Investigating Michael Mann: Public Enemies

John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) faces off with his pursuer in Public Enemies.
John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) faces off with his pursuer in Public Enemies
The story of John Dillinger is perfect for a big-screen adaptation with its narrow escapes, bloody shootouts, and over-the-top lead character. What’s surprising is how few prominent depictions of the famous bank robber have stuck in our pop-culture memories. Michael Mann was the perfect choice to change that pattern and deliver the quintessential cinematic portrayal of Dillinger. He’s excelled at showing both sides of the law in such films as Heat, Thief, and Collateral, among others.

An intelligent and complicated guy like Dillinger fits with Mann’s signature characters and style. He reveals the shades of gray and rarely presents criminals as typical movie villains. They’re great at what they do and can’t do anything else, so choosing to steal is easy. The star power and historical interest of Public Enemies made it a highly anticipated release for the summer of 2009. What’s intriguing is how Mann sidesteps the genre conventions and creates a fresh and original formula.

Mann excels when he’s working in a typical framework and avoids the familiar beats. A prime example is the Miami Vice remake, which keeps the premise of the TV series but has such a different style. Crockett and Tubbs are taking down the bad guys and working in murky territory, but the grainy digital photography builds a refreshing atmosphere. This isn’t a glitzy world of excess and feels much darker because of Mann’s choices. That nighttime criminal world also drives Collateral, which brings such intrigue to a simple tale of an efficient killer. Mann’s an experimental filmmaker working inside recognizable genres, and that makes his work more effective. He may confuse audiences expecting more standard fare, but the payoff is worth the risk.

Public Enemies begins in 1933 with on-screen text calling that era the “golden age of bank robbery”. The story is based on Bryan Borrough’s non-fiction book of the same name, and the aura of authenticity exists from the start. Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman play loosely with the facts, but their tone creates a realistic atmosphere. We leap right into a jailbreak at an Indiana State Penitentiary with little explanation of the players involved. These guys are prisoners and look like hardened criminals, but we’re aligned with hopes for their success. What’s immediately evident is the shooting style, which creates a “you are there” mood through rapid and awkward movements. The footage is fuzzy and shot from surprising angles, yet there’s a real beauty to the daytime shots during the escape.

Purvis vs. Dillinger

Back in 1995, the attention for Heat focused on heavyweights Al Pacino and Robert De Niro appearing together in a film. Their famous coffee shop scene made little sense in the plot but allowed the actors (and their characters) to interact directly. There’s a similar moment in Public Enemies between Dillinger and the vigilant federal agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The celebrity outlaw stands behind bars yet stays outwardly confident. The police may have their guy, but who’s really in control? Purvis is thrilled to have success, but he’s thrown by the brashness of his prey. Dillinger’s throwaway comment that Purvis may not be cut out for this work feels petty yet strikes a nerve. This fictional meeting never happened in real life, but its purpose is clear to bring the opposing forces together. It arrives nearly an hour into the story and sets the stage for everything that follows.

Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) proves his mettle by taking down Pretty Boy Floyd.
Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) proves his mettle by taking down a famous gangster.
Purvis' first appearance identifies him as a competent force when he guns down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) in an apple orchard. Otis Taylor’s upbeat “Ten Million Slaves” plays in the background, and there’s a forward momentum that doesn’t signal good things for Dillinger. It foretells the forces that are marshaling against crime and the changes that will come with the rise of the FBI. Floyd died after Dillinger in real life, but he’s used to set up Purvis as a threat. If he can take out another famous outlaw, he’ll be trouble for our protagonist. Dillinger’s returning to his safe haven in Chicago and preparing to start robbing banks, but his time will come. Purvis takes a business-like approach to dispatching Floyd and will do the same with his new target.

Dillinger and his guys are oblivious to this threat while taking scores in Chicago. Mann is at his best when depicting the bank robberies, which are smooth heists from professionals that understand the game. A pivotal moment reveals the reasons that the public loves Dillinger. A regular guy tries to hand over his money and is quickly rebuffed. In the middle of the Great Depression, stealing from the hated institutions feels like an act of heroism. Dillinger will take hostages and use deadly force if necessary, but he’s much different than a crazy killer like Baby Face Nelson (Boardwalk Empire’s Stephen Graham). He’s concerned with his image and rejects a kidnapping scheme because “the public don’t like kidnapping.” Dillinger’s a middle-class guy with enough working-class ties to recognize what attracts them.

