2 June 2021
The Public Enemy (1931)
The Public Enemy (1931)
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William A. Wellman – THE PUBLIC ENEMY

3.5 out of 5 stars

  • The mise-en-scene is really interesting.
  • James Cagney’s grin and his gestures.
  • The ethical sense of the gaze and the off-screen violence.
  • A very interesting subtext in the relationship between the two “partners”.
  • Beyond the undoubtedly important historical value, the film has not aged very well.
  • The narration is perhaps a little too fast and leaves little time for the viewer to think about the “choices” and “consequences”, because as soon as something happens, we are already in the next scene.

Do we recommend it?


The Public Enemy is a 1931 film that has a strong historical value: in fact, together with Little Caesar, it gave way to the gangster genre of the 30s, which will then smoothly merge into the noir at the end of the decade.

It’s a pretty fast-paced film that relies on a decent dose of ellipses. The “Bildungsroman” takes the form of the tragedy of the “hidden”, of the unseen. Paradigmatic from this point of view are the scenes of violence left off-screen – clearly due to the context of the time and the desire not to further shock an audience already troubled by the theme of the film (hence the presence of explanatory signs at the opening and closing of the film intended to reassure about the “moral” positions of the authors) and a censorship that had already imposed the cutting of some sequences (especially in the theatrical version).

At the very least, it is an important film in the history of cinema, certainly with modern elements (which arguably inspired elements of dozens of films) but which has not aged very well and, in the current context of “everything seen” and shown and violence (even real) displayed as a show, it may not have the strength to tickle the spectator’s moral standing even if, certainly, not due to demerit of the film itself.

At the bottom of the page you will find the trailer to decide for yourself whether to watch it or not.

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Now, nothing left to do here, you just have to go and watch it, unless you have something to say about this movie and you want to share it with us on this platform. Feel free to leave a comment at the end of the page and say whatever you want about the film. On this site, we are always happy to host others’ opinions on cinema.

Something else?

To read more of these film “pills”, please visit our dedicated section. Or, if you’re after a more-in-depth look at some films and/or filmmaking techniques more than just a few words, please have a look at our Film Analysis page.

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