The Public Enemy: The Serial Product and Agent
By Bethany Kattwinkel
“The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society…” – George Simmel, The Metropolis and Mental Life
William A. Wellman’s 1931 film The Public Enemy starring James Cagney follows the life of Tommy Powers, a young man who becomes involved in gang activity at a young age. Throughout the film, Tommy struggles to express his individuality in the midst of the surrounding capitalist consumer culture which has produced a certain “serial” culture; in this culture, items are mass-produced and only distinguishable by number or sequence. The film emphasizes how Tommy grows up surrounded by this serial culture and is deeply affected by it. He becomes a victim of the process of serialization, and as time goes on, he eventually becomes the agent of this process. No matter what effort he exerts, as long as he is outside the home, he cannot escape the forces of the capitalist, serial culture around him.
The Public Enemy begins with a foreword that states: “It is the ambition of the authors of ‘The Public Enemy’ to honestly depict an environment that exists today in certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal. While the story of ‘The Public Enemy’ is essentially a true story, all names and characters appearing herein, are purely fictional.”2 The film begins with a sequence of shots that portray a very specific environment in which serial culture prevails. The first shot of the film is an extreme long shot which shows a busy city street filled with several sets of people walking in linear patterns across the street and identical-looking cars lining the sides of the road. In this beginning sequence, we also see large groups of people crossing the street together and then a long line of dark, visually indistinguishable automobiles following one another. We also see rows of similar-looking houses lining the streets. These shots demonstrate how Tommy Powers’ surroundings are homogenized. In shots of a train whistle and train tracks, we are also presented with a prominent symbol of the rise of industrial capitalism in the United States: the train. The train car is indistinguishable, at least on the outside, except by its number. In Lynne Kirby’ s 1997 book Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema, Kirby devotes a chapter entitled “Inventors and Hysterics: The Train in the Prehistory and Early History of Cinema” to explaining the anxiety in America surrounding the introduction of the train. Kirby notes that the train can assemble Americans as an “indistinct mass” of passengers.3
The first scene of The Public Enemy also highlights the prevalence of alcohol as a mass-produced, mass-consumed object. In one shot, we see a row of six identical faucets with the hands of workers turning them and filling buckets with beer. We do not see the faces of these workers, merely their hands. In the following shot, we see horses pulling a cart stacked with identical barrels of beer. On one street corner, we see several bars, and the camera follows a man walking down the street carrying six buckets of beer. The Salvation Army band walks by carrying an American flag, emphasizing the “American-ness” of this whole scene and the industrial society. In this environment, the individual can only become, as Simmel explains, “ a single cog as over against the vast overwhelming organization of things and forces which gradually take out of his hands everything connected with progress, spiritualty and value.”4 Modern society is the organization, and the serial culture it creates can take away valuable individual expression.
Finally, we are introduced to our main characters, Tommy Powers and his best friend Matt Doyle, two young boys who emerge from a set of double doors with a sign over them reading “Family Entrance.” As soon as Tommy and Matt leave their home behind, they are thrown into the serial culture, and they drink the beer—they partake in the consumption of the mass culture surrounding them. The home seems to be the only space in the film not tainted by this inescapable serial culture. The Powers’ home has not been branded or homogenized into a mainstream American space. Perhaps this explains why throughout the film, Tommy continues to come back to his family at home.
