Friday, December 11, 2009

Public Enemies

"Do you wanna take that ride with me?"
~ Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, Public Enemies (2009)

John Dillinger. Pretty Boy Floyd. Baby Face Nelson. American as apple-pie. Public Enemies (2009) explores the enduring myth of the 1930s outlaw, deconstructs that myth, and ultimately creates a mythology of its own. Adapted from Bryan Burrough's book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934, the film jettisons the book's big-picture overview of Depression-Era banditry, focusing instead on the final riotous year in the life of John Dillinger.

Opening with the 1933 jail-break at Indiana State Prison,
Public Enemies wastes no time in establishing the central characteristics of its protagonist, John Dillinger: contempt for authority, loyalty to his criminal confederates, and willingness to use violence in the furtherance of his schemes. Throughout the film, Dillinger's character is most clearly defined in contrast to his contemporaries. His underworld associates are generally venal, opportunistic, and - in the case of Baby Face Nelson - psychotic. By contrast, Dillinger is relatively disciplined and averse to unnecessary violence. He is also self-aware enough to utilize his public persona. In a revealing exchange, Dillinger tells Alvin Karpis that he won't be party to kidnapping because the "public" doesn't like it. And, as a full-time fugitive, he must hide among them.

Johnny Depp invests the role of John Dillinger with bravado, outlaw charm, and the unique sensitivity that has become a hallmark of all of Johnny Depp's greatest performances. Any number of actors could have played the popular conception of a 1930s tough guy, but Depp isn't interested in impersonating James Cagney. His
performance in Public Enemies is one of the most mature and refined of his stellar career.

Dillinger's nemesis is Melvin Purvis, played with just the right amount of subtlety by Christian Bale. Agent Purvis' relentless pursuit of these outlaws would seem to have less to do with his own sense of justice than with meeting the demands of besieged FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The lengths to which he'll go to satisfy Hoover's mandate have tragic consequences.

Marion Cotillard (2008 Best Actress winner, La Vie En Rose) plays Dillinger's love interest, Billie Frechette. There is a certain tenderness to their love affair that would otherwise be completely absent from the film. Their clipped verbal shorthand provides the only biographical data we get on the early life of John Dillinger. He describes himself as an Indiana boy whose mother died when he was three years old. He had an abusive father. He is a fan of baseball, movies, whiskey, and good clothes. Frechette describes her life with almost heartbreaking simplicity: she spent part of her childhood on a Native American Indian reservation, moved to Chicago, became a hat-check girl, and nothing exciting ever happened for her.

Director Michael Mann strikes a powerful balance with
Public Enemies: presenting sympathetic and recognizable characters, while still satisfying the demands of a crime drama. Which is to say, there is no shortage of action. We witness multiple bank robberies, prison breaks, car chases, foot pursuits... All of them masterfully executed and technically stunning. Mann's take on the infamous shootout at Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin is particularly impressive. John Dillinger, "Red" Hamilton, and the mercurial Baby Face Nelson are holed up at the Little Bohemia Lodge following a calamitous bank robbery. Melvin Purvis and his agents learn the location of their hideout by torturing one of the gang's associates. The resulting shootout and chase is not just viscerally exciting, but emotionally so as well. (Local history buffs may note the inaccuracy of Nelson being killed in the immediate aftermath of the Wisconsin shootout at Little Bohemia. In reality, he was mortally wounded by Federal agents in Barrington, Illinois, approximately ten miles from your local Library.)

The penultimate scenes at Chicago's Biograph Theater are particularly affecting. Dillinger watches the 1934 MGM picture Manhattan Melodrama. His eyes focus on actress Myrna Loy, a glamorous moll. Is he thinking of Billie? He smiles to himself as Clark Gable says, "If I can't live the way I want, at least let me die the way I want." Is he finding some sort of affirmation in that character's stoic pose? Is he laughing at the soft Hollywood gangster? Possibly both. What we know for certain is that on a sweltering day in July, 1934, John Dillinger went to the movies. And, like the rest of us, he saw his own personal melodrama up there on the silver screen.

Public Enemies (2009)

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