Public Enemies

After a couple of disappointing films (“Miami Vice”), in which stylistic pyrotechnics overhelmed narrarive and prevented involvment, Michael Mann is back on terra terma with “Public Enemies,” his most ambitious project to date, a supremely mounted gangster epic in which he shows complete control over all the elements of filmmaking, from the writing and producing to casting and acting to technical execution.

 

Starring Johnny Depp as the legendary Depression criminal John Dillinger, “Public Enemies” is Mann’s best work in over a decade, arguably since “Heat,” to which this movie bears some thematic and structural resemblance.  As of today, “Public Enemeies” is one of the best pictures of the year, an intelligent, mature work, which serves as a model of how the best resources Hollywood can be put into service in telling a well-acted drama, which pays attention to the smallest detail, be it historical background, costume design, weaponry and even gunshots.

 

As such, “Public Enemies” emerges as a top contender for the Best Picture Oscar, particularly now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided to enlarge the number of nominees from five to ten films.  I doubt if we will see many more movies in the rest of the year of such high caliber of filmmaking.

 

Several of Mann’s previous films, including the Oscar-nominated “The Insider” and the biopic “Ali” did not find a large audience, because thematically, they dealt with issues that were significant but were extensively covered by the news media; as narratives, they didn’t offer new insights or fresh angles. 

 

In contrast, “Public Enemies” reveals new, relevant information about the mythic gangster, his context, and particularly the status of law enforcement during the Great Depression.  Besides, it’s been three decades since Dillinger served as the hero of biopics, both quite disappointing, so it’s targeted at a younger, contemporary generation of viewers.  That, of course, doesn’t mean that the picture will do well at the box-office, when Universal releases it July 1, after receiving its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival June 24.

 

“Public Enemies” is defined by a series of anxieties and tensions—artistic, psychological, socio-poitical, ideological– but in a positive way.  First, there is tension between the personality of the star, Johnny Depp, and that of the director, and opinion will differ as to the effectiveness of the iconic actor’s specific approach to the role. (More about it later)

 

There is also historical and ideologial tension, between setting a saga in 1933-4, at the height of the Great Depression, and trying to make a lavish period piece that's relevant to our times, reflecting our own zeitgeist.  Two timely issues work in Mann’s favor: His exploration of celebrity (or the myth of celebrity), and his discussion of socio-economic conditions in a grim and depressing economy, in which the banks (and at present Wall Steet) are the villains.

 

Finally, there’s the tension, or finding the right balance, between glamorizing one of the most famous criminals in American history, and presenting him in a more realistic way as a sociopath and product of his times.  In this respect, “Public Enemies,” and the way the role is interpreted by Depp, resembles two crime sagas starring Warren Beatty: “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967 and “Bugsy” in 1991. (More about it later).

 

Mann and his co-writers, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, working from Brian Burrough’s 2004 book, should be applauded for deviating from the format of most American gangster movies that center on a single individual by telling a rise and fall story.   Decidedly not a biopic, “Public Enemies” jumps right into the center of the tale, by focusing on a short period of time (less than two years), a strategy which allows Mann in-depth exporation of his dramatis persona and the social contexts in which they thrived (and died).  Shockingly, Dillinger only lasted 14 months, from his parole in May of 1933, to his death, on July 22, 1934.

 

Surprisingly, there have been only two features, both low-budget poverty row productiont that featured Dillinger as protagonist,  Max Nosseck's 1945 Monogram feature “Dillinger”, starring Lawrence Tierney (better known for his tough guy in Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”), and John Milius' AIP flick in 1973, featuring Warren Oates as an anti-hero, in tune with the culture of the 1970s.  Dillinger also features as a secondary character in Don Siegel’s “Baby Face Nelson” and in “The Lady in Red.” (See my reviews of these pictures).

 

Of the three “Dillinger” pictures, “Public Enemies” is by far the most accompished and also the most faithful to the facts, though perhaps by necessity Mann has condensed some historical events, omitted crucial characters (such as Dillinger’s wife, Beryl), and compressed other details for dramatic purposes.

 

This is not the place to discuss Mann as an auteur, but those familiar with his film (and TV) work should be able to detect structural and thematic consistencies in his features, many of which offer in-depth psychological and sociological explorations of  men (often criminals and law-breakers) in extreme crisis situations, a trend that began with the still underestimated “Thief” and “Manhunter” and continued with “Heat,” “Collateral,” and “Miami Vice.”  Mann’s world is very much male-dominated and star-driven, and Depp is the latest star at the peak of his career, after De Niro and Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis, Will Smith, Tom Cruise, and Colin Farell, to collaborate with Mann.

 

In “Public Enemies,” Mann examines Dillinger as the man whose criminal exploits fascinated a whole country besieged by financial hardship.  In the fourth year of the Depression, the public was ready and willing to celebrate a populist hero, a public figure who robbed the banks that had impoverished them and outsmart the official authorities that had betrayed them.

 

Dillinger led a band of expert armed robbers on a series of dazzling heists and numerous breakouts; all improbable until you actualy see them.  In the story’s first half, we get the impression of Dillinger as a man who could not be stopped, an outlaw that no jail could hold, at least not for too long. His jailbreaks are nothing short of ingenious.  In the first act, Dillinger breaks out of jail in Lima, Ohio, walking straight into a car that waits for him outside, on time as scheduled.  Much was made at the time of his habit to take time, during the riskiest heists, in order to destroy incriminating evidence, mortgage records and loan files, against poor innocent citizens.

 

Mann probes into the saga of a man who inspired the first nationwide war on crime. Dillinger's gang includes a variety of dangerous sociopaths and psychopaths: Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Harry Pierpont (David Wenham), Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi), Homer van Meter (Stephen Dorff).  Dillinger's bank robberies made him the primary target of FBI’s J. Edgar Hoovers (Billy Crudup), who labeled him “Public Enemy No. 1,” and the agency's top agent, the straigh-arrow Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). 


