Essentially there are two kinds of gangster movies: those made during the time when men wore hats in real life and those made during the time when men wore hats that came from wardrobe. The first type are usually in black-and-white, punchy, nervy and full of wisecracks. The second type are usually longer and more violent, but slower-paced and nobler of purpose, as if the hats suddenly carried an extra weight, an extra sadness. What Michael Mann has achieved with the new Public Enemies is an often fascinating, striking combination of the two.
I walked into the new film, convinced that it could never top lean, mean B-movie classics like Max Nosseck's Dillinger (1945) or Don Siegel's Baby Face Nelson (1957) in which these gangsters were initially immortalized. But it equals them, capturing some of their raw energy and allure and clocking in as a longer, but equally fast-moving and adrenaline-pumping example. Somehow Mann only manages to use the extra time for flash and spectacle, and hardly any for depth or detail, but that only helps to speed things along. Happily, he also avoids the typical origin story, and plunges right in.
Johnny Depp stars as John Dillinger, and unlike the thuggish Lawrence Tierney in the 1945 version or the snaky Warren Oates in the 1973 version, this one is very concerned with his public image. He's handsome and brave and looks great during his bank robberies, wearing his crisp hat, long coat and double handguns like fashion statements. He puts on a great show of stealing only the "bank's money" rather than the small deposits of the general public. He's a bit like Brad Pitt's Jesse James of two years ago, but less subtle.
He uses his charms on Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), practically demanding that she become his girlfriend, and she complies; what other answer is there? (Poor Cotillard spends much of the movie occupying the typical "girlfriend" role, until the final quarter when she is allowed a few venomous line readings.) Dillinger promises Billie the world, but the world is slipping through Dillinger's fingers. It's the beginning of the end. Crime itself has begun to change. One rival of Dillinger's has set up a successful gambling business with far less risk and greater rewards than bank robbing. And at one point Dillinger finds himself desperate enough to team up with the volatile, sadistic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), which results in more corpse-strewn bank jobs than Dillinger is used to.
Worse, the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Investigation, and its much-loathed director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) have opened a new anti-Dillinger branch, led by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). We first meet Purvis as he guns down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) in the back using a long-range rifle; the film never gives him much sympathy and Bale's chilly screen persona is perfect for a self-righteous villain like this. Unfortunately, the two main rivals, Purvis and Dillinger, don't really connect much onscreen, except for one brief, well-placed discussion through prison bars (it's not as effective as the coffee date between the hero and villain of Mann's Heat). But in one great -- fictional? -- scene, Dillinger finds himself nearby the Bureau's Anti-Dillinger office and wanders in, and finding it half-empty, re-examines his legacy in the form of pinned-up photos and documents.
One of the movie's main themes is that Dillinger lives for the moment, unwilling or unable to consider the future, and with little use for the past. That's Mann's credo as well, and it's what keeps the lengthy Public Enemies in shape. Most scenes come with an intense immediacy, with an effective use of shaky cams and stark lighting, giving chaos an open invitation to rear its ugly head at any time. The bullets are loud and plentiful and when they hit, the blood is not shy about making an exit. Additionally, the stylist Mann spends a great deal of extra time mining Dillinger's real-life ending for all its movie-ness. Dillinger was shot just after a showing of Manhattan Melodrama (1934), and so Mann shows us clips from that film (with Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy), and deliberately ties in some of its ideas to his own film. Thereby, Dillinger's end now comes fraught with meaning and weight, without betraying the incident itself.
But an earlier, less significant sequence is actually a great deal more interesting. Dillinger is in a movie theater -- a different one -- having a hushed conversation with his colleagues. A newsreel comes on, and suddenly a huge mug shot of Dillinger appears on the screen. An earnest narrator warns spectators that he could be sitting right next to them. The patrons look left, and then right, and no one spots anything. The scene is almost played for laughs, but beneath it is a key theme. To most people these gangsters only exist on the screen, or in pulp novels or newspapers. The big gangster face up on the screen is more immediate than the real one in the seat next to you. The real person has become disconnected from his own legend, and he has become virtually obsolete. That Mann recognized this and was able to so sublimely illustrate it shows that, not only has he made the connection between old gangster pictures and new ones, but also he has made the connection between movies and life.