You know you’re in for a good time when the film start odd with a disclaimer about being a true representation of the times with real people. Couple that with a title like The Public Enemy and some good stuff is definitely going to follow. This is another old film screened in class and originally released in 1931. Like other movies we’ve watched, it definitely stands the test of time and easily recognizable as a tried and true genre. It also works well as a documentary of sorts showing the life and times of the early twentieth century.
The film begins showing the life of a couple troubled kids through adolescence and into adulthood. More than that it shows the somewhat playful lawlessness of the times. Stealing starts early on and seems to be a fact of life for the families and businesses the film spends time on. It seems to be a little too easy and too systematic for the young pair of Matt and Tom to become groomed at a young age for robbery. Though a bit more than frowned upon, this type of behavior seems to be more a topic of gossip than being labeled as unacceptable. At one point a family friend is killed and it’s brushed of as the man just hanging with “the wrong crowd”.
Soon enough the kids are adults and rising through the ranks. After being mentored by some of the more seasoned adults in town, the pair knows that you “gotta have friends”, and loyalty can’t be understated. Following lessons such as these allows the two to become bootlegger distributors during prohibition times. This of course comes with some of the easily recognizable signs of success that hold true even today- throw money around, buy expensive clothes, take care of your family, make wise cracks to people, and feel invincible. The ever present life lesson that girls like “bad” boys is also present.
More than that however are the many struggles and decisions that Matt and more specifically Tom, are faced with. Such as cheating on a girlfriend, loose wives, getting revenge for a close friend or arguing with his more “respectable” war veteran brother. The film actually portrays PTSD probably before it was even called shellshock with an included argument about killing for country or killing for money. It also shows the progression from being fascinated by just seeing a gun, to going around killing horses and old “friends” that have done them wrong. Of course both men are killed in gun fights that lead into the film’s second disclaimer at the end, “The END of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. ‘The Public Enemy’ is, not a man, nor is it a character — it is a problem that sooner or later WE, the public, must solve.”