Compared with the dozen or so male roles, most of which are developed as individual characters, not types, there are only three or four females. The movie details Dillinger’s passionate love for one woman, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard in her first part after her stunning Oscar-winning role as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose”), whom he met at a dance club in November 1933. 

 

Billie began her career as a hatcheck girl at the Steuben Club, and hailing from a small provincial town, with upbringing as a Menominee Indian (she was half-French and half-Native American), made Billie a second-class citizen, an outsider.  But she was ambitious and aggressive and as such a good match for Dillinger. Mann skips Billie's lurid background with a husband who was in jail and ties to the underworld.  The real-life femme was arrested in 1934 for harboring a criminal and served two years in prison; she died in 1969 in Wisconsin, where she spent the rest of her life.

The second woman in the picture is the femme who set Dillinger up (played by Branca Katic of TV’s “Big Love”), an illegal resident from Romania who worked in a brothel and was his movie companion the night he was killed. (She was featured in “The Lady in Red”).

 

A whole reel is devoted to the fateful events of July 22, 1934, when Dillinger was caught and shot by Purvis and his agents outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater, where the outlaw had just attended a screening of MGM’s “Manhattan Melodrama,” starring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy at the peak of their careers.  Inserting footage from the picture itself, Mann suggests an affinity between the country’s top stars and top criminals, both celebs.  The association between the two elite is further developed by the press description of the handsome Purvis as “the Clark Gable of the FBI.”

 

Structurally, big action scenes of glorious escapes fom prison, bank robberies, and shoot-outs are integrated into the dramatic proceedings.  Occasionally, the narrative slows down, as in the romantic scenes between Dillinger and Billie, but Mann is a shrewd entertainer who knows when to switch from dialogue-driven sequences to thrilling set-pieces, which the HD cameras of ace cinematographer Dante Spinotti captures in alluring ways.  A couple of nocturnal scenes are simply breathtaking in their visual pizzazz, conveying through dark screens that suddenly erupt into spots of glaring white light both the movement and effect of gunshots. 


Mann examines a turbulent era through the experience of a criminal (and his gang), who became a folk hero for a whole generation. As in “Bonnie and Clyde,” Americans folks, looking for a symbol to divert them from everyday hardships, found it in the man who took from the banks the monies they felt the banks had wrongly taken from them

 

Reportedly, Mann had previously written a script about this era dealing with the train and bank robber Alvin Karpis (played in the new movie by Giovanni Ribisi).  That knolwedge, combined with exhaustive research over the past four years, results in a picture in which an era is stunningly recreated.

 

In assaulting the banks, and outwitting the government, Dillinger “spoke” directly to the people, battered by the Depression and betrayed by the bureaucracies.   We get glimpses into the mobility and use of new, modernist technology, which helped the outlaws become invincible.  Historically, Dillinger led to the formation or restructuring of new agencies and legal forces, Hoover and the FBI in their first national police force, the first interstate crime bill, the use of modern technology and data management.

For example, it was relatively easy for Dillinger and his crew to get away with crime, because of the nature of law enforcement in 1933. Indiana State Police had 27 officers for the whole state, and law enforcement was local, underpaid, poorly supplied.  Moreover, there was no interstate communication, and thus Dillinger and his cohorts could commit a bank robbery in Indiana and then “safely” cross the border into Illinois; there were no law against interstate crime and no federal police force.

 

Just like the mythic Western heroes before him (Jesse James), Dillinger displayed dashing manner and charismatic personality, which entranced a whole country.  Which brings me to Depp's interpretation, likely to divide critics and viewers.  At 45, Depp is a whole decade older than the real-life Dillinger, but he projects a youthful aura.  A briliant actor, at the peak of his career right now, Depp gives an iconic performance, one that makes Dillinger perhaps a tad too likeable, handsome and charismatic.  Like other great stars, Depp has always been a cool, self-contained, guarded actor, who brings to each role a baggage of associations. 

 

In its painstaking attention to detail, “Public Enemies” recalls “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” made by another brilliant and perfectionist director, David Fincher.  We get a feel of how things looked, but how people thought, how men courted women, what ex-convicts thought about life, fate, and death. 


Space does not permit me to dwell on the superlative production values, from Spinotti’s hypnotic images to production and costume design to music, which combines tunes of the era (blues and jazz) with more contemporary and ominous sounds.  There are three terrific songs by the great Billie Holiday: “The Man I Love,” “Love Me Or Leave Me,” and “Am I Blue?” 

Shooting on location in Wisconsin and Illinois enhances the authenic feel and look of the picture.  Just note the Art Deco style of Chicago's Biograph Theater and its marquee, the shiny cars with their white-wall tires, the tailored suits and so on.


I will elaborate on the production values of this landmark movie in a future article.

Cast

 

John Dillinger – Johnny Depp
Melvin Purvis – Christian Bale
Billie Frechette – Marion Cotillard
“Red” Hamilton – Jason Clarke
Agent Carter Baum – Rory Cochrane
J. Edgar Hoover – Billy Crudup
Homer Van Meter – Stephen Dorff
Charles Winstead – Stephen Lang

Credits

 

A Universal release of a Universal Pictures presentation in association with Relativity Media of a Forward Pass/Misher Films production in association with Tribeca Productions and Appian Way.

Produced by Kevin Misher, Michael Mann.

Executive producer, G. Mac Brown. Co-producers, Bryan H. Carroll, Gusmano Cesaretti, Kevin de la Noy. Directed by Michael Mann.

Screenplay, Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman, based on the book “Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34,” by Bryan Burrough.