05 July 2009

Depp Does Dillinger Delightfully

Saw Public Enemies today, Michael Mann's new film about famed gangster John Dillinger.

I'd been intrigued by the movie when I first heard about it, having read the book by Bryan Burrough upon which it is based. I'm also a connoisseur of gangster films ,Hollywood having produced so damn many good ones. Lastly the casting of Johnny Depp as Dillinger was inspired. Depp was born for the role. He's facially a bit softer looking, but like Leo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004), needed neither gobs of make up nor the vivid imagination of audiences to play the historical figure. It was clear from the previews that Depp had the Dillinger posture and smirk down, leaving the rest up to director Mann.

Christian Bale was just fine as Melvin Purivs and Billy Crudup was a perfect 30 year old J Edgar Hoover. Marion Cotillard, not seen since her Oscar winning turn as Edith Piaf on La Vie en Rose (2007) seemed a risky choice to play Dillinger's moll Billie Frechette. But she was wonderful and hopefully we'll be seeing much much more of her in years to come.

Mann makes technically perfect films, See Heat (1995), Ali (2001), Collateral (2004) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992) as examples. He scrupulously avoids anachronisms. Mann's attention to detail is unmatched (that is not to say there aren't those who'll find some "goofs" for IMDb, but they are relatively few). Mann's recreation of the early 1930's Midwest is uncanny. Students of the era will love it.

It's useful to compare Public Enemies to a couple of earlier films on Depression Era gangsters. Brian De Palma played much looser with the facts in The Untouchables (1987) going so far as to have Elliott Ness toss Frank Nitti off a roof. He allowed a bloated performance by Robert DeNiro as Al Capone, which was closer to vamping than acting. Worse he tried to pay homage to Battleship Potemkin's (1925) famous baby carriage scene and as a consequence merely drew attention to himself and away from the film. The Untouchables was initially entertaining but grows tiresome with increased viewings. I suspect Pubic Enemies may well improve with age. It is a visual smorgasbord without hammy performances or unneeded directorial flourishes to interfere with it.

Bonnie & Clyde (1967) also played fast and loose with the truth of the events it depicted but did so in the service of creating a ground breaking cinematic experience. Bonnie & Clyde, like Public Enemies, was about some Depression Era Robin Hoods who robbed from banks, not never from plain folks. But Bonnie & Clyde was much as much about the time of its release as it was about the depression. It spoke to contemporary audiences who were in the midst of a cultural revolution. Bonnie & Clyde was wildly eccentric characters and Flatt & Scruggs driven car chases. Public Enemies is much more about the destinations than the journeys. Yet its not meditative, it has too much to tell to stop and think about it.

Mann does not mythologize Dillinger. Yes, we see that Dilligner was all about beating the establishment (for the sake of their money) and wouldn't hurt a poor person's fly. But though charismatic, he was not by any means a man of either deep or particularly interesting character. The guy was cool and sexy but still a thief.
Dilligner and Frichette's relationship is just about two people fatalistically clinging to one another with the specter of death or prison hanging over them. It's not presented as a great screen romance nor should it have been. To make a romance out of Public Enemies would have trivialized its truths.

As a matter of fact Public Enemies is pretty straight forward story telling. This is a speciality of Mann's. He doesn't tend to make great films (except for Heat, which is a masterpiece) but they're pretty much all very, very good. Public Enemies is the type of picture the Oscars can get so wrong be either totally ignoring it or lavishing it with far too many statuettes.

It's always a challenge to tell a story that has an ending that most audience members know full well. Mann does a masterful job, particularly with how he shows Dillinger watching Manhattan Melodrama (1934), the movie he'd just seen before being gunned down by the law. It starred Clark Gable as a gangster, William Powell as the D.A. and Myrna Loy as the woman they love. I've found it interesting to watch the film wondering what Dillinger thought as he watched it and what an interesting thing it is that this of all films is what he saw in his last hours. In it Gable nobly gives himself up to save his childhood chum the D.A. and willingly goes to the electric chair. He's a tough egg all right, but one with a big heart. What must Dillinger have thought!

Quite obviously Mann has thought about the strange juxtaposition of Manhattan Melodrama and Dillinger's imminent death. The manner in which we view Dillinger watch the movie and the scenes from it Mann shows is fascinating.

It's easy to look at a film like Public Enemies and wonder how it could have been elevated to greatness. But I think it far more useful to look at a film like Public Enemies and enjoy it for what it is -- a damn good movie.

1 comment:

The Mad Hatter said...

Well said! I for one think this movie is already underrated, but will likely age very well.

My biggest complaint about it was the fact that the sound mix is horrible...it actually left me straining to hear much of what was going on in the early parts of the film.