Prior to “Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s latest high-profile dramatization of the last 14 months of America’s former public enemy no.1 John Dillinger, at least four big-screen adaptations were made of the legendary outlaw in addition to several TV movies and documentaries.
I’ve watched the majority of these films, including Max Nosseck’s B-noir “Dillinger (1945) and John Milius’s 1973 version, also titled “Dillinger, starring Warren Oates. In college, I did some research about the crime-wave of the Great Depression, but Dillinger’s story never managed to captivate me simply because there wasn’t much to it.
John Dillinger was a man who robbed banks and died. That’s it. And that seems to be the overriding norm with Mann’s occasionally stimulating, and mostly frustrating, new star-studded film.
Dillinger emerged in the early 30s, prior to the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with other notorious criminals such as Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker and Baby-Face Nelson. In less than four years, Dillinger robbed around two dozen banks, and escaped jail twice.
Capitalists and bank-owners were unfavorably regarded by the vast public at a time when poverty was reaching an unprecedented high. Dillinger was thus largely viewed as folk hero; a modern-day Robin Hood.
Dillinger, a massive film fan, embraced the fame, keeping his public image tightly under control and abiding by a strict code of discipline. In his criminal record, Dillinger was believed to have killed only one man.
The widespread assumption that Dillinger and his gang outsmarted the police is completely untrue. The police force was under-equipped, and underpaid, back then. Cops didn’t have enough incentives to hunt down criminals who were better armed and more experienced.
The legal system prohibited federal investigators from carrying out any interstate pursuits as robberies and murders were strictly state affairs.
Dillinger and his cohorts were simply in the right place at the right time, exploiting a loophole in the law, dodging arrest by hopping from one state to another.
A year after J. Edgar Hoover set up his Bureau of Investigation when bank robbery became a federal rather state crime, all criminals were dead.
Dillinger was no Robin Hood either. The usual targets for Dillinger and co. were tiny stores and small banks whose deposits were largely composed of the last savings of farmers and struggling families.
Papers, whose sales were tumbling at that time, couldn’t resist the temptation of creating national myths on par with Jesse James and Billy the Kid before them. The press’ exaggerated coverage provided a distraction from the daily briefs about foreclosures, feeding on the working class’ fantasies as the myth became the fact.
Mann – whose impressive resume includes “Heat, “The Insider, “The Last of the Mohicans, “Collateral and “Miami Vice – doesn’t delve into those details. In fact, “Public Enemies doesn’t carry any social commentary about that era; nor does it offer any allusions to the present. Mann is interested primarily in Dillinger, or rather the myth of Dillinger.
Mann’s film bears a resemblance to Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Both films explore the relationship between celebrity and crime, featuring conflicted protagonists whose personas were mostly forged by the public and the media. Both films contain sequences that resemble reveries, shot with arresting poeticism against striking, distinct backdrops. What prevents “Public Enemies from achieving the hypnotic, piercing effect of “Jesse James is not only the protagonist himself but the directing approach.
Mann, who stays close to the historical facts, doesn’t probe Dillinger’s psychology. Dillinger, played with remarkable cool and aplomb by Johnny Depp, remains an enigmatic character throughout the film. The pensive close-ups and melancholic gazes hint towards a troubled soul, an outsider putting on a façade to hide possible vulnerabilities, to hide his true self.
Yet Mann refrains from explaining anything, diverting viewers’ attention with picturesque landscapes, the Chicago architecture and the high-voltage action sequences.
Mann has always been accused of producing films that champions style over substance such as 2006’s misunderstood “Miami Vice. A number of critics have laid these accusations once again against “Public Enemies. I can’t seem to agree.
The problem with “Public Enemies is not with Mann’s visual stylization, although I do have reservations, as much as his incomplete, unrewarding treatment. The film is bogged down with irrelevant, superfluous historical details that neither advance the story nor reveal any dimensions of the leading protagonist. For the most part of the film, Mann abstains from romanticizing Dillinger, choosing to adopt a detached approach that mimics Steven Soderbergh’s unsuccessful method with the Che Guevara story.
On paper, the John Dillinger story seems like the perfect prototype of Mann’s themes. Indeed, all Mann’s hallmarks can be easily detected in “Public Enemies : Two men operating on the opposite sides of the law (Dillinger and Melvin Purvis, played by a stone-faced Christian Bale), free-spirited men defying the system, the bed functioning as sanctuary from the outside world.etc. None of these themes come into full fruitarian.
Unidentified characters come and go as fast as the car chases. No obvious distinction is made between the cops and the criminals, and I don’t believe that this was intended.
Purvis is too one dimensional to expand on the themes of “Heat. His sole pre-occupation is with capturing Dillinger and restoring order. His morality is clear-cut; he operates with a one-track-mind that disengages him from playing mind games with Dillinger. The much-anticipated scene between Depp and Bale thus fizzles.
His visual characteristics are all here as well: the slick surfaces, the depiction of corporeal masculinity, the relish in body and motion, the scrupulous digital cinematography. And I must admit, the film has a sumptuous look that’s hard not to admire. Mann portrays Dillinger and his entourage like superheroes, draped in black coats, concealing their faces with fedoras and carrying the coolest-looking tommy guns there are as they glide with dramatic fluidity and grace to rob the banks.
Mann choreographs the heists and shoot-’em-ups like musical pieces; the sense of bravura that permeates these sequences is integral to the myth of Dillinger the press had tirelessly exalted in. The digital cinematography ultimately proves disorienting though. In the last extensive shoot-out sequence in particular, the hyper-realistic fire exchange looked like an action scene culled from a video game.
Mann’s excessive use of hand-held camera, while fresh at first, breaks the illusion in several instances and poses extra question marks on what he’s trying to accomplish precisely.
The last scene of sequence of the film, where Dillinger is seen watching in silent contemplation W.S. Van Dyke’s “Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable, points towards the direction Mann should’ve taken from the start.
Like the press, Hollywood fed on the public’s appetite for watching blue-collar men rise in rank and challenge the corrupt system by producing a series of films such as “The Public Enemy, “Little Cesar, “The Roaring Twenties and “Scarface to a name a few, that featured some of the industry’s biggest names playing glamorized gangsters. What came first, the gangsters or the crime flicks? I don’t know.
Dillinger was certainly a byproduct of the movies. All he wanted to do was rob banks, live a fast, extravagant life, and become famous. He never planned far ahead; he probably knew his end was coming soon.
Flaws aside, “Public Enemies is a commendable endeavor from one of Hollywood’s few filmmakers who still dare to experiment. I admired the film, but I didn’t love it. The film left me quite cold, indifferent even. There might’ve been more to the Joh
n Dillinger story but despite his best efforts, Mann’s new film is quite an uninvolving affair.