The short, sensational life of 1930s Chicago gangster John Dillinger passed into folk legend even before his corpse grew cold. During the Great Depression, Dillinger robbed the banks that in turn had robbed the public, in the process becoming a hero to the public and a lightning rod for gangsterism. He was the first crook dubbed “Public Enemy Number One” by J Edgar Hoover’s newfound FBI, who eventually cornered their man outside a Chicago cinema, the Biograph. In time, Hollywood even came to made films about him; Lawrence Tierney scowling down the barrel of a tommy-gun in 1945’s mostly fictional Dillinger and Warren Oates repeating the trick in John Milius’ ribald 1970s retelling.
Now, following his redundant attempt to revitalise Miami Vice, Hollywood’s specialist crime auteur Michael Mann brings us his biopic of the ‘gangster’s gangster’, with Johnny Depp playing an unlikely but mesmerizing Dillinger. It is an electrifying story, brilliantly told by Mann from a historically precise script based on Bryan Burrough’s book of the same title, adapted by Irish writer Ronan Bennet, which casts the bank robber as a man caught between criminality and celebrity, a real life movie character.
Public Enemies opens at a gallop in 1933 with Dillinger already infamous and the head of his own criminal gang. Brought to a vast Ohio prison in shackles, Dillinger turns the tables on his jailors and breaks his gang out of the jail, including Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Harry Pierpont (David Wenham) and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi). The gang are soon back doing what they do best, robbing banks across the American mid-West, a series of increasingly audacious robberies that makes Dillinger’s capture the priority for Hoover (Billy Crudup) and his best FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). As the cops start their pursuit, Dillinger becomes involved with Billie, a half-French nightclub dancer, played by Marion Cotillard in her first role since winning the Oscar for La Vie En Rose.
This is the crime movie stripped down to bare essentials; fedoras, sub-machine guns, bags of loot, fast cars, spinning headlines and lipsticked molls. Mann takes all these creaky devices and uses them to make an old story feel new and unexpected, exhilarating and emotionally moving. From the straightforward biography of a daring thief, Mann spins a multi-layered history that documents the seismic shifts in both crime and justice that defined the era; the establishment of a continental police force, the FBI, and the rise of the Mafia, who see Dillinger’s attention-seeking methods as dangerous to their way of life. However, Mann’s deliberate paring has the effect of rendering some of the secondary cast, including Stephen Dorff and Shawn Hatosy, almost completely anonymous.
Photographed with digital cameras in glorious deep focus, Public Enemies moves at a breathless pace, banging out the story in a series of staccato set-pieces and illuminative diversions. Jailbreaks are followed by bankheists and getaways in a tumble of adrenal scenes before the tension is broken by a moment of character, like an eerie sequence that sees Dillinger walking alone through a police station, looking at his own photograph on the wall. Better yet is a surreal scene, in a packed cinema, where Dillinger sits and watches a newsreel clip that asks the audience to check of the man sitting next to them isn’t the infamous gangster.
Depp plays Dillinger with effortless charisma and confidence, a timelessly glamorous cross between Robin Hood and Clark Gable. Opposite him, but relegated by the story into a grim-set cipher, Bale does well as the clenched, driven Purvis. There is a gripping inevitability to the way in which Mann places two opposing forces at either end of the spectrum and gradually, carefully brings them to a point of violent convergence, as he did in Heat, or Last of the Mohicans. With Public Enemies, this payoff happens during a bullet-ridden shootout at a remote hotel, filmed at the actual historical location, where Dillinger and his gang, including Stephen Graham’s Baby Face Nelson, are corner by the G-Men and must shoot their way out. It is an extraordinary centrepoint scene; frantic, percussive, bloody and brutal.
*Read my interview with Micheal Mann for Heat here.