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Tag Archives: The Public Enemy

Film Analysis: The Public Enemy


A Cinematic Examination of Violence in Film.

Rated as the eighth best gangster film of all time by AFI, The Public Enemy is an American film directed by William Wellman in 1931. It was based on the novel, Beer and Blood, and was written by H. Thew, K. Glasmon and J. Bright and starred James Cagney as Tom Powers. The Public Enemy was distributed by Warner Brothers.

Simply put, the movie revolves around Tom Powers and his rise towards becoming one of the leading gangsters of his time. He is joined by his best friend Matt and while serving under a bootlegger named Paddy Ryan, they commit vicious crimes and receive a fantastic and luxurious lifestyle as their reward. Naturally, Tom becomes very greedy and wants more, and is involved in a shoot-out with another gang. He survives but shockingly, he dies at the end of the movie.

One of the most riveting scenes from The Public Enemy revolves around the sighting of Paddy Nose and Power’s successful attempt to seek retribution for Paddy Nose’s disappearance from a past job that almost got him caught. During a dinner, Tom and Matt leave and follow Paddy Nose to his apartment. A black cat crosses Paddy’s path as he walks on the sidewalk. Tom and Matt then approaches him and together they enter inside to resolve unfinished business. Paddy Nose begs for his life and sings a song hoping to persuade the gangsters to change their minds. Without emotion, Tom still shoots Paddy Nose and then leaves with Matt.

The scene had 17 shots. Most of these shots were medium long shots followed by medium shots and long shots. However, within this scene, the most important shots worth mentioning are the first one, his use of camera angles and the last one. The type of sound used was diegetic meaning the sound emanated from the elements inside of the film. Low lighting provided the almost gloomy certainty of unfortune.

In the first shot, a black cat crossed the path of Paddy Nose. From a superstitious perspective, this shot foreshadowed the fate of Paddy Nose. A cat crossing your path is usually considered bad luck. Ultimately, for Paddy, it was indeed bad luck getting shot and killed.

At an angle, the camera pointed downwards as Tom Powers looked down at Paddy Nose. This technique, looking down at someone, allowed Powers to be perceived as powerful and dominant. Alternately, Paddy Nose was looking up at Powers and Matt, while begging, indicating weakness and submissiveness. This is evident when he gets down on his knees and asks not to be killed and he did not retaliate when punched and kicked by Powers.

The last shot of the scene was a combination of off-screen space, panning, forward moving track and medium long shot culminating in a long take. It is especially important to note how the relationship between off-screen space and sound created a less chilling death but still maintained its suspenseful effect. The director used off-screen space to kill Paddy Nose, so we did not actually see that, but it was the sound of the bullet that allowed the audience to make that connection. And since the shooting occurred off-screen, the sound was not synchronous since it could not be linked to an image. It is this part that depicts Powers as a true gangster. Paddy’s disappearance did not drastically affect Powers; however Powers still felt the need to get revenge because he was betrayed.

It is truly a remarkable landmark scene richly filled with brilliant cinematography, diegetic sound and several thematic issues infused into it. The most prevalent themes that the director wished to convey in this scene were revenge, violence and power. It was the first time throughout the film; we collectively observed the powerful, assertive, dominating, vicious and retributive qualities of Tom Powers. Throughout other scenes in the movie, only one or two of those characteristics were shown at once. William Wellman excelled by creating a very powerful scene incorporating all the traits of a bona-fide gangster into one scene.

The idea of a gangster movie reflected the events that were once part of American history. The years 1920 to 1933 were a period in American history, known as Prohibition in the United States or the Noble Experiment, where the sale and manufacture of alcohol for consumption was prohibited. This was depicted in the opening shot of the movie, where alcohol shops were closing down and the police were enforcing the prohibition. As a result of this prohibition, underground criminal activity was rampant. Many gangs sold alcohol illegally for lucrative gains and resorted to violence in order to protect their interests. Law enforcement and political officials were extorted and anyone who crossed the gangsters was killed. Even if anyone was indirectly responsible for the almost demise of a gang member, the individual was marked for death. With regards to the scene, Wellman’s film successfully conveyed those events of American history through the thematic uses of power, violence and retribution.