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The Public Enemy

Screening on Film
Directed by William Wellman.
With James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods.
US, 1931, 35mm, black & white, 83 min.
Print source: Warner Bros.

Even more than Little Caesar or Howard Hawks' Scarface, this searing example of the pre-Code gangster film helped make the genre one of the mainstays of world cinema to this day. Its violent telling of the rise and fall of a Chicago bootlegger had profound effects on the Hollywood of its time. For one thing, it cemented Wellman’s reputation as a director of violent films, and it definitively established James Cagney’s star image as that of a tough guy, despite his background in musical theater. The film’s success also pushed Warner Brothers to produce more hard-hitting realist fare and, finally, its lack of a clear moral center nudged Hollywood toward the Production Code. 

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