This is probably going to be half history, half film commentary (and really long, LOL). Public Enemies is an interesting little film, a surprise because I’ve been mulling over the story and players ever since I finished it last night. It’s not your typical movie in that you’re given a clear beginning, middle, and end tied up neatly with a bow and plenty of closure. Instead, the movie drops you into the middle of the Great Depression, right when John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) boldly breaks several of his comrades out of prison and launches the infamous crime spree that catapulted him to the top of the FBI’s most wanted list. So, because this film doesn’t have a typical story structure, you’re thrust into the middle of the action, watching events unfold without the benefit of context. The result is that it feels like a docudrama, and that format brings with it pros and cons. The way Public Enemies is structured makes you strictly an observer – albeit a riveted, horrified one – but an outsider nonetheless. The sense of identification or knowledge of a character in a film that comes with a more traditional character and story arc is missing, and that’s a little disturbing – but ultimately in a good way, I think, because we see and judge the major players by their actions alone. This doesn’t allow for rationalizations or excuses, you just to see things as they are, so to speak.
Director Michael Mann based Public Enemies on the book of the same name by Bryan Burrough. I started that a while back but got distracted, however now I’ve got to finish in order to properly see how the movie compares to the entire book. I have to say, Burrough’s book is one of those rare non-fiction titles that read like a novel. The structure and pacing are superbly done, with dialogue lifted straight out of FBI interrogation transcripts. What it makes clear about the 1933-34 crime wave (that included not only Dillinger, but Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie & Clyde, etc.) is how it directly led to the birth of the modern FBI. Dillinger and his ilk changed the way crime was fought. It’s absolutely shocking to read about and witness in the film how freakishly inept and ill-equipped national law enforcement was to deal with fearless criminals who hit their targets hard and fast and crossed state lines with ease. Prior to this time period, the FBI was an organization with no real “teeth” – looked upon as more of an annoyance by state law enforcement than an asset, especially since agents didn’t even carry firearms (which made them pretty much useless, yes?).
This story gives an interesting glimpse into the rise of J. Edgar Hoover (played in the film by Billy Crudup) prior to the controversy that characterized his later career. Hoover was driven and focused, apparently obsessed with the idea that his bureau be made up of clean-cut Ivy League types – “nice young men” to fight the dirty nasty criminals running rampant across the country. Since these agents generally had no actual law enforcement experience, and weren’t even authorized to carry sidearms, you can imagine that didn’t end well. They were getting slaughtered until Hoover and one of his star agents, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) bring in some agents from out west with two very important qualifications: 1) actual law enforcement experience and 2) they knew how to use guns. Or in other words, they could get the job done. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when some Texas Rangers arrive, and they have this look on their faces that just screams they think the FBI agents are utter morons. The result is that the FBI learns to fight fire with fire, with pretty brutal consequences. But it’s also fascinating to see investigative techniques – like tailing suspects, effective stakeouts, wiretaps, or tracing purchases in order to pinpoint a suspect’s location (can you imagine doing that without the benefit of computers or traceable credit card purchases?) - taken for granted today being implemented as truly cutting edge technology. My, how times have changed.
Johnny Depp quite simply owns the role of Dillinger. He’s got this freakish ability to completely disappear into any character he plays. Physically, there is a resemblance (just compare their mug shots – the way Depp’s expression mirrors Dillinger’s is positively eerie). Fascinatingly enough Dillinger was a kind of folk hero to the masses during the Depression, robbing banks but courting the masses’ approval by letting customers keep their money (don’t try to figure that one out – whose money did he think was in the “evil” banks’ vaults?). He had a sort of honor code, never leaving one of his own behind, and a true belief in his own invincibility (just witness the scene where he waltzes in and out of the “Dillinger bureau” undetected). The movie makes it clear that Dillinger was a ruthless, dangerous man, but he also had a sort of charm and magnetic confidence that Depp does a good job of letting you see, particularly in his relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a down-on-her-luck coat check girl he plucks from obscurity to take on his “grand” adventures. She needs saving, and Dillinger needs to be a savior. Cotillard fits the time period perfectly, and she plays Billie with a world-weariness that tugs at the soul. However dysfunctional or by turns affectionate Dillinger and Billie’s relationship may have been, on-screen all you see is raw, almost painful neediness. I’ve got to hand it to Depp, though – the moment when Billie is arrested and he cries was riveting.
The third major player in this drama is Special Agent Melvin Purvis. Like Depp, Christian Bale really has a knack for fully inhabiting all the roles he takes on and this is no exception. Bale’s Purvis is driven and focused and utterly consumed with his mission to take down Dillinger. Perhaps even less than Dillinger, the film doesn’t give a viewer any real context for Purvis’s character. You know he’s obsessed with stopping Dillinger, but aside from that you don’t get a sense of what made him the man he is by the time he becomes Hoover’s golden poster boy for the FBI’s transformative War on Crime. He definitely seems to have a better handle than Hoover, at least initially, on what it would take to effectively shut down the gangs that were wreaking havoc across the country. I really would’ve liked more background on Purvis’s character, because the bulldog-like tenacity he exhibits in his work is fascinating, and by all appearances completely consuming. I do have to make a completely frivolous point before moving on – Christian Bale looks pretty dang fine in these suits. Wowzers.
Regarding the more technical aspects of the film – first, it looks spectacular. Every detail of the sets and costumes screams authenticity. Some of the camera work can be a little jarring, but if you can get past that it really adds a sense of immediacy to the events unfolding on-screen and reinforces the documentary feel of the film. The close-ups and quick angle changes are especially effective during the gunfights. Those are by turns intense, stressful, and horrifying. It’s quite easy to imagine being a random bystander suddenly caught up in one of these shoot-outs. The movie also makes really fine use of music, both original score pieces by Elliot Goldenthal and vocal performances, with quite striking results. The vocal tracks by Otis Taylor, Billie Holiday, and Blind Willie Johnson, to just name a few, are dark, gritty, and intense, and near perfect complements to the action unfolding on-screen. Diana Krall even makes a brief guest appearance. And when instrumental music is employed, everything else shuts down, so all you see are the visuals, such as the aftermath of a gunfight, accompanied by a haunting melody that really underscores the terrible intensity of what you’re watching unfold.
One final thing and then I promise I’ll shut up. *wink* I was pretty surprised to discover that I’m quite familiar with the film Dillinger saw just before he died (Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy – it’s notable as Powell and Loy’s first on-screen teaming). It’s an interesting enough movie, at times rather preachy but nonetheless a fascinating relic of its time. I’d definitely rate it as one of the lesser pictures in Gable, Powell, and Loy’s respective film canons. Taking what little I’ve read about Dillinger with Depp’s performance, the irony that this Gable gangster picture was the last film Dillinger ever saw is incredible. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between Dillinger and Gable’s character in the film – Blackie, the gangster with a heart of gold and his own peculiar honor code. Towards the end of the film, Blackie says something to the effect of wanting to go out of the world as fast as he entered it, and it’s chilling to realize that just minutes after that scene Dillinger would be dying on a sidewalk outside the theater. It’s an interesting collision of fiction and historical events, reality and perception. A person could write a really fascinating essay on Dillinger and crime as viewed in Manhattan Melodrama.
If you’re a history buff, especially as regards early 20th century America, Public Enemies can provide a lot of food for thought (or fodder for one’s blog, whatever the case may be). It’s not an easy film to watch by any stretch, but I found this story, and the time period and the players completely fascinating. I ended up wanting to know what makes them tick, and while this film only gives brief hints into their characters, Dillinger and Purvis remain for the most part enigmatic and fascinating rivals.