James Cagney’s breakthrough role sees him as one of the original “hoodlums”, tracing his steps from young tearaway to enforcer during the prohibition years.
Pretty much the template for every gangster film to come afterwards, The Public Enemy was a ground breaker that inevitably had its hands tied by the strict moralistic code that straight-jacketed the industry at the time, which in retrospect can be seen to have been rather counterproductive. Without seeing the consequences of his violent crimes on-screen, the cocky and charismatic Cagney is actually quite an appealing character compared to his moralistic but seemingly self-righteous and pompous brother; particularly in the face of such a ridiculous law as prohibition. It has some very memorable scenes, especially the infamous “grapefruit” scene in which the lovely Mae Clarke – who is usurped by the vampish and rather dreadful Jean Harlow – is assaulted with her breakfast, and Cagney’s revenge upon the rival mob.
It’s more of a quaint period piece than gritty crime drama by today’s standards, but Cagney’s cocksure performance means it still entertains to this day.