Sunday, 12 July 2009

Public Enemies

Gangsters have the most fun. In American movies certainly, they enjoy a life untroubled by routine work, the fruits of a seducer's charm and the company of a faithful gang of quality supporting actors. From Jimmy Cagney, to Humphrey Bogart, through Al Pacino, the gangster has often been a much appreciated standard for leading men too; a tradition continued by Johnny Depp as the iconic depression-era legend John Dillinger.

At a time when America's banks were foreclosing on millions, he became a folk hero by robbing those same institutions and sticking two fingers up to the status quo. In fact, he upset the authorities so much, with his stick-ups across state lines, that J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) was prompted to forge ahead with a new plan: a Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Michael Mann's five star film concentrates on Dillinger's extraordinary 13-month spree, when - undisputed - he was the Barcelona of Bank Jobs, a period book-ended by his parole in May 1933 and his famous death under a slew of FBI bullets, outside a movie theatre, on July 22nd 1934. During this period he also takes up with Billie Franchette (Marion Cottillard), a beautiful young woman who shares his humble origins, if not much of the protagonist action in the screenplay (this is a Mann's world).

As has become familar from the likes of Thief, L.A. Takedown and Heat, Public Enemies contrasts the methods and attitudes of the criminal and those who pledge to defeat him. Appointed by Hoover, the glamour boy chasing JD was agent Melvin Purvis. Christian Bale plays Purvis, a figure who featured in newspapers at the time, a square-jawed G-man with an unnatural dedication to his job- he was meant to be the real-life inspiration behind Dick Tracy. Nowadays Bale seems to specialise in such characters, playing humourless vessels with a barely concealed sense of superiority in their manner. He seems to be stuck in a rut (despite banking the millions), perhaps he should do a drag-queen movie, or some Woody Allen?

Johnny Depp on the other hand delivers another of his star turns, suggesting Dillinger's personal charm and the intensity of a man trying to live his life in an almighty hurry. The flipside is criminality and murder but in this film, as so often before, the gangster is the character we identify with; crossing the lines we cannot ourselves.

That said, Mann's film is unlike any 1930's crime picture you have ever seen. It is shot using hi-definition cameras (a technique he used to great effect in Collateral) which is a drab statement to write, but on screen the photography is vivid and eye-poppingly detailed, providing a searing and involving sense of action. Remember the bank heist in Heat? Public Enemies has several scene of comparable intensity and cinematic brilliance. The photography also captures the incredible attention to detail on custumes, vehicles and even period radio sets. Mann has always been able to balance talky scenes of dialogue with blistering over-the-shoulder close action. In doing this here, it seems like he is re-inventing the genre.

By the time the end arrives you are left with a series haunting and beautiful scenes, as well as possibly a headache, if you are sensitive the high decibel intensity of stocatto gunfire. There is a lovely scene when Dillinger is inside the fateful cinema watching Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama (1934). Gable's character articulates ideas about his future that Dillinger cannot seem to voice himself. Depp as Dillinger soaks up Gable, who in his own style is playing a character based on the real John Dillinger. It is strange and beautiful moment that Mann has referred to Pirandello- he likes ideas as much as gunfire. There are so many familiar elements on show in Public Enemies and even though the film doesn't really reveal much about its subject, Michael Man has created something new and compelling.

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