Director Michael Mann is contemporary American cinema’s most penetrating chronicler of U.S. crime, alongside Martin Scorsese. But while Scorsese balks at being called a director of gangster pictures (with legitimate reason), and puts himself through many bouts of self-questioning before embarking on such projects, Mann is altogether more comfortable with both handling the logistics, and advancing the concerns, of the crime picture. There’s no equivalent to The Age of Innocence in his filmography, and God knows no religious movies. His tone is different from Scorsese’s, too — as I point out in a book I wrote about the making of Goodfellas (Made Men, due out in September), 1995’s Maximum Cops And Robbers epic Heat is, in a sense, the ice to Goodfellas‘ fire.
2009’s Public Enemies, now on Netflix, romanticizes crime and criminality as much as Heat did, but with more nostalgia-tinged warmth and tenderness (the romance of the Heat criminal — central mastermind Neil McCauley, played by Robert De Niro — came from his measured, meticulous cool; the renunciation of that cool at a crucial point of the film is the ultimate flower of that romanticization). One key to Enemies‘s ethos becomes crystal clear in the movie’s final scene, where Johnny Depp’s John Dillinger, sporting a mustache exactly like Golden Age movie star Clark Gable’s, sits in a movie theater watching Gable as an electric-chair-bound crook in Manhattan Melodrama. Mann and editors Jeffrey Ford and Paul Rubell cut between screen-filling closeups of Gable and Depp engaging in a sort of secret communion, celebrating the Gangster As Tragic Hero.
That’s an old convention, and Public Enemies uses a whole lot of those, and some of them are eyeroll-worthy. But for the most part the movie is an exhilarating exercise in following the old Ezra Pound directive: “Make it new.” Mann was a very early proponent of shooting his cinema with digital video, and one reason this movie looked like such a risk at the time it was made was the question it provoked: how would the sharp hats and bulky tommy guns and other items we remember from the classic gangster pictures look as a decoded series of ones and zeroes, rather than still images captured on celluloid?
Mann picks up the gauntlet almost immediately. The opening scene shows a jail break, and while the big open widescreen skies look spectacular and nearly standard, once inside the jail, the blazing sunlight comes through its barred windows with such force as to look like there’s a single sun behind each pane. Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti, another maverick, show a sense of play here, pushing the exposure so there’s a potential threat of this light blowing out the frame. The contrast it creates with the drab interiors that are about to more or less explode is terrifically evocative.
Roger Ebert said of Johnny Depp’s Dillinger, “[t]his Johnny Depp performance is something else. For once an actor playing a gangster does not seem to base his performance on movies he has seen. He starts cold. He plays Dillinger as a Fact.” Agreed, although one sometimes find traces of James Dean in Depp’s line readings. Depp at the time was the most film-historically self-aware actor working in American cinema, and I don’t think he could help bringing a little bit of his chops in that respect with him. And he’s not the first actor who plays Dillinger as a fact; so did Warren Oates, who played the criminal in director John Milius’ raw, rough and ready 1973 Dillinger.
At any rate, Depp is a grabber right from the start; his Dillinger asserts his primacy in the prelude to the jailbreak by telling a guard, “My friends call me John. But a sonofabitch screw like you better refer to me as Mr. Dillinger.” When he makes his first move on eventual lover (and of course soulmate) Billie (Marion Cotillard) he tells her, when she balks at his aggression because she hardly knows him, “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whisky, fast cars and you, what else do you need to know?” Mann apparently likes a few of those things himself, so the affinity is understandable.
Mann doesn’t do period pieces all that frequently, but when he does, as in The Last of the Mohicans, The Keep, and portions of Ali, he accords that aspect of the movie the same practically obsessive attention to detail he lavishes on everything else. But in this Dillinger story he will sometimes sacrifice verisimilitude on the altar of scale. This is a big movie, so the banks aren’t the sleepy single-counter storefront savings and loans of, say, Bonnie and Clyde, but elaborate structures ornately designed, conceived for wide angle and wide screen (the production design was by Nathan Cowley).
The artillery Dillinger and his gang use to pull off their heists isn’t Heat level but it’s pretty formidable. And the foes these criminals — played by a sterling boy cast that includes Jason Clarke, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, and as Baby Face Nelson, the future Irishman Tony Pro Stephen Graham (and wait, who’s that as the killed-early-on Pretty Boy Floyd? Yep, it’s Channing Tatum) — face are headed up by Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis, who’s portrayed as such a stick-up-his-ass type that he makes The Batman look like William Kunstler. This movie doesn’t merely romanticize gangsters — it actively denigrates law enforcement. Purvis and is subordinates are sadists and torturers; Billy Crudup’s J. Edgar Hoover is a publicity-hungry, mealy-mouthed paper-pusher. Mann really doubles down on the “to live outside the law you must be honest” idea here, even as he depicts Dillinger as an old-school criminal facing obsolescence.
The Frank Nitti of this film, played by Bill Camp, is a modern master of vice, focused on bookmaking, deploring Dillinger’s physical approach to moneymaking. And so the “last score” idea is hatched. It’s hardly the first of the movie’s clichés. “When you’re desperate, that’s when you got no choice” and other bits of dialogue sure do clang. But the movie’s visuals are so consistently exhilarating that they lift everything with it. The movie provides generous thrills and suspense in the context of a vision that’s simultaneously grounded and hallucinatory. Mann is a film language visionary, and here he is at the peak of inspiration.
Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews new releases at RogerEbert.com, the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, at Some Came Running and tweets, mostly in jest, at @glenn__kenny.
Watch Public Enemies on Netflix
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