Everything, Right Now

The introduction of Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) conveys an old-school Hollywood vibe. Diana Krall sings “Bye Bye Blackbird” at the fancy club, and Dillinger turns on the charm with the attractive girl. He spots her from across the room and has immediate tunnel vision about Billie. The previews focused on his quip about loving “baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whisky, and you”. That’s a great marketing tool for a witty romance, but it isn’t the most important comment from Dillinger. What’s key is his statement that “the only thing that’s important is where somebody’s going”. This says plenty about Dillinger’s frustrations with his past, including a decade in jail for a minor crime. He’s moving quickly and looking ahead, but there’s a downside to this approach. Dillinger isn’t considering the ramifications of becoming a celebrity bank robber. The people may love him, but it’s only a matter of time before the authorities mobilize to assert their dominance.

Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) loves Dillinger despite his limited worldview.
Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) loves Dillinger despite his limited worldview. 
There’s a striking early close-up of Billie that hints at her understanding of Dillinger’s personality. He’s confident and will stand up for her, but their time will be fleeting. Dillinger buys her an expensive coat and promises excitement, but it’s all about the present day. The future won’t be so promising. Marion Cotillard brings a weight to Billie that makes her a lot more than a fling. Her life hasn’t been easy, and she won’t back down when the inevitable downfall occurs. Cotillard’s best moment is a brutal interrogation by a cop desperate to make up for losing her earlier. Despite a vicious beating, she won’t let a limited guy like that win. She owns the “fat boy” and won’t retreat despite realizing the consequences. Billie had reunited briefly with Dillinger and told him “I want all the time we got.” He’s talking about doing one last job and getting away, but she knows that’s unlikely. Cotillard receives limited screen time, but her presence hangs over the entire story.

Who’s the Real Villain?

Unlike the typical rise-and-fall gangster story, Public Enemies spends more time on the final act of Dillinger’s life. There are quick scenes with successful robberies, but the story mostly covers the relentless pursuit by the authorities. Purvis is leading the charge, but it’s really the ambitious J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) pushing for quick results. He’s determined to make his bureau a nationwide presence in law enforcement but faces severe criticism from senators who don’t approve of his methods. Crudup makes Hoover an over-the-top villain who’s obviously corrupt. Given Mann’s down-to-earth approach to this story, the performance stands out because of its theatricality. Crudup veers close to mustache twirling territory with the distinctive voice and lack of interest in ethics. It’s an intriguing performance because it comes from a guy who often plays a straight arrow.

There’s a sharp contrast between Crudup’s smarmy Hoover and Bale’s subdued Purvis. It makes us align with the agent on the streets versus the politician. Even so, there’s a change after Dillinger’s second escape where even Purvis starts to look troublesome. He’s willing to let his men torture a badly wounded Tommy Carroll (Spencer Garrett) to learn Dillinger’s location at the Little Bohemia Lodge. The pressure from Hoover transforms Purvis into a man who’s no better than the bank robbers. Mann shows the ways that the lawmen are arguably worse than Dillinger’s guys. They’re trigger-happy and desperate to prove they have control over the celebrity outlaw. Purvis may draw the line with Billie’s torture, and it’s clear that he’s sickened by this new approach It’s no surprise to learn in the closing text that he walked away from the FBI shortly after they killed Dillinger.

This movie-theater scene reveals the forces closing in on Depp's John Dillinger.
This movie-theater scene reveals the forces closing in on Dillinger.
A clever sequence begins with Hoover speaking to the press and cuts to Dillinger watching that clip (and shots of himself) in a movie theater. An ominous narrator asks the audience to look to their left and right for the outlaw, and they creepily turn in unison. The scene functions more as a joke than a tense moment and shows Dillinger’s composure. He may be desperate but doesn’t panic in this confined space. The turning point comes shortly after this scene with the dangerous Sioux Falls robbery. There’s a feeling that Dillinger has lost control, and it’s only a matter of time before he meets his end. His loyal ally Red Hamilton (Jason Clarke) recognizes the signs, and they’re bracing for the next challenge.

Boxed in Like Caged Animals

Mann excels at delivering epic action sequences that don’t lose the personal interest within the mayhem. The best example is the shootout on the L.A. streets in Heat, which thrills because we’re connected with both sides. A companion piece occurs in this film with the Little Bohemia Lodge sequence, but it feels very different. There’s barely a sound in the woods when the feds arrive and prepare to ambush Dillinger’s gang. He sits on his bed in silence and has no idea about what’s in store. Once the shooting begins, Mann traps us with the prey inside the cramped lodge. Bullets are flying everywhere, and there’s little sense that anyone will escape. The tone is one of defeat, not of glory for one last fight. Death is coming from every corner of the screen, and even the elusive Dillinger may be finished.

