Friday, July 3, 2009

On the Big Screen: PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009)

To introduce the new Michael Mann film, I want to spoil the ending of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Duexieme Souffle (1966). The law has finally caught up with Lino Ventura's character, and his dying word, whispered into a detective's ear, is the name of his long-suffering girlfriend. Later, the woman asks the detective if Ventura said anything before he died. The detective says no. It's a final bit of cruelty in a cruel world that makes some lives tragic. The ending of Public Enemies reminded me of that scene, as if Mann meant it as a homage by way of variation on the theme. Mann is not above homage, as an obvious riff on the tennis scene from Strangers On a Train in the current film demonstrates, so I may not just be making stuff up here. Public Enemies is a film full of touches and moments, and I'm not yet sure how the whole adds up compared to the sum of its parts.

More or less inspired by Bryan Burrough's history of the FBI's hunt for the country bandits of the 1930s, Mann's film narrows the focus so much that it could easily have been called Dillinger if two films didn't already have that title. I only started reading Burrough's book this week, but I'm deep enough into it to see that a faithful adaptation would have to make Melvin Purvis the main character rather than any of the outlaw in order for the story to be coherent. The ideal format for a faithful adaptation would be a long-form miniseries reflecting Burrough's day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour tracking of the movements of several outlaw gangs, including Bonnie and Clyde, who are conspicuous by their absence from Mann's movie. In any event, something of Burrough's argument gets through, namely that Purvis and the FBI had a lot to learn before they could take out the bandit gangs. Mann only has two hours or so to work with, so the Feds are quicker studies than in the book. Mann and his writers add a note of contemporary relevance that may not be in Burrough, however, by emphasizing the extent to which the FBI resorts to torture, and pointedly showing in one scene with Billie Frechette how ineffective the tactic is. On top of that, Mann pursues a theme that isn't necessarily derived from Burrough: the FBI and the Syndicate are on parallel paths of modernization and systemization that leaves no room for free-spirited outlaws like Dillinger. Frank Nitti's highly organized bookmaking operation mirrors the FBI's surveillance operation. When the latter impinges on the former, Nitti blames Dillinger, and the Syndicate will no longer offer him sanctuaries or supplies. Finnaly, they will help set the bandit up for execution outside the Biograph theater.

But Mann isn't saying anything as simple as "Dillinger was destroyed by modernity." His Dillinger is a romantic hero who dooms himself for love. He could have steered clear of Chicago one things got hot for him, but he could not abandon Billie Frechette. His devotion undermines his survival strategy. As he explains it earlier in the film, because he can strike anywhere, the Feds have to be everywhere. It follows that he benefits from the enemy's overstretched resources. But once love enters the picture, and once the Feds know it, they have a hook in him. They know that he will either go to Billie, who is always under surveillance, or she'll go to him, and she can be followed. Dillinger can't be pragmatic enough to let her go, because he believes in going after what he wants. That's part of living in the moment for him, without concern for the past or the future. The Feds' strategy doesn't actually work, but it does land Billie in jail, and you can assume from that point that Dillinger is doomed once he's told there's no chance of breaking her out. The romance isn't overstated at all; it's pretty much something that happens, Dillinger doing something on impulse. There's no convincing "why" to it, but there doesn't need to be.

But why didn't the FBI plan work? Why couldn't they catch Dillinger with Billie as the lure? The explanation is a little hard to swallow, since it depends on us accepting Mann's thesis that the most wanted man in America, played by Johnny Depp, is an almost invisibly inconspicuous person. Surrounded by unwitting FBI men, he can get out of his car and walk around while Billie's being arrested without being noticed -- perhaps because the Feds had lost track of which days he wore a moustache and which he didn't. Then, as if you weren't baffled enough, he decides to stroll into the Chicago Police Department, into the Dillinger Unit, to moon over photos of deceased comrades and say hello to the unit who are huddled over the radio listening to a baseball game. This is why the Feds need Dillinger's date at the Biograph to wear conspicuous clothes. This is why during the newsreel at an earlier show (this is the Strangers homage I mentioned) audience members can look right at him while watching his image on the screen and not recognize him. Now I know Dillinger says at one point that he thrives by living among the people, but I thought he meant by that that he had to stay popular (hence he rejects Alvin Karpis's offer to take part in a kidnapping) -- not that he had the power to cloud men's minds. But I can see where Mann is coming from. He's cultivated a rather introverted performance from Depp, quite a contrast from Warren Oates's cocky flamboyance in the 1973 film. I would say this was typical of Mann, but I haven't seen as many of his movies as other people and wouldn't want to be caught in an error.

Nevertheless, Depp is a more sensitive, intimate bandit than Oates. He feels the pain of friends' deaths when Oates is in too much of a hurry to worry. There's a lot of watching people die in this picture, the point being that a certain old breed of men can stand the sight while a more modern type like Melvin Purvis (historically about the same age as Dillinger) can't. But though Depp can stand it, that doesn't make him exactly stoic. He may not fall to his knees and cry "Noooo!" when someone dies, but it isn't exactly hard boiled, either, so it seems a little anachronistic, though not as much so as some of the music on the soundtrack. Please don't mistake me; I think Depp gave a good performance, but it's not as open to audience identification as was Oates's Dillinger, who is living out a debased version of the American dream while Depp pursues a more personal style of freedom. Both actors are convincing as hard men, but Depp is bound to suffer in a superficial comparison with Oates because Oates gave a broader performance without sacrificing his inherent authenticity, while Mann's conception of Dillinger seems to be such that Depp would rather that we all left him alone until he got interested in us.

As Purvis, Christian Bale suffers in comparison with Ben Johnson in the Milius Dillinger because the Mann script underplays Purvis's rivalry with J. Edgar Hoover, who appears here as Billy Crudup but was only ever mentioned in the Milius, which came out only a year after Hoover died. Hoover is a showier, more mannered role that Crudup makes the most of, while Purvis, despite being the slayer of Pretty Boy Floyd, is forced to declare his inadequacy against Dillinger and is taunted for a supposed lack of hardness by Dillinger himself. Having Bale in this role is ironic in a sense, since the perceived superhuman prowess of criminals like Dillinger probably fueled the public appetite for super-heroes like Batman, who first appeared five years after Dillinger's death. Bale's South Carolina accent is serviceable if not necessarily credible, but Mann's conception of the story prevents the Purvis-vs-Dillinger conflict from being the mano-a-mano showdown of glory hounds that Milius portrayed, and Bale is limited as a result. For Mann's purposes he's fine, but Mann may not have done Purvis full justice here. Speaking of accents, I distracted myself for a while in an effort to determine whether or not Marion Cotillard as Billie was dubbed, but I finally decided it was her own voice, betrayed occasionally by just a hint of her home accent. Now watch someone prove me wrong.

Curiously, Mann repeats a historical error Milius made, and both cases were probably on purpose. The error is having Baby Face Nelson die during the battle of Little Bohemia. Nelson actually outlived Dillinger by several months, not being hunted down until November 1934. But in a Dillinger movie Nelson can only serve as a foil, a mad dog killer who makes Dillinger sympathetic by comparison. Having Nelson with Dillinger at Little Bohemia but having him escape leaves a loose end that's irrelevant to the Dillinger story, so it makes sense dramatically to kill him there. It might be better to do away with Nelson as a character altogether except for the contrast he provides.

By now, some readers may think I've missed the point of a Michael Mann movie, so let me say that the film is often gorgeous to look at thanks to Dante Spinotti's cinematography and Mann's own framing vision. The opening prison break is probably the film's best action sequence, with the movie's most