Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)
Johnny Depp (John Dillinger), Marion Cotillard (Billie Frechette), Christian Bale (Melvin Purvis). Screenplay by Ann Biderman, Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann. Directed by Michael Mann. Rating: 15. Running time: 140 minutes.
‘John Dillinger is making a mockery of this country’s system of justice.’ So said Franklin Roosevelt at the height of the Great Depression. He was right. Whilst America ached, Dillinger flourished. He robbed over two dozen banks, escaped prison in days if he was somehow caught, and generally evaded the Chicago police department with relative ease. They’d never catch him, he told his girl, Billie Frechette. He robbed any bank he wanted at any time that pleased him; if they were going to get him, they’d have to be everywhere.
In fact, they just had to be at the cinema one night to take him on his way out, but that doesn’t change the fact that Dillinger ran rings around law enforcement for a stupidly humiliating 12 months. He was, for a long time, untouchable, and when embodied by Johnny Depp he also becomes the smoothest-talking and hippest-walking high quality crook you’re ever likely to see.
‘You can either be a dead hero or a live coward; open the door,’ he boasts to the bank manager giving him access to the safe; ‘they’re all about where people come from, when all that matters is where you’re going’ is his response to Billie upon seeing fellow diners casting snobbish looks at her clothing; and then after an argument, when she retorts that she doesn’t even know him, his response is this: “I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn’t know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you… what else you need to know?”
What else can I say? It’s just a delight to watch and listen to Depp in action. The most absurd scenes come with shots of him behind bars. What is a man like this doing in a jail cell? He makes love to the sound of Billie Holiday and talks smoother than Marlon Brando. Just free him, for Christ’s sake, or watch him let himself out.
It’s easy to question what’s new here, but I say this film’s sufficiently justified by these points of style alone. Comparisons to Michael Mann’s other great film, Heat, are too easy: perfected bank heists are everywhere, street shootouts are abound; the protagonist in both steals as if it’s their God-given life purpose and both have a cop chasing them that’s equally committed to bringing them down.
What is different, though, with regards to content, if this even matters to you, is the fact Neil and Dillinger differ so drastically in their approach to relationships. The Neil of Heat is ready to walk out on his girl in 30 seconds flat if his situation so requires it; Dillinger spent his final year not only devoted to bank-robbing, but also to protecting Billie, even if the thing she probably needs protecting from most is, tragically, Dillinger himself. This isn’t just a minor detail; it has a huge impact on the dynamics and nature of each film.
This is why this piece of history will have enticed Michael Mann so greatly. He clearly has a love for the villain, and an unwavering interest in their motives and choices. As the most intriguing of historic criminals, Dillinger provides through Public Enemies a huge addition to his body of work. This really is a very, very underrated film.
Filed under: action, america, crime, drama, romance | 4 Comments
Tags: bank heist, billie holiday, chicago, chicago police department, christian bale, fdr, franklin roosevelt, great depression, heat, john dillinger, johnny depp, marion cotillard, marlon brando, michael mann, new deal, public enemies, robbery, robert de niro, roger ebert