What’s surprising is how early this shootout arrives within the 140-minute film. Dillinger and Red are pinned against a tree, and it feels like the duo’s last stand. There’s still nearly an hour left in the story, however. This helps to explain the muted reaction from some viewers to this movie. Mann shows us that Dillinger has little chance, but it’s a slow walk to the end. He shot portions of this scene at the actual Little Bohemia Lodge, and it brings a feeling of authenticity despite the difference between the real-life events. Depp shows the vulnerability in Dillinger, who isn’t an uncaring mastermind. It’s one of his best performances and stands out more compared to much of his work in the past 10 years. When Billie’s captured just a short distance from him, Depp sells the helplessness that Dillinger feels after all his losses.

Dillinger was one of the last of the old-school outlaws from a different time.
Dillinger was one of the last of the old-school outlaws from a different time. 

A New Era for Organized Crime

A predominant theme in Public Enemies is the evolution from old-school outlaws to professional criminals. The stoic and cautious Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) embodies that serious guy who treats his unlawful activities like a normal business. His employees sit calmly at tables and take bets, and we see the future of stealing. Dillinger robbed from the institutions and didn’t steal from regular folks, but Nitti is preying on the weak through his gambling ring. Celebrities like Dillinger are “bad for business” and draw too much attention. When President Roosevelt is taking notice in his crimes, it’s hardly the most subtle way to make money. Dillinger loves the attention, while Nitti prefers to work behind the scenes. It foretells the world of Bernie Madoff and white-collar criminals swindling na├»ve individuals.

Public Enemies is the type of big-budget drama that’s becoming rarer with each passing year. Mann is a rare Hollywood filmmaker who exerts true authorial control over each film. He’s known for sleek modern thrillers, but his stamp is everywhere in this Depression-era story. This version of Dillinger is a classic Mann character and remains admirable despite robbing banks. His death outside the Biograph Theater feels like an inevitable tragedy, and there’s no excitement from the victorious Purvis as he leaves the scene.

Mann closes the film with Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang) visiting Billie in jail and conveying Dillinger’s last words. He was one of the shooters but seems to recognize a kindred spirit. This moment and the movie theater scene right before the killing suggest that Dillinger accepted his fate. A brief smile appears on Depp’s face in close-up, and his era is over. The glory days of America’s outlaw past have ended, and this new “legitimate” world has grabbed the reins.

Related Articles

Collateral Review (Investigating Michael Mann)
Ali Review (Investigating Michael Mann)
Miami Vice Review (Investigating Michael Mann)

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  1. I really should give this one another chance. I think I had some set expectations going into it and it didn't really meet what I was expecting. That's not the fault of the film.

    I like Michael Mann enough to give him another chance, though, and I like this cast well enough that they deserve a second chance, too.

    1. I think it's worth a shot. Like I said on the podcast, Mann does some odd things with the plot and the way he shoots the movie that make it a little off-putting at the start. It worked a lot better for me on a repeat viewing.

  2. What a great breakdown. Loved reading this. Ironically, I posted about 1973's Dillinger today and hailed it as clearly the best of the three major movies about the man (including '45's Dillinger). I might have to revisit this one, which I did like, but didn't love.

    1. Thanks Wendell. I haven't seen the other movies on Dillinger, so I don't have any comparison to Public Enemies in its depiction. I think Public Enemies is worth another look. Mann does a lot of surprising things with the camera, and Johnny Depp has rarely been better.

  3. I have a few issues with the screenplay on this one but again it's worth a second then third viewing because, as always with Mann, it has some remarkables parts, i like the early scenes and especially the last half hour, Dillinger walking alone in the police station then the cinema/theater scenes are really powerful and touching, also the very last scene between Cotillard and Stephen Lang is kind of heartbreaking...Mann is still one of the best american directors!

    1. Public Enemies is one a Mann film that I really like, but I can see why it didn't click with some people. The movie theater and police station scenes are two of the best. The prison breakout at the start is also a standout along with the Purvis intro.

      Thanks so much for all the great comments! They really made my day. I'm glad that you enjoyed all the articles.


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