Guns and Grapefruit: ‘The Public Enemy’ and Everyday Violence

Welcome to Yippee-Ki-YAY, a regular column that celebrates action cinema in all its glory. This edition looks at The Public Enemy, a 1930s gangster movie that raised the bar for the genre.

When director William “Wild Bill” Wellman approached Daryll Zanuck with a property called Beer and Blood, Zanuck asked why he would want to make what he saw as just another gangster picture. “Because I’ll make it the toughest goddamn one of them all,” he answered. And Wellman proved true to his word when he delivered The Public Enemy in 1931. Though it follows similar formulae to previous movies like Little Caesar (1930), there is a directness, honesty, and energy to The Public Enemy that was rarely seen in films of the period.

In retrospect, only a director as tough as Wellman could have directed this movie so effectively. Years later, on the show This is Your Life, he was asked what the “A” stood for. He answered “Augustus…my dad gave me that name because he wanted me to learn how to fight.” And fight he did. He grew up as something of a juvenile delinquent and ruffian. Eventually, he channeled that temperament into playing ice hockey. During World War I, he enlisted and became part of the Lafayette Escadrille, a French air corps made up mostly of American pilots. It was during the War that he earned his nickname “Wild Bill” for his daring, early morning, solo bombing raids. He was later shot down. He broke his back in two places and the control stick pierced through his lower jaw into the roof of his mouth in the crash.

After the war, he forced his way into Hollywood by landing his plane on Douglass Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s polo field. He had met Fairbanks years before at a hockey game and the actor remembered him. Fairbanks was able to get him an acting job, which Wellman did not enjoy, so he set his sights on directing. He began his rise at the very bottom, working as a mail courier at Goldwyn Studios. He managed to be in the right place at the right time and was made an assistant director. Soon, he had an opportunity to direct as a substitute for an ill director. The studio brass was so impressed with the footage he shot that they made him a full director. He cut his teeth on silent westerns before being given one of the biggest pictures of the 1920s—Wings, the World War I flying epic that would win the first Best Picture Oscar in 1927.

By 1930, Wellman had had enough with Paramount and made the move to Warner Brothers, known for its gritty, streetwise films. No other studio produced the kinds of “ripped from the headlines” gangster pictures that Warner Brothers was becoming known for. In 1930, Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson, blew the lid off the genre with its thinly veiled telling of the Al Capone story that gave birth to the myth of the antihero in American cinema. The Public Enemy would up the ante in every way from Little Caesar, especially with its depiction of violence, which appears in the film in two major ways: street violence and domestic violence. Or, to put it another way—guns and grapefruit.

From the very beginning, there is a normalizing of the violence depicted in The Public Enemy. It is treated without glamor and as a simple fact of life. The film opens with shots of bustling Chicago in 1909 before transitioning to a long, unbroken shot that follows several incidental characters before coming to the youthful versions of Tom Powers and Matt Doyle played by Frank Coghlan Jr. and Frankie Darrow. The duo drinks from a bucket of beer introduced during the opening shot, run from the police, slide down the central glider ply of an escalator, and trip a girl on roller skates with a string. Wellman’s experiences as a child surely informed these scenes. We also meet Tom’s straight-laced older brother Mike, who confronts the boys. Tom blows off Mike’s scolding before turning to see his father, a police officer, who takes him upstairs and uses a razor strop across Tom’s backside, which is clearly his chosen form of regular discipline. This is the first real act of violence in the film. One that would have been all too familiar to innumerable young people at the time.

While still boys, Tom and Matt get involved with a small-time hoodlum nicknamed Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) who is little more than a fence and petty thief. Their involvement with Putty leads to the first major act of gun violence in the film. During a botched robbery, Tom (now played by James Cagney, who is pure electricity in this film) and Matt (Edward Woods) shoot a police officer. When Putty Nose finds out, he skips town, leaving Tom and Matt in the lurch. The death of the officer is depicted offscreen with only his still-smoking gun clutched in his dead hand in the frame. The fact that major moments of gangland violence are kept offscreen makes them more powerful in many ways. It also makes the acts of domestic violence, which mostly are shown, much worse as they depict how Tom’s street violence has bled into his everyday life.

After their abandonment by Putty Nose, Tom and Matt find their way to Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), a gangster who owns a bar as a front for his more clandestine activities. In these scenes, we see some of Wellman’s technical innovations in action, particularly his use of sound. In the early days of talking pictures, it was rare to have background sounds under dialogue. Throughout the film, Wellman breaks these rules by including source music during several key dialogue scenes as well as the sounds of traffic and the bustling city as Tom and Matt discuss future plans.

Tom also learns that his brother Mike (Donald Cook) has enlisted in the Marines. This leads to an altercation between the two in which Mike hits Tom and sends him crashing through a chair in his bedroom. Every ounce of hatred Tom may have had for his father is transferred fully onto Mike in this scene, which fades to black on Tom’s shoes angrily kicking against the door that he has closed behind Mike.

The film truly ramps up in 1920 with the start of Prohibition. The Public Enemy is unapologetically anti-Prohibition during a time when the law was still in effect in the United States and would be for another two years. It in effect blames this law for creating a far more deadly and powerful hoodlum than had ever existed before. Tom’s rise to power doesn’t really gain much traction until the Prohibition skyrockets the price of alcohol and he and Matt become bootleggers for Paddy. The two become rich after one robbery from a liquor depot, during which they fill a gasoline truck with beer. Their first stop after getting their cut from Paddy is to buy expensive tailored suits. Their second is to a speakeasy to pick up women. There, Matt meets Mamie (Joan Blondell) and Tom meets Kitty, played by Mae Clarke, who later that year would play Henry Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth in the classic Universal film. In these sequences, we meet the character of Samuel “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton), who is something of a prototype of Jimmy the Gent in Goodfellas—well dressed, magnanimous, and vicious to the core. We also learn of the Paddy Ryan mob’s unseen rival gang leader Schemer Burns. A largely offscreen gangland rivalry begins, resulting in the deaths of many; a mirror and subtextual commentary on the World War that had just ended in Europe.

