Directed by Michael Mann, starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard, written by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann.
As the block capital introduction appears in white on a black screen it is obvious that there could not have been a more appropriate time for Public Enemies to be released. Set in the 1930s, in an America crippled by the Great Depression, one cannot avoid seeing the parallels between that period and the worldwide recession being faced today.
The difference however, is that John Dillinger, the legendary bank-robber and anti-hero of the film, was a beloved crook, an icon that the public adored. Today there are no treasured thieves and swindlers, only reviled criminals. It is interesting to note that with in the week before this film was released the fraudster Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years for defrauding investors of an estimated total of £40 billion. On the very day the film came out the ‘Great Train Robber’ Ronnie Biggs was denied parole by the British justice secretary Jack Straw. Financial crime is definitely not a romanticised act today; there are no modern Robin Hoods, only MPs abusing allowances and banks haemorrhaging money not as a result of robbery but after years of malpractice.
With historical films it is not the revelation that is important in the plot, as most people who watch the film will already know the outcome. What is important is how the story is told, which viewpoints are adopted. Public Enemies does a sterling job of dramatising the famous scenes of Dillinger’s criminal career, such as the jailbreak carried out through the use of a wooden gun blackened with shoe polish. But the film’s real narrative triumph is in showing the man behind the persona, a man desperately in love with life, but on a path that could only end in destruction. Although the film leans more towards sympathising with the lovable rogue, it does depict the other side of the coin faithfully and fairly, showing the frustrations of the FBI in attempting to capture Dillinger and his crew, especially that of Melvin Purvis, the agent in command of the mission.
There are many elements of Public Enemies that imbue it with a film noir feel, although I would hesitate to categorically definite it as such. Aspects like the film’s lighting, where faces divided by shadow and streets are dark chasms of gloom, the sometimes muffled, strained way the dialogue is slightly hidden in the mix, and the corruption and violence throughout, all glisten with the touch of noir. An interesting facet of the film is the idea of Dillinger as a ‘homme fatale’, a man who carries a curse, bringing death to all who associate with him. The 1930s setting certainly fits with the detective fiction that film noir originated from, a nod to this shown when a ‘True Detective’ magazine can briefly be seen in the film’s background. Although it may not be a full-blown film noir (a topic for those more qualified than I to discuss), Public Enemies certainly draws heavily from the noir style.
It is inevitable that Public Enemies will be compared with Michael Mann’s previous bank heist thriller, Heat (1995), in which master criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) faces his nemesis in form of Los Angeles cop Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). The classic diner face-off scene in Heat, in which the two opponents casually chat whilst engaging in mental warfare, is echoed in Public Enemies when Purvis meets the imprisoned Dillinger, Depp and Bale relishing the chance to lock horns almost as impressively as De Niro and Pacino. The leading duos in both films display a similar relationship of professional respect combined with an unquenchable desire to be the victor of their struggle. But by no means does Mann fall into the trap of rehashing his older film with different characters and new setting but essentially the same plot. Public Enemies is a progression from Heat, demonstrating Mann’s skills and passions in a new light.
In terms of casting the film boasts some of the best actors in the business at the moment, all playing with gusto and enthusiasm. It seems that no one else could have been chosen other than Depp to play Dillinger, who swaggers confidently and invokes empathy, leaping over the bank counters like he was born for this role. Bale also fills out his character perfectly, presenting a cold, troubled and driven Purvis. The sultry Marion Cotillard shimmers as Dillinger’s beloved, displaying an iron-willed woman wrapped in fragility. Also worthy of note are Billy Crudup’s media-obsessed J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen Graham as psychotic killer ‘Baby Face’ Nelson, both savouring their time on scene.
Even if Public Enemies were no more than the sum of its parts, it would still be a remarkable film. All the elements involved ooze painstaking professionalism and effort, from the flawless costumes and realistic sets to the rich sound effects, such as snare-drum crack of the trademark Thompson machine guns used by the criminals and their pursuers. The film’s music is chilling and emotive in equal measures, blending contemporary songs into the soundtrack perfectly. The cinematography doesn’t go easy on the audience, mixing conventional shots with those containing awkward angles and uneasy duration, making us work to take in the picture. The screenwriting also must have been of the highest quality to produce the film’s scenes and dialogue, which crackles with energy and wit.
Public enemies doesn’t necessarily tell us anything we don’t already know about John Dillinger. It doesn’t reveal any hidden secrets or conspiracy theories, of which I won’t go into in case I spoil the story for those who aren’t familiar with the history. What Mann does do is show us a love story between a doomed man and his chosen companion. The story of a man who would never give up, never be held or controlled.
If you like this, then try: Heat, No Country For Old Men, Road to Perdition, The Untouchables.