God I love Michael Mann. I just added Public Enemies to my Amazon shopping basket, and I’m so excited about seeing it on Blu Ray that I felt the need to pay my respects to London Film Schools’ finest alumnus.
After giving us the likes of Heat, Manhunter and Thief, he returned last summer with yet another saga that takes place on both sides of that thin blue line that keeps society from descending into chaos. Entering cinemas in the midst of a global recession, Public Enemies breathlessly takes us through two years of the Great Depression in the company of John Dillinger, an American bank robber, folk hero, and according to the director of the burgeoning Federal Bureau of Investigation, J Edgar Hoover, Public Enemy number one. Leading the manhunt to catch him is the obsessive Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). This tension-filled tale of fear and desire may sound quintessentially Mann, and much of it is, but parts represent a major departure for the Chicago-born filmmaker. As a movie-experience, this cannot rival Heat or The Insider, his two back-to-back masterpieces. Not all of Public Enemies works, some characters are disappointingly underdeveloped and it misses an opportunity to say something profound about the circumstances that created men like Dillinger (the Depression is merely a backdrop to the events of the film, and given its stunning use of digital technology the film is something of an anomaly, a hyper-modern period film), but when it does work, and often that comes in the presentation of action sequences, there is simply no-one better than Mann. He remains one of the most thrillingly vital American filmmakers alive, and amidst the terminal dross that is filling up theatres right now it is a pleasure to have something so adult and intelligent, yet visceral and exciting available as an alternative.
Public Enemies opens with Dillinger escaping from prison, and Depp dominates much of the film from that point onwards, in spectacular fashion. Long an actor I have admired almost in spite of his performances, it is refreshing to see him take on a role worthy of his ability. His Dillinger is not a cartoonish villain steeped in the lore of gangster melodrama, but rather an extremely cold and isolated man all too aware of his own celebrity and the death sentence attached to it. He plays Dillinger with a breezy fatalistic quality, never more apparent than in the bound to become legendary sequence where he visits the “Dillinger Room” at the Chicago police department and takes a rather leisurely look around, failing to be recognised while he does so. As a character he is something of an enigma within Mann’s cinematic body of work; traditionally his villains are cerebral, obsessive men who seem to gleam almost as much satisfaction from the planning and execution of their crimes than from the financial rewards, but Dillinger views his crimes as a means to an end and nothing more. As he explains to his ladylove Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), he’s an ordinary guy who likes “baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars…and you”. This is virtually the polar opposite of the “barbecues and ball games” speech that Robert De Niro delivers in Heat. His character is an anonymous bank-robber, one so committed to his work that he tells his woman he is a salesman, and is prepared to walk out on her in thirty seconds flat. Dillinger is an extra-ordinary bank robber, one to whom even a trip to the movies involves him squirming awkwardly in his seat as his image is plastered across the screen in a newsreel (“He could be sitting right next to you!”) yet you believe he’d trade it all in an instance if he could escape with Billie. When compared with the bitter relationships and broken homes that populate the rest of Mann’s career, Dillinger is genuinely romantic. As he stands and watches her be arrested he starts following the police car containing her down the street, gun in hand, oblivious to the agents surrounding him. It is a revelation to see a Mann character act so selflessly; De Niro would have been halfway to Mexico before giving her a second glance. This romantic sensibility is the big difference between Public Enemies and his other films though. If Heat gave us the pathos of twilight, then Public Enemies is the joy of a sunrise. Not only is it a film in love with its two lead characters, more importantly, it is in love with the art of film itself.
For some time now Mann has embraced high-definition digital stock over film, and increasingly it looks like his decision was the right one. After previously utilizing the technology on Collateral and Miami Vice, which feel with the gift of hindsight like training exercises for this film, he obviously felt confident enough to try something bolder here, as Public Enemies is truly unique in regards to its look. A 1930s period piece shot with stunning clarity and style, not to mention modernity, this is Bonnie and Clyde for the Youtube generation. Make no mistake, this is a bold work-of-art. For years now Mann has aligned himself with other visionaries like James Cameron and Christopher Nolan who are eager not just to entertain us, but to change the way movies look and all it takes is a quick glance at Public Enemies, particularly the incomparable siege at Little Bohemia Lodge where gangsters and G Men shoot it out in the dark, to see just how successful he has been. Despite its star names and marquee-billing, this is a dark and brooding art film, and formally Mann has rarely been better, while Dante Spinotti’s deep focus photography has us jumping at shadows we didn’t even know existed. Public Enemies is certainly a movie for the eye, and not the head. This is not a deep psychological study of the difference between cops and robbers, but that is not to its detriment. Mann has made that film before, many times, so why should we resent him flexing different muscles this time out? When an overly eager G Man takes the law into his own hands and viciously beats Billie while in police custody, we don’t need to see or hear Purvis shout him down for disgracing the FBI. All it takes is a shot of him carrying Billie to the bathroom, coupled with the aforementioned agent looking rather sheepish and we know he’s in trouble. Words may not be its strong suit, (although the emotive final scene between Mann regular Stephen Lang’s Texas Ranger Charles Winstead and Billie goes someway to redressing the balance) but in a film with this many fedoras, smart suits and Tommy guns, you’d have to be blind not to get some enjoyment from it. The prospect of watching it again in high definition is mouth-watering.