This 1931 film review heaps praise on The Public Enemy, specifically commending James Cagner and Edward Woods for strong performances in their respective roles. The review also discusses director William Wellman’s contribution to character development.
The review places a significant emphasis on Cagner’s performance, claiming that it is “magnificently acted” and “uncompromisingly realistic in his portrayal of the youthful killer.” The review also offers a character analysis of Cagner’s Powers, writing that although Powers is an unlikeable character, he “stands out in bold relief.” Essentially, the review declares the character of Tom Powers to be a success, and attributes it to a collusion of Cagner and Wellman’s talents. Wellman shaped a sharp, multi-dimensional gangster with his directing, allowing Cagner to bring Powers to life with his “magnetic” acting and interpretation.
The review also notes that Edward Woods was “admirably cast” in the secondary role of Matt Doyle, and praises the performances of the film’s other stars, including Leslie Fenton and Jean Harlow.
I feel that this review is particularly important because it offers an evaluation of how the film’s actors served their respective roles. In my annotation of Wellman’s biography, I note that Wellman encouraged James Cagner to take the lead role of Powers, instead of playing the more muted part of Matt Doyle. This review praises how well-suited Cagner’s acting style was for his part, in addition to how aptly Edward Woods portrayed Powers’ second hand man. As a result, this review essentially confirms that Wellman’s instinctual decision to re-cast the main roles was in the right.
And, because the review claims that the strong acting was so central to the film, it allows me to make the argument that Wellman’s interference with production decisions positively contributed to the overall success of the film. Wellman’s decision to change the roles created believable characters with more depth and substance, uniquely allowing American viewers to connect and empathize with the gangsters.