|John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) faces off with his pursuer in Public Enemies.|
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
|Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) proves his mettle by taking down a famous gangster.|
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.|
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 Dillinger.|
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.|
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 naïve 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.
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