Tommy cannot always remain in the safety of his home, and when he meets the outside world, he is deeply affected by the forces of society around him. At a young age, Tommy first attempts to depart from the serial culture around him by choosing to work for Putty Nose, a local gangster. Tommy seems to seek an authentic, “qualitative” relationship with Putty Nose, but Putty Nose does not treat him the way he would like to be treated. Simmel states, “All emotional relationships between persons rest on their individuality, whereas intellectual relationships deal with persons as with numbers, that is, as with elements which, in themselves, are indifferent, but which are of interest only insofar as they offer something objectively perceivable”5 Putty Nose abandons Tommy, leaving him to realize that Putty Nose did not really care about him beyond using him for a calculable monetary gain. This realization humiliates Tommy, eventually leading him to murder Putty Nose because of his rage.6
Tommy and Matt become the victims of Putty Nose’ s process of serialization: Putty Nose brainwashes them into serial clones of the gangster. When we first see Tommy and Matt approaching Putty Nose’s gang, the two boys seem like copies of each other, wearing the same outfit consisting of dark knickers, light-colored shirts, and black newsboy hats—they are almost indistinguishable from the back. Tommy and Matt also move in similar ways, both looking behind their left shoulders for bystanders before opening the door. The film skips over six years of time and presents to us a second time the image of Tommy and Matt approaching the door to Putty Nose’s club. The boys are dressed identically again, though this time they are wearing longer pants. As David E. Ruth notes in his essay “Dressed to Kill: Consumption, Style, and the Gangster,” “along with business organization and violent criminality, stylish consumption defined the public enemy.”7 Style becomes very important to the gangster, and in this case, Tommy and Matt are taking on a specific style dictated by Putty Nose and his gang.
In the next scene, Tommy and Matt participate in an attempt to rob a fur trading company. Tommy looks through a row of furs, which appear very similar, possibly serial items to the viewer. Then Tommy pulls the furs back to find a singular polar bear fur behind them. Tommy is startled and proceeds to shoot the fur. We can view this polar bear fur as the individual as it is not like all the others. Tommy does not know what to do with this individual, so it startles him, and he attacks it with a gun, a serial implement of destruction. (Earlier, we see Putty Nose give Tommy and Matt guns as Christmas gifts, handing them to them in exactly the same manner.) Tommy does not know how to react to the individual, so he attacks it with the serial.
Tommy seems to hope that his life of a crime will provide him with an escape from the serial culture surrounding him. However in reality, Tommy is not only continually affected by serialization, he eventually becomes the agent of serialization himself. Tommy’s crime is bootlegging—but not simply selling beer—his gang aims to force all of the beer sellers to buy their beer. At one point, Tommy says, “They buy our beer, or they don’t buy any beer.”8 Simmel explains that in modern society, “life is composed more and more of these impersonal cultural elements and existing goods and values which seek to suppress peculiar personal interests and incomparabilities.”9 Tommy’s beer is this sort of mass-produced cultural element. He is not concerned with the quality of the beer but the quantity being sold, and he has become so involved with the culture of serialization that he inflicts it on others.
As Robert Warshow claims in his essay “ The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” “The gangster’s whole life is an effort to assert himself as an individual, to draw himself out of the crowd.”10 We see Tommy trying to express individuality; however, he is never able to truly do so because he cannot escape the realm of mass consumer culture. Ruth claims that “in The Public Enemy James Cagney’s rise in gangdom is clear when he switches from riding in a truck to a gleaming convertible that turns the heads of envious pedestrians.”11 At one point, Tommy remarks, “That ain’t no Ford!” about his new car.12 Tommy is very proud of his nice new white car that is not a Ford, not the most common brand; however, in reality this item is a still an automobile, the single good most increasingly consumed by middle-class Americans between 1900 and 1929.13 Tommy is only striving to tailor his consuming experience to express his individuality.Ruth also points to the scene where Tommy is getting his clothes tailored to demonstrate this phenomenon.14 Ultimately, Tommy can slightly alter his consuming experience, but he cannot stop participating in mass consumerist culture.
In many ways, Tommy Powers is “a product of his environment.” As hard as he may try, he cannot escape the serial culture that surrounds him. This begs the question: What can the individual suffering from the reign of serial culture do? How can the individual resist “being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism”?15 The film’s final scene offers only a bleak, humiliating end for Tommy Powers when his dead body is returned to his front door mummified; Tommy is literally wrapped, packaged. His individuality had been taken away from him, and he has been transformed into merely another serial product, another dead gangster. The Public Enemy’s outlook on the American capitalist system is grim. It begs us to consider how our society might create this oppressive, consumerist serial culture; perhaps the system is more flawed than we might like to believe.