The Public Enemy and The Godfather Films Analysis

Updated on: March 1, 2023

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Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. The Public Enemy Gangster Genre Conventions
  3. The Godfather Gangster Genre Convention
  4. Conclusion
  5. Works Cited


The idea of comparative analysis of films is a technique that endeavors to comprehend a film by relating it to another film. This article seeks to compare two films (The Public Enemy and The Godfather) by analyzing the common themes and stylistic devices used. The two films have several similarities as well as differences. A gangster genre is a subgenre of crime genre in crime films. This genre mainly focuses on gangs and organized criminal activities. While both films have common themes like killing and crime (gangster), they, as well, have variations in terms of genre conventions.

The Public Enemy Gangster Genre Conventions

The Public Enemy is a crime/drama film by Warner Brothers produced in 1931 and, directed by William Wellman. The film stars several actors and actresses including Tom Powers, Gwen Allen, Mamie, Mike Powers, Matt Doyle, Nails Nathan, and others. Like many gangster films, The Public Enemy (1931) has several themes associated with gangster or criminal activities. The film begins with a disclaimer from the author:

“It is the intention of the authors of The Public Enemy to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than to glorify the hoodlum or the criminal” (Warner Bros 27).

However, this declaration is considered a cynical and empty gesture that intends to conciliate the criticizers who are concerned with the contents of the films’ seditious impacts. Some of the themes that can be found in the gangster films like The Public Enemy include, prostitution, violence, murder, theft and robbery, drugs use and trafficking, bootlegging, and many others (Richard and Dave 173).

The author portrays the lead cast (Tom Powers) as terribly lethal, ruthless, emotionally brutal, completely amoral, cocky, and sexually magnetic. Nonetheless, the lead character begins his life as a young roguish kid in Pre-Prohibition Street of the city. This early environment contributes significantly to the evolving development of criminal lifestyle of the characters. Moreover, this film portrays the impacts of social forces on the life of individuals in life.

Tom Powers, who is portrayed as a murderous thug, is charismatic, dynamic, and magnetic. Though his gangster acts, he achieves tremendous powers which give him some sense of overconfidence which ultimately propel him to tragedy. Unluckily, the film also seems to romanticize criminal acts such as prostitution, bootlegging, and violence. Additionally, the film emphasizes the high lifestyles of the gangsters with several floozies as portrayed by Gwen Allen, Mammie, and Kitty. Therefore, The Public Enemy is one of the films that accelerated efforts in the film industry to strictly censor films with sexual and criminal subject matters that portrayed objectionable sexual subjects and social figures in a realistic nature.

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The film is produced in a pre-Prohibition Chicago era, where several images of the time are shown. The film shows images of congested downtown area with breweries, saloons, stockyards, and dirty and crowded streets. Consequently, the breweries play a critical role in shaping the lifestyles of the young boys growing the neighborhoods. The environment influences the lives of young boys who get into the life of crime to make ends meet. For instance, Tom and Matt are involved in lucrative lifestyle of engaging in bootlegging business during the Prohibition era from their teen-aged years into young adulthood. Particularly, Tom gets more brazen in the business and is even willing to become violent and obstinate against those who cross his path. Eventually, a gang war ensues leading to Paddy recommending that Matt and Tom take a low profile. However, Tom decides to revenge leading to more death cases.

Tom Powers and Matt Doyle are Irish-American friends who engage in petty theft and sell the loot to Putty Nose. According to Wellman, Putty Nose is a leader of a gang which has connection with the local dirty police. The other members of Nose’s gang include, Larry Dalton and Nails Nathan. This instance is portrayed in the film where Putty Nose convinces both Tom Powers and Matt Doyle to join his gang organization, and in turn he provides security to Tom and Matt. Mike Powers is Tom Powers’ older brother who tries severally to talk Tom out of crime. Later during World War 1, Mike Powers recruits in the Marines. Ma Powers is Tom’s and Mike’s mother. Paddy Ryan is a businessman involved in beer bootlegging business.

The Godfather Gangster Genre Convention

The Godfather is a crime/drama film produced in 1972, and directed by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather film is based on the novel The Godfather published in 1969. The Godfather has several themes associated with gangster genre such as murder, prostitution, theft, family conflicts, blackmail, drugs use and trafficking, and violence. The crime in this film is portrayed in several instances through violence. However, the lead character, Vito Corleone, who is also portrayed as a mafia, is a sympathetic and admirable character whose criminal lifestyle is admirable. Furthermore, there are no actual civilian victim of crime in the entire film. In addition, there are no women trapped into prostitution and no lives wrecked by gambling. Moreover, there are no victims of protection racket, fraud, and theft. However, the only police given a speaking role is crooked.

The godfather in the film is portrayed as a charming and sympathetic character, whose role shaped the public perception of mafias. However, the only villains in the film are traitors and justice and power flow from the mafia. There is an instance where Michael speaks one of the gangsters’ commandment (Mario and Coppola 1:30- 1:32): “Don’t ever take sides against the family.” There is also depiction of sexual offense such as rape through the man that requested Don Vito to hurt the man who raped his daughter. The man says, “I went to the police, like a good American.” The Godfather’s reply reinforce the whole film: “Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first? What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you’d come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day…”


The two films have common themes such as drugs use and trafficking, sexual harassment, corruption, prostitution, violence, murder, theft and robbery, police brutality and protection, family loyalty and conflicts, and others. However, gangster genre has several contradictions in terms of genre in the two films. For instance, the gang leaders in The Public Enemy are people who are ruthless, brutal, reckless, authoritative, murderous, and psychotic. On the other hand, the mafia in The Godfather film are people who are charismatic, powerful, protective, and sympathetic. This characterization of mafias in the film shapes the perception of the public concerning the godfathers.

Works Cited

Barsam, Richard, and Monahan, Dave. Looking at Movies. WW Norton, 2015.

Puzo, Mario, and Francis Coppola. The Godfather. 1972.

Warner Bros. press book for The Public Enemy, André Sennwald, “Two Thugs,” New York Times,1931, p. 27.

Wellman, William. The Public Enemy. Warner Bros, 1931.

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