Running Time: 140 mins. Rating: 2 ½ Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Mann
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Lang, Lili Taylor, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, James Russo, David Wenham, Diane Krall, Shawn Hatosy, Matt Craven, Leelee Sobieski
The Anti-Depression Version Of Dillinger
The concerns and gestalt of every age (not to mention hairstyles) are reflected in the films made in that age. In the 1930’s the Dillinger persona was used by playwright Robert Sherwood in his drama of Existential Angst – THE PETRIFIED FOREST. This made a star out of Humphrey Bogart who consciously copied Dillinger’s mannerisms. At the end of the ‘30s W.R. Burnett imagined an older, wizened Dillinger, with graying temples, being paroled after years in prison through the influence of a crime boss to lead a robbery in High Sierra and wind up in a slightly more dignified death.
The two direct presentations of the Dillinger story were in the late ‘40s by a noirish pre-tv movie movie starring real toughguy Lawrence Tierney. This film was so cheap that only one car, a contemporary Packard I believe, was used both for Dillinger and the FBI, in fact all cars in the drama. John Milius’ version was a ‘60s movie in all but date, presenting a post Bonnie and Clyde ant-establishment version of the story. Warren Oates’ version was big hearted, swaggering and wry. Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis was upright and unbendingly moral but gracious.
Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES is a post-911 take on Dillinger. If anything this picture should have been called DILLINGER, or JOHN AND BILLIE except for the fact that the target audience can not be reliably expected to know about anything from before they were born, or at least since they’ve been online. The cheeky bank robber played by Johnny Depp seems to be just even all of the time, as if he’s on Zoloft. Dillinger says what he’s doing is fun be he doesn’t look like he’s having fun. He’s passionately in love but he just looks so, I donno, even. At the end of the picture Dillinger is in the Biograph Theater watching Manhattan Melodrama and as Clark Gable is going to the chair he says something about living fast and dying as he lived and there is a minimalist smile which can almost be discerned in Depp’s lips. I guess in the age of Botox this counts for expressiveness. It’s nothing about 1934.
Like popular music, the (secret) context of popular films seems to be which drugs were ascendant at the time of a films’ manufacture. It’s all about 2009. Torture and widespread wiretapping are a part of this picture so nobody’s liberal creds are in danger of being questioned.
There is a tremendous amount of bustle about the picture. The opening is almost unwatchable with rapid cutting, camera movement in every shot, movement in every frame. No doubt to not offend the ADD community, it can be nauseating to the older demographic. There are a huge number of actors milling around the two major characters but it’s strange that it was nearly impossible to identify any individuals. They had a glaring sameness not only within each group but also with each other. Beefy but bland guys, gangster or FBI man, they were mere background. There are only two personalities on view and one is one note and the other excessively wan.
Oh, other people are seen doing things, but that’s about all. Considering the modern stricture of shooting in medium close-up (for tv I’m told) with limited depth of field, everyone and everything seems to be mere background for Depp. Speeches, other than his, are no longer than sound bites.
Christian Bale as Purvis has one operating system – intense. That is his one and only personality trait. He has no backstory and doesn’t have anything to say except to give orders to capture John Dillinger.
I feel there must have been about 20 minutes cut out dealing with the Purvis-Hoover relationship. This was famous because Purvis got all of this publicity and Hoover was jealous – for the good of the Bureau of course. In this version Hoover seems more sinned against – a senator kills an appropriation increase for the FBI. Hoover vows to get it by getting more publicity. In fact, the FBI spent one third of its total budget that year on capturing Dillinger.
This brings up some interesting material, which Michael Mann brings in for the first time – the influence of the Mafia in closing the trap around Dillinger. Frank Nitti and the Mafia controlled the vice rackets including bookmaking which went across state lines. If a National Crime Bill were enacted because of Dillinger it would affect their businesses. Since Dillinger was betrayed by a madam and the mob controlled all of the whorehouses it seems to be a straight line. On the other hand, while Hoover played up the Dillingers of the era he categorically denied that there was anything like organized crime or La Cosa Nostra and went on denying it until the infamous 1957 Appalachian, New York meeting. Hoover used to actually go to the track with Lucky Luciano who complained about how much money it cost him to fix the races so Hoover could win a $2 bet.
It’s not a terrible picture, nor even a bad one. It’s entertaining for what it is and a break from wizards and princesses and cute animated animals and space warlords and whatnot. A costume picture with some good music and everything that moves in gleaming black enamel (the Locomotive positively shines. It’s a clean machine.) The locations are spectacular, in most cases the original locations like Little Bohemia, and a series of banks that speak of an era when every business was proud to show the world it had taste and the civic responsibility to give its community something beautiful. Its actually far better looking than the period was, which was a Depression. No Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange or Ben Shann need apply. You want Johnny Depp as the bad man John Dillinger, you got him. I think I’ll stick with Warren Oates. That was actually fun.
If you like this recommendations: Dillinger (1945), Dillinger (1973), The FBI Story