‘The Public Enemy’ was released in 1931, but set between 1907 and 1920 and presents ideas of class, masculinity and America through the central character of Tom Powers and his friend Matt Doyle, who graduate from petty theft to enforcers in a gang.
Masculinity in the film is often equated to gun usage; Putty Nose gives the two boys a gun each and so they have to ‘grow up’ and be ‘real’ gangsters. Shooting the policeman is presented as proof of their masculinity, as they are unafraid to kill to prevent being arrested, thereby proving their masculinity. However, ‘The Public Enemy’ suggests towards the end that carrying a gun does not protect masculinity, as Tom uses a gun to avenge Matt’s death, but in doing so, he is shot, making him realise he “ain’t so tough”. Throughout the film, Tom’s treatment of women presents masculinity as the objectification and domination of women, as he constantly dominates the women he is with.
The film depicts America through the ideal of brotherhood which is highly important in the film: Paddy Ryan tells Tom and Matt that “you gotta have friends” and the gang members’ loyalty to each other is very apparent – this loyalty eventually leads to several deaths, as Matt runs outside to join Tom and is then shot and Tom dies after avenging Matt’s murder. There is also a solidarity shown by the film-makers with the public who “must solve” the problem of ‘The Public Enemy’ together, presenting America as united. America is additionally presented as the land of opportunity and prosperity with shots of cars going by, advertisements and well-dressed people bustling down the streets. In contrast, the image of class is negative as the film presents only two options: working in a gang and making a lot of money like Tom and Matt or doing honest work like Tom’s father and Mike but remaining poor.