When Mike returns home from that war, he learns of Tom’s new activities, including the fact that he has killed people. Tom and Matt bring a keg into the house for Mike’s homecoming dinner. Mike in his uniform, looking very much like Michael Corleone during the wedding scenes in The Godfather, stares loathingly at the keg as it sits prominently in the middle of the table. In the second of Mike’s acts of vicious homebound violence, he picks up the keg and throws it against the wall, breaking a table in the process before storming out.

We then come to what is probably the most famous moment in the film—the breakfast scene. Kitty overhears Tom tell Nails that he is tired of her. He sits down at the table in a foul mood and ready for any reason to break up with her. The moment she stands up for herself in the slightest way, Tom picks up the half-grapefruit that she has prepared for her breakfast and shoves it in her face. Though tame by contemporary standards, this was a shocking moment of violence in 1931—one that defines the kind of domestic violence found in the film. Tom is simultaneously magnetic and repellant. We can see why Kitty and, beginning in the next scene, Gwen (Jean Harlow) are drawn to him. There is something inherently likable about the way Cagney plays Tom. But moments like these remind us of just how despicable he is—a childish bully who throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way.

This act of humiliation is soon followed by the key scene of gun violence with the killing of Putty Nose. This scene is Edward Woods’ time to shine. As Putty nose sits at the piano and sings the bawdy song that used to make them laugh as kids, we see Tom pull out his gun. The camera then pans away to Matt who watches the murder over his shoulder. His eyes ever so subtly follow Putty’s lifeless body to the floor. Though his face is stony, his expressions speak volumes. Matt may have been moved by Putty’s earlier pleas for his life, but Tom who actually did the shooting carries on as if nothing has happened. The sounds of the gun and piano along with our imagination of the brutality make this scene so much more intense than if the shooting had been shown. Echoes of this can be seen years later when the camera turns away from Mr. Blonde slicing off the ear of the captured cop in Reservoir Dogs.

Street violence and acts of domestic violence continue to alternate back and forth throughout the rest of the film. During an argument between him and Mike in front of their mother, Tom tears a stack of money in half and throws it in his face. Nails is thrown from his horse and killed offscreen. Gwen throws a glass violently into the fireplace after Tom leaves her apartment. Tom and Matt shoot the horse that threw Nails. The bombing of Paddy’s bar. Tom slaps Paddy’s girlfriend when she reveals they slept together while he was drunk. Moments later, Matt is gunned down by Schemer Burns’ gang as he and Tom leave Paddy’s apartment. To retaliate, Tom robs a gun store with the pistol he is being sold (a scene expanded to brilliant extremes in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) and waits in the rain as Burns and his gang arrive at his front business.

This is the best sequence of the film. The pouring rain serves as a kind of rhythmic musical score for the scene. The camera tracks backward as Tom crosses the street, his mission unwavering, his eyes as unblinking as the camera’s eye. Again, sound is used to signify the bloodbath taking place behind closed doors. Gunshots, the wails of dying men, the incessant falling rain. Tom stumbles back out the door, bleeding from the head. He throws the guns he used in the killing through the storefront windows before stumbling along the sidewalk. He then utters the movie’s most famous line, “I ain’t so tough,” before collapsing in the gutter. It is as visceral and unflinching as anything ever filmed for a gangster picture. It carries a power that, even after ninety years, is fresh and modern.

The final act of violence of the film brings the street violence into the home in a powerful and disturbing way. Tom has been recovering at the hospital and Mike receives word that he will be returning home. His mother begins preparing his room for his homecoming. She is overwhelmed with joy that she and her two beloved sons will finally be living under the same roof again, reconciled at last. As she works upstairs, there is a knock at the door. Mike opens it to find Tom’s bound and lifeless body propped up behind it. The camera lingers for a moment on Tom’s strange expression before he flops heavily to the floor. Mike then turns and slowly walks toward the camera, almost like a zombie, knowing the bitter task he has before him of telling his mother that Tom is, in fact, home.

There is no doubt that The Public Enemy has had a massive effect on film history and not only on the specific movies I have mentioned. The film also gave us James Cagney, an even wilder “Wild Bill” Wellman, and a more honest and brutal depiction of gangsters. As he had with Hell’s Angels (1930) in response to Wings, Howard Hugues felt the need to “one-up” The Public Enemy with Scarface in 1932. The gangster picture became the gritty, urban cousin of the western and remains one of the most popular subgenres of film, eventually earning great critical success and prestige with films like Get Carter (1971), The Godfather (1972), Scarface (1983), Goodfellas (1990), Pulp Fiction (1994), American Gangster (2007) and scores of other films. All of these owe at least some debt to The Public Enemy.

Unfortunately, the real-world influence of the film is also still with us. As the closing title card says, “’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.” But here we are, the public, 90 years later, still wrestling with the same problems. Our society is still filled with violence that begets violence and inequities that create desperate people. I certainly don’t have any answers for how to solve these age-old problems, but I am grateful for movies like this that have the guts and honesty to hold a mirror up to the darkest parts of our humanity. That toughness is what truly makes The Public Enemy stand out. It is not just a great gangster film. It is a masterpiece of honest brutality.

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