The Public Enemy appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Most movies from the early Thirties look flawed at best, but Enemy presented a stunningly good transfer.
The main distraction I encountered came from grain. That element looked a little heavier than normal, though not terribly so. A few scenes - such as the one in which Cagney got measured for a suit - were messier than most. Otherwise, Enemy suffered from a shocking lack of source defects. The occasional mark or speck occurred, but these were amazingly rare for a movie of this one’s vintage. Again, that suit sequence was dirtier than most of the others, but that was a brief disturbance in an otherwise exceptionally clean image.
Sharpness wasn’t perfect, but the movie maintained good clarity most of the time. Despite the occasional soft or muddy shot, most of the film maintained solid delineation. A few off elements stood out, though, like some oddly blurry takes of Cagney around the 51:30 mark. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I noticed no edge enhancement.
The DVD reproduced the black and white elements splendidly. While periodic exceptions popped up, most of the movie displayed nice contrast and definition. Blacks consistently came across as deep and firm, while shadows were usually smooth and distinctive. A few slightly dense shots appeared, but not enough to cause distractions.
I found it tough to decide on a grade for Enemy. Objectively, it had a mix of flaws; they stayed minor but they existed. However, when I compared it to other movies of its era, it looked vastly superior to what I might expect. I flip-flopped between a “B+” and an “A-“ but went with the higher mark simply because the flick looked better than pretty much anything else from its period.
While the monaural soundtrack of The Public Enemy didn’t impress me as much as the visuals did, the mix merited a mildly above-average mark. Speech remained intelligible but tended to be metallic and brittle. Effects showed similarly thin and weak tones most of the time, though little distortion occurred, and I also noticed some pretty decent low-end. For instance, a shot with some trucks offered good rumble.
Not a lot of music popped up through the movie; most flicks of this era lack much score, though this one used those elements a little more frequently than most. The music sounded tinny and too bright, but not badly so, and the elements were acceptably clear. Hiss was present most of the time, and a little popping and background also appeared on occasion. Unlike the visuals, the audio of Enemy didn’t stand out as terribly strong for its era, but the soundtrack worked just fine.
A nice set of extras comes with The Public Enemy. We get an audio commentary from film historian Robert Sklar. He offers a running, screen-specific discussion of the film. Sklar covers topics such as the story’s origins and path to the screen, character and story themes, the careers of the movie’s participants, a historical perspective, and subsequent censorship.
When he speaks, Sklar sticks with good information. Unfortunately, an awful lot of dead air occurs, especially given the length of the movie. If Enemy ran for two-plus hours, I could forgive the gaps more readily, but this one lasts a mere 84 minutes, and he should have been able to find material to occupy that period. Nonetheless, it’s a generally solid track.
Next comes the 40-second 1954 Re-release Forward. This text essentially says the same thing as the postscript at the end of the 1931 version. The main difference is that it also mentions 1931’s Little Caesar.
A creative and fun addition to the set, Warner Night at the Movies attempts to replicate the cinematic experience circa 1931. As explained via a three-minute and 10-second introduction from Leonard Maltin, this feature includes a trailer for Blonde Crazy, a flick from the same era as Enemy, plus a period newsreel, an animated short called Smile, Darn Ya, Smile and a live-action short entitled The Eyes Have it. The latter is notable for an early appearance of Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy. These are the kinds of pieces that might have preceded a theatrical showing of Enemy, so if you activate this feature, you get an attempt to duplicate a night at the cinema. I like this program and think it’s quite clever. Use the “Play All” option to run each of these features and then automatically launch into Enemy.
In addition to the trailer for Enemy, the disc includes a new documentary called Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public. This 19-minute and 30-second program presents movie clips, archival materials, and interviews. We hear from Sklar, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, filmmaker/film historian Alain Silver, USC professor of film Dr. Drew Casper, and author Mark A. Vieira.
The participants cover the roots of the project, casting and facets of the performances, director William Welllman and his approach, the famous grapefruit scene, the film’s depiction of violence, its music, and the flick’s legacy. Inevitably, some parts of the documentary duplicate elements from the commentary. However, a lot of new information pops up here as well. Scorsese proves particularly enlightening, especially because he discusses the way the film influenced his own work. This is a tight little program.
A seminal gangster flick, The Public Enemy doesn’t always satisfy. However, much of it works well due to strong acting and directorial creativity; those elements help balance out a lackluster script and awkward pacing. The DVD presents shockingly good picture with solid audio and a mix of quality supplements. Enemy is a flawed classic, but it still merits a look.