Who is The Public Enemy?

I really enjoyed The Public Enemy.  I can’t deny that Cagney played a very charming badass. The “light punch to the face” move is very classy indeed. The part of the film that really struck me was the “PSAish” intro and outro. For me, it was really reminiscent of “Refer Madness,” the now infamous anti-cannabis propaganda film. Which actually did not come out until 1938, thus really making Refer Madness reminiscent of The Public Enemy, but I digress.

It made me think about the title of the film, The Public Enemy. Who is The Public Enemy? Is it Tom Powers (Cagney) or Matt Doyle (Woods) or maybe Nails Nathan or even Paddy Ryan the Boss. I am sure anyone can make an argument that all of them are this Public Enemy. But, I think the real Public Enemy in the film is the Eighteenth Amendment itself. The film even portrayed “Life before Prohibition” when beer flowed like water and kids frolicked through the streets sipping lager. The kids were small and the crime was smaller. The film seemed to really portray this loss of innocence viewed through the “prism” of the Cagney’s Tom Powers.

At the beginning of the film Tom and Matt were just little pranksters. The film really demonstrated for me how Prohibition gave bad people opportunities to make criminals out of these little boys. And how does it all end? With both Tom and Matt dead. Prohibition killed those kids. Prohibition was the catalyst for the entire film.

But on a different note, my favorite sequence of scenes had to be the series leading up to Matt’s murder.  The use of the sound of the coal truck sounding like gun fire really made me wonder just as much as the characters if “this was it.”

Again, I enjoyed the film. But I think it really only survived on Cagney’s charm. I didn’t really care about any of the other characters, their love interests or their dreams.

This is wikipedia’s article on Edward Woods, its Wiki so who knows if its really truth, but it seems to say that in the flashback scenes Tom and Matt are switched, did anyone catch that?


Edward Woods (July 5, 1903, Los Angeles — October 8, 1989, Salt Lake City) was an American actor who was playing the lead in the screen classic The Public Enemy, with James Cagney portraying his best friend, but director William Wellman switched the actors’ roles after viewing Cagney’s electric performance in the dailies. In the flashback sequences, the children’s appearances are reversed because those scenes were filmed before the switch and the studio opted not to pay to refilm them, which confuses viewers to this day.

The studio promised Woods that they’d make it up to him, then dropped him when his contract expired. Woods found acting work for several more years in tiny roles or in grade Z movies until he left the film business in 1938, while Cagney went on to become one of the cinema’s towering legends.

And here’s a link to Refer Madness on Google Video:


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  1. Just so you know for the future, the lead actors name is James Cagney.

  2. Sorry to be so late in finally posting my comment on this, but I’m very glad that I wasn’t alone in my confusion about the casting of the kids to play the lead characters as children! Score one for wikipedia…

    And I agree that Cagney’s performance is absolutely electric–so modern and seemingly effortless. I hadn’t thought of framing Prohibition as the ultimate public enemy, but that really casts the whole film in a new light in terms of its social message. Coupled with the Reefer Madness connection, we’ll have to see how the whole Proposition 19 scenario plays out in CA next month in terms of our own, contemporary battle between illicit substances and the “public good.”

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