“The Public Enemy”: Crime Never Pays

In a time when crime runs amok, only those who took risks succeeded in these tough times. In the end, the only acceptable form of payment is death!

Notes To Know:

  • Directed by William A. Wellman, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, and screenplay by Harvey F. Thew.
  • Based on Beer and Blood by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, who were also the writers for this film.
  • A Warner Bros. film, released on April 23, 1931


The year is 1909. Two boys are seen drinking beer from a bucket. Yes, you heard right. A bucket of beer being shared between two boys. You have to remember that times were different back then. As they pass two girls, one of the boys named Matt offered them a swig, or at least a kiss, while Tom (the other boy) called them nothing but trouble. Later the boys are seen playing outside of Tom’s house while Molly (a neighbor) skates past them. Tom’s older brother, Mike, reacts to the skates right away. As they begin to converse, you learn that  Tom stole these skates and gave it to her. Overhearing the news, Tom’s father goes to punish Tom, and everyone in the house knows what’s to come. A spanking of course. Tom takes it without making a sound, like a champ.

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The year is now 1917, and our boys  have grown-up rather fast. James Cagney, a man with fire-red hair and a hot temper to match, plays Tom Powers. His best friend, Matt Doyle, a lean dark-haired gentleman with a conscience, is played by Edward Woods. A man they grew up with, “Putty Nose” (Murray Kennel), was always quick to barter their stolen goods. But with our boys now on the verge of being men, they had to step up to the plate. Putty has got a gig for them to pull that involves theft, while “Limpy” Larry is on lookout. He gives them both pistols to do the job right and informs them that he’s got their backs. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned when Tom is startled, and the police get involved. Our boys escape with their lives – but not “Limpy”; the poor soul.

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When they go back to Putty’s place, they are turned away flat. One of his goons answers the door to pass the word for them to stay low and clean for a while. Pretty much a slap to the face. A mistake that Tom won’t soon forget, let alone forgive. A spiteful man, Tom is.

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Milkmen. They become milkmen. At least I think that’s what they become. Odd, I know. But they gotta make money somehow right? Well they seem to have caught the eye of Paddy Ryan (Robert O’Connor), an old-time gangster working his way back into the game. These boys were his ticket in, it seemed. But Tom was suspicious of Paddy’s motives. “Why you wanna help us?” Tom asks. Putty Nose is dangerous scum, Paddy implies. He leans in and says, “I’m older than you and I’ve learned that nobody can do much without somebody else. Remember this boys…you gotta have friends.”

It was decided, if Paddy Ryan had a gig to make them dough ($), Tom and Matt would be in on it – no doubt. Tom arrives home to find his mother in tears. Mike’s wife, who happens to live there too, informs him that Mike (played by Donald Cook) is being recruited to the Marines at any moment’s notice. His poor Ma (played by Beryl Mercer), an emotional wreck, questions Tom’s plans: is he to leave her too? No, he was here to stay and had to be the man-of-the-house now. Upstairs, Mike packs with pep in his step, but Tom is not so thrilled.

Some rumors were claiming that Tommy was involved with some illegal activity. When Mike confronts Tom about it, they have some altercations. It ends with Mike throwing a mean right-hook, leaving Tom on the ground. He arises to kick the door repeatedly out of sheer anger. It was the only way of coping with his defeat I suppose. Mike was off to war and would return later in the film. For now, Tommy and Matt had bigger fish to fry.

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Now, the year is 1920 – the Prohibition hits like a frantic storm. Liquor stores were forced to sell everything by the end of the day! Baby strollers were being used as carts while others filled their company “mini”-trucks full of liquor. Dumping all the products onto the street as if it no longer mattered compared to the liquor. People were in such a frenzy that a simple “bump” could cause a bottle to drop and shatter. Quite a funny spectacle to see!

This was a grand breakthrough for the “underworld”, the gangsters saw this as a lucrative bootleg business. Most in particular, Paddy Ryan. A heist was called to be arranged – our boys’ first real heist. This time – no mistakes. A simple plan that involves two men dressed as city builders to infiltrate the brewery, with a hose inserted through a hole in the wall and connected to the truck just outside, where our boys operated. One pull = start pouring, two pulls = stop. Quick and easy, a success.

With the profit of the liquor being split three ways between just Paddy and our two guys, they made bank. A visit to the tailor for fine suits would be the next necessary stop to living it up of course. All the tailor could gossip about was the news of the heist. $150,000 stolen in liquor value – what a whopper! I loved the tailor by the way; so witty and expressive. Dressed and ready to impress, our boys head out for a night on the town at the Washington Arms Hotel. Upon arrival, two girls catch their eyes at once and connections are made.

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Matt snagged a blonde beauty named Mamie (Joan Blondell) who were made for each other. Tom, on the other hand, found his gal Kitty to be a drag over time and eventually broke up with her. Though he did it in a manner I have never seen before: by shoving cake into her face. Not the most charming way to go, but here’s the thing you have to remember, Tommy’s not a “nice” guy.

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Meanwhile, Paddy had bigger plans – much bigger plans. He manages to recruit the owner of Leehman Brewing Company, Mr. Leehman, in order to get the ball rolling. Even the renowned “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton) was recruited to their team. A man whom people acknowledged and respected. The kind of man who spoke with such a confident prowess, that you’d much rather prefer to have him as your friend than your enemy. Both our boys admired Nails to a high degree, and were very much impressed whence he arrived in class to their meeting.

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Now Paddy Ryan’s gang was complete, and his business a force not to be reckoned with. It was known that bars were constantly hassled and threatened by gangsters to sell only their beer. Physical force was indeed apart of the process. Paddy’s gang won the majority vote it appeared, making them a major threat to others.

With things going according to their design, our boys had the time and money to spend it partying at their favorite joint. No longer milkmen, but official gangsters with a lucrative illegal business. One day on a drive, Tom eyes a hot blonde strolling the streets. Impressed by what she sees, she agrees to accept their ride offering. But this woman, Ms. Gwen Allen, was very direct and not afraid to speak her mind – you might consider her a “bad” girl.

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Playing her was the lovely Jean Harlow, who at the time, was considered a huge sex symbol. In fact, she became the inspiration behind Batman’s famous character: Selina Kyle aka Catwoman. As Gwen Allen, the attitude definitely reminded me of a strong-minded woman like Selina Kyle. Her character made it very clear to Tommy that his go-getter attitude grew on her. Spoiled as he may be, she wants to be spoiled too. Her seduction tactics, however successful for a moment, were interrupted suddenly by Matt with news of Nails’ death.

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Papers read: “Death of ‘Nails’ Nathan weakens Paddy Ryan’s Mob. Gangland Prepares For War”. News that no one was prepared to handle. Mike, Tom’s brother had returned from the war some time ago and he was by far the most unprepared individual to handle the news of Tom’s activities. Their constant altercations caused a rift in the family, where Tommy would only visit on short, rare occasions.

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Their poor Ma without a husband, and two sons who despise each other. It’s obvious that she cares not of Tom’s doings, only his company matters. Her family, all together in merriment, is all she craves. A simple thing to ask for, but Tommy’s attitude makes it nearly impossible to achieve.

With Nails biting the dust, Paddy’s gang lost their backbone and now seemed less intimidating creating a war zone within the city. Drive-by bombings on their brewery, police investigations running amok, and now their own lives are sliding on thin ice. Time to lay low again – only this time no communications, no visitations of any kind, and no going out – period. Harsh rules, but necessary to keep them safe. No chances were taken lightly.

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All shackled up in a loft somewhere outside of their hometown, our boys were practically imprisoned in a lavish lifestyle with two other guys and a woman named Jane. According to Tommy, Jane was Paddy’s girl. Whether true or not though, Jane had the hots for Tom. Just one night of drinking that very night was all she needed to make her move on him. Too drunk to even undress himself, Jane gets to work right away against his will which in turn leads to other things…

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Next morning as Tommy’s putting his thoughts together, he discovers what had happened the night prior with Jane and slaps her. Grabbing his gear, he leaves in a fluster and Matt follows after. Bang! Bang! Bang! They freeze. It’s only a coal truck at work. Phew. They turn to walk and the real shooting begins. Two shooters had been awaiting their arrival since a snitch informed Burns Schemer of their whereabouts. Burns Schemer’s gang was responsible for the downfall of their brewery, perhaps more. Matt is shot in the back and falls down dead. Tom, alive and well, makes his way to a gun shop where he robs the clerk with his own gun. Ends up spying on Schemer’s gang and enters their domain single-handedly with only one thing on his mind: revenge.

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Shots are heard fired inside from both parties. Tom exits with blood draining down his face and a dazed look in his eyes. “I’m not so tough”, he says. Faints just steps away from the scene. Later he is seen in a hospital surrounded by his family, even his brother Mike is there. Though Tom seems to lack excitement for anything, his Ma is overcome with joy to hear of her son’s return home in the near future.


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At home, his family awaits his arrival by prepping the house. Paddy shows up out of the blue for only a short moment to inform Mike that Tommy has been kidnapped, probably by Schemer and his gang. Tragic news to hear. The phone rings and Mike answers to a mysterious voice tell him that Tom will be with them soon. Unsure of what to make of it, Mike assumes that Tom is literally on his way there now! What joy! Ma hurries upstairs to make his bed, delighted to finally have her baby boy coming home at long last…

A knock on the door is heard. Mike races to the door to the disturbing sight of his brother: dead, bruised, battered, and wrapped in linen and rope like a sick, twisted Christmas present. Coincidently enough, it was Christmas time. He falls in as a car skids off in the distance. A huge transformation overcomes Mike as he witnesses all this. He says nothing, but you can tell that his mind is racing with thoughts of grief, anger, and sweet revenge. He arises to his feet, turns towards the camera and like a morbid monster in the midst of a vendetta mission, he trudges on. The look in his eyes become blank and lifeless; a scary sight to behold.

On this note, the movie ends. Only a foreword is left to explain the ambition of the authors was to honestly depict an environment that exists, rather than glorify the criminal. The picture below shows the foreward message…

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Such strong messages exude from this film that I strongly encourage everyone to watch this film at some point in their life. It is not every day that you get to see a film that does not glorify the criminal lifestyle, instead it shows it for what it is and the karma it brings. It’s not pretty, nor is it all it’s hyped up to be. Times are hard for all of us lets face it, but crime is not worth it. This film is very realistic, despite the time differences it’s still relatable to modern times. Plus it is a flash to the past considering it depicts what times were truly like during the Prohibition era. I give it 5/5 stars!


It was the little things in this film that make it one of a kind. The introductions to each character in the beginning of the film was something I truly miss from films nowadays. The pace of the film is not too fast, the action is all realistically intense, the actors are all very talented and versatile, not to mention the fashion was lovely. But the best part about it all is the storyline, and the moral message it brings. Sad, but true…



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