In the 1930s, the gangsters of movies lived and died by a strict code. No, it wasn’t anything to do with honor, loyalty, or murder, but a code imposed from above that dictated gangsters must die in films, the law must always win, and the lifestyle must ultimately be condemned.
As Hollywood turned out dozens of films about fast-talking, fedora-wearing, machine gun-toting anti-heroes, the Bureau of Investigation did everything in its power to stop the real-life cavalcade of bank robbers-turned-celebrities.
In “Public Enemies,” director Michael Mann (“Heat”) tells the story of real-life robber John Dillinger as distilled through the imagery of the movies. Johnny Depp stars as Dillinger in a charismatic if surprisingly low-key performance that always simmers below the surface instead of erupting across the screen. Depp’s Dillinger is a man of action, whose loaded pistol says more than he ever could.
With a camera geared more towards capturing the shadows a fedora makes across the eyes, the bloody impact of a shotgun blast, or a myriad of finely tailored suits, “Public Enemies” is not so much a definitive historical epic of cops and robbers as it is a masterfully constructed series of images and motions meant to recall a lasting piece of lumbering mythology that grew out of America’s Great Depression.
Using high-definition digital film, Mann and his director of photography Dante Spinotti wistfully move in and around the action with quick, punctuated camera motions, taking in mounds of sumptuous production and costume design that realistically immerses the film in its setting.
Refusing to step back and criticize the action or explore a deeper psychological connection between Dillinger’s motives and that of his predator, Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, here full of stoic intensity), Mann forces his camera to rattle, swerve, and shake with every calculated move of the two protagonists.
With carefully choreographed, if occasionally cluttered film editing courtesy Jeffrey Ford and Paul Rubell, “Public Enemies” fully captures the rat-a-tat blaze of machine gun fire in its pulsing and at-times unforgiving chaos and momentum.
By opting for digital film that is alternately clear and grainy, choppy and intensified film editing, and a camera that always feels a part of both sides of the law, Mann has delineated his film’s sense of a historical reality. “Public Enemies” owes more dept to the iconography, the character types, and the typical plot devices of Hollywood’s classic gangster dramas than it does to the social or economic conditions of the Great Depression that actually fostered Dillinger.
As his film is more a collective set of images of the cop and the robber as individuals more than it is a serious consideration of the “how” or the “why” of the people, it is appropriate that the film should be preoccupied with Dillinger’s status as a celebrity.
On multiple occasions, Depp stares thoughtfully at his own picture in police stations, in movie theaters, on newspapers, and as he trades jibes with reporters upon arrest towards the end of the film’s first act, it’s clear that Michael Mann sees John Dillinger as a star.
And when Depp smirks enigmatically at Clark Gable’s performance of a gangster in the middle of a crowded movie-house, Mann cuts cleverly between close-ups of the two gangsters – one real and one imagined. Perhaps only then, in the calm moments before the final bullets rain down, does the true weight of Mann’s ultra-stylized aesthetic reach its fruition.
“Public Enemies” considers the conventional images and stories of the American gangster through unconventional means, reaching towards a celebration of how the movies have shaped our own continued infatuation with a world of guns, booze, and women that we always keep at arm’s length, as if rejecting its reality allows us to revel in the power of the fantasy.