Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) isn’t used to swanky restaurants. A hat-check girl, she’s self-conscious about her cheap dress. “Everyone’s looking at me,” she says.
“That’s because they’re all about where you come from; not where we’re going,” returns her date, a gallant John Dillinger (Johnny Depp).
It’s no secret that where Dillinger is going is an early grave, as he and Billie dimly appreciate. First though, he promises a taste of the fast life: cars, money, clothes, maybe Cuba… Does she want to take that ride with him? Oh yes, she wants to take that ride.
And so do we. That’s the sex appeal of the gangster. A Volvo is safer but who doesn’t want to take a Ferrari for a spin?
Michael Mann’s crisp, brittle, slightly skimpy movie offers a modern reprise on classic gangster themes and revisits many familiar obsessions from Mann’s film and TV work. The cat-and-mouse, hunter-and-prey relationship between J Edgar Hoover’s Chicago bureau chief Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and public enemy number one Dillinger recalls Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat, as well as similarly double-pronged star vehicles The Insider, Collateral and Miami Vice.
There’s nothing new about this schema – as Mann goes out of his way to illustrate, the same good guy/bad guy motif crops up in the 1934 Clark Gable-William Powell gangster movie Manhattan Melodrama, the last film John Dillinger ever saw, just minutes before Purvis got his man.
What interests Mann about it, I think, is the way that each character offers a measure by which to judge the other. As in Heat, Purvis and Dillinger meet only once, to talk, and then again, at the climax, to kill and be killed.
If the confrontation of Bale and Depp doesn’t pack the same iconic punch as Pacino and De Niro, it’s not hard to intuit that Mann has more time for Jack Sparrow than the Dark Knight, and their exchange in a Midwestern jail cell remains central to the film. It’s also entirely fictitious – worth noting because a good deal of Ronan Bennett’s screenplay – including verbatim conversations – comes directly from Bryan Burrough’s scrupulously sourced non-fiction book of the same name.
When Dillinger reprimands Purvis for shooting down Pretty Boy Floyd, the poetic license is extended still further – as a point of historical fact Floyd died several months after Dillinger, and though Purvis was at the scene he almost certainly didn’t pull the trigger. (He wasn’t the crack shot Bale is in the movie, nor the ace law-officer celebrated by the newspaper-men of the time.)
Of course, he really did coordinate the public execution of John Dillinger, an assassination as much as it was an attempted arrest and maybe the most perfidious crime in the picture (with the brutal “gloves off” interrogation of Billie Frechette a close second).
It’s also true that the real Dillinger was a loyal and fair-minded friend, and a solicitous, even charming bank robber who appears to have valued human life. He might kidnap a clerk to use as a human shield during an escape, and then offer him his coat if he saw him shivering. So when the incarcerated Depp advises the smug Bale that he should find a different line of work for his own peace of mind, his words carry a certain weight… Not moral authority, perhaps, in the wider scheme of things, but psychological acuity – even sincerity.
Cavalier and charismatic, Depp plays the outlaw as hero, not least in contrast to Bale’s narrow and grim government agent. All the romance in the picture comes from Depp: the graceful ease with which he vaults a bank railing; his dedicated courtship of Billie; his astonishingly bold prison breaks (also true to the historical record) and jocular finesse with reporters (ditto).
Still, the movie’s invitation to take Dillinger at face value feels a bit perfunctory, even old hat. There’s little in Public Enemies that Arthur Penn didn’t anticipate forty years ago in Bonnie And Clyde, except maybe the intriguing and plausible idea that organized crime may have pulled the plug on the old style go-it-alone bank robber in a doomed attempt to forestall the Roosevelt administration’s plans for a federal law enforcement agency.
Shot largely on high definition video, Public Enemies doesn’t look like the old gangster movies – to my eye, it looks like TV. The images gain in immediacy what is lost in luster, but opinions will vary about the merits of that equation. I found the visuals cold and alienating, others may appreciate the more contemporary feel.
Strongly cast but (and I don’t often say this) too short at two hours 20 minutes, Mann’s movie is rarely unimpressive, scene for scene, yet it left me looking for more texture, more depth and more heat. I’ll be watching it again, for sure, but I do wonder if Mann’s embrace of digital photography also heralds his apprehension that the days of cinema itself are numbered. The loving way he shoots Dillinger watching Gable has an elegiac undertow. That’s one more reason I’m holding out for a longer running time on the Blu-ray…
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