gwen Allen
Edward Woods
as Matt Doyle
Beryl Mercer
as Ma Powers
Donald Cook
as Mike Powers
Leslie Fenton
as Nails Nathan
Murray Kinnell
as Putty Nose
Russell Powell
as Bartender
Rita Flynn
as Molly Doyle
Snitz Edwards
as Hack Miller
Adele Watson
as Mrs. Doyle
Frank Coghlan Jr.
as Tom As A Boy
Frankie Darro
as Matt as a Boy
Robert E. Homans
as Off. Pat Burke
Dorothy Gee
as Nails' Girl
Purnell Pratt
as Officer Powers
Lee Phelps
as Steve, the Bartender
Helen Parrish
as Little Girl
Dorothy Gray
as Little Girl
Nanci Price
as Little Girl
Ben Hendricks III
as Bugs as a Boy
George Daly
as Machine Gunner
Eddie Kane
as Joe, the Headwaiter
Douglas Gerrard
as Assistant tailor
Sam McDaniel
as Black Headwaiter
William Strauss
as Pawnbroker
Russ Powell
as Bartender
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News & Interviews for The Public Enemy

Critic Reviews for The Public Enemy

All Critics (32) | Top Critics (7)

If there are to be gangster pictures, let them be like The Public Enemy, hard-boiled and vindictive almost to the point of burlesque.

April 19, 2019 | Full Review…

Still a classic of the gangster genre, showing neither glorifying the life nor pulling its punches.

October 30, 2007 | Rating: 5/5 | Full Review…

There's no lace on this picture. It's raw and brutal. It's low-brow material given such workmanship as to make it high-brow.

October 30, 2007 | Full Review…

Cagney's energy and Wellman's gutsy direction carry the day, counteracting the moralistic sentimentality of the script and indelibly etching the star on the memory as a definitive gangster hero.

February 9, 2006 | Full Review…

Contrary to popular opinion, the best moment in the film isn't when Jimmy Cagney shoves a grapefruit in his girlfriend's face.

February 11, 2005 | Rating: 3.5/4 | Full Review…

Now a classic, this is the movie in which Cagney famously crams a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face.

March 10, 2003 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for The Public Enemy


James Cagney's breaking role sees him as one of the original "hoodlums", tracing his steps from young tearaway to enforcer during the prohibition years. Pretty much the template for every gangster film to come after, The Public Enemy was a groundbreaker that inevitably had its hands tied by the strict moralistic code that straight jacketed the industry at the time, which in retrospect can be seen to have been rather counterproductive. Without seeing the consequences of his violent crimes on-screen, the cocky and charismatic Cagney is actually quite an appealing character compared to his moralistic but seemingly self righteous and pompous brother. Particularly in the face of such a ridiculous law as prohibition. It has some very memorable scenes, especially the infamous "grapefruit" scene in which the lovely Mae Clarke (who is usurped by the vampish and rather dreadful Jean Harlow) is assaulted with her breakfast, and Cagney's revenge upon the rival mob. It's more of a quaint period piece by today's standards, but Cagney's cocksure performance means it still entertains to this day.

xGary Xx
xGary Xx

Super Reviewer

Typical gangster story, predictable, but with an unexpected ending.

Aj V
Aj V

Super Reviewer


I am a fan of Jimmy Cagney and this one seems to be one of his very early works. Quite typical of the mob style films of it?s time, but for me not enough storyline to separate this from any other mob movie of it?s day.

Lady D'arbanville
Lady D'arbanville

Super Reviewer

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