Film Analysis: The Public Enemy

Posted on October 15, 2010 
Filed under Uncategorized

The film, The Public Enemy, directed by William Wellman (Warner Bros., 1931), portrays a scene in which Tom (James Cagney) argues with his brother Mike (Donald Cook) before he leaves for the war.  This scene depicts the simplicity of camera angles and shots during the time period, but also shows the importance of character direction and how much it relates to making a good film.   Wellman told this story in a simplistic, straightforward method which mainly focuses on delivering importance through dialogue and actions rather than artistic interpretation.  The film focuses around Tom and his struggle to find an identity in a time that was rampant with crime, economic trouble and shell-shocked war veterans.

During this time period in the United States, people were dealing not only with the great depression, but the ending of a war and gangs such as the mafia that ran much of the local cities operations.  As a citizen during these difficult times, many people find it hard to decide which path to take because the options are so limited.  The Powers family is no different as Mike opts to go to war, while Tom chooses a life of crime.

Tom is unlike his brother Mike in almost every way.  At a young age, he chooses to become involved in crime and over time this becomes all he knows and the crimes continuously get worse.  Instead of becoming an honest, hard working man that his brother hopes him to be, he becomes involved with one of the biggest gangsters of the time, Nails Nathan.  Since Tom is bringing home good money and helping to support his mother and there household he thinks what he is doing is correct.  However, Mike sees right through this and constantly tries to stop it and force him to become an honest family man.

The scene that is at focus here magnifies the entire film into a small scope as it not only shows the struggle that Tom faces in finding his identity, but also the influence of family upon him and the inferior role he plays to his brother.  The scene is portrayed in less than 5 separate shots.   Wellman did not try to trick the audience by using cutting or any sort of film manipulation, he instead wanted to display it very straightforward so we could see the relationship between Mike and Tom and how complicated it truly was.

As Tom enters the room, he sits down to talk to Mike who explains that he wants Tom to spend more time at home with their mother.  Immediately, Tom gets defensive and tries to explain how he needs to work and is not out enjoying himself.  Mike continues in his calm manner, however, shortly thereafter sets off Tom my telling him about a “rumor” that has been going around about him.  At this point, Mike subtly accuses Tom of being involved with dirty crime, and Tom becomes extremely angered, explaining that Mike should not believe everything he hears.  As the scene comes to a conclusion, we are shown Tom and Mike elevating there voices to the point where Mike punches Tom across the face and storms out of the room.  Tom does not retaliate but instead begins kicking the door repeatedly, until the screen fades to black, where we continue to hear a few more kicks.

There are only two points in which the camera angle changes in this scene.  The first is when the two brothers are arguing.  This is done to show the serious nature of the discussion between the two and the animosity that is occurring.  The other point is a close up with Tom’s foot when he is kicking the door.  At this point we only see the door and his foot and the back and forth motion that it is making.  I found this part of the scene as the most revealing.  The reason for this is because, throughout the course of the film, Tom shows no emotion or care for others.   The point at which he is kicking the door, I believe, shows the internal battle that Tom is facing.  He does know that what he is doing is wrong, and knows that his main priority should lie with his family, however, he also realizes that the kind of money that he gets from working in the crime business is nowhere near what he would make if he attempted to take part in an honest, blue-collar job.

Tom always acts as if he is below his brother.  Mike is not only the shell-shocked war hero, but has a good wife and is a stand up citizen.  The only way Tom seems to be able to compete with him is by providing money for the family.  From this scene, we not only see Tom’s internal struggle, but the external struggle he has in attempting to compete with Mike.  Initially, Tom stands up to him and defends himself, to the point where Mike punches him and there is no retaliation by Tom.  From the film, we are able to see how much of a hothead and angry man that Tom is, who also, never seems to back down from anyone.  However, at this point, Tom not only doesn’t hit Mike, he simply lets him go and continues to punish himself more by kicking the door.  Tom is alone in the world and realizes that he will never have the life his brother has and instead of the normal jealousy that people would display, he simply is angry at himself and continues to go on with his life of crime.

This scene is extremely vital to the film, not due to its theatrical portrayal but simply because of its dialogue and interaction between characters.  This is one of the few, if not only points in which we see Tom struggle with his identity.  Throughout the film, Tom often is seen as a confident, reckless gangster, however at this point, we see a side of him that rarely comes into view.  After this scene, Tom simply goes back to his reckless ways, even more so than before.  The direction of the characters by Wellman, allows for a minor insight into Tom and we realize that as cold and hard bodied as he seems throughout most of the film, he actually has feelings and is entangled in a tough situation where he sees only one resolution, to continue with his life of crime.


2 Responses to “Film Analysis: The Public Enemy”

  1.  plcest89 on October 19th, 2010 4:47 pm

    Very nice analysis. When we watched the film in class I definitely did not notice this depth into the main character that you spoke about. The scene that you analyzed had major significance to the main theme of the movie where Tom struggles with his identity because you would not be able to know that he felt emotion if not for this scene. I remember an earlier scene when Tom was younger and he couldn’t wait to pull the string that would make the little girl on roller skates fall down. From that scene, one would think that Tom felt no remorse and enjoyed hurting people. This scene that you analyzed proved that theory incorrect by showing a softer, more emotional side to the main character.
    Laura Petlin

  2.  jeffonboard on October 20th, 2010 11:25 pm

    Your essay is a very informative analysis. I did not think much about Tom’s desire when I was watching the film and this truly helps me take a more in depth look at the character. I completely agree that Tom had a struggle with his identity due to his overwhelming sense of jealousy. In regards to Tom having emotions, he is, after all, a human regardless of how cruel he may be. Great work.

Leave a Reply

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Skip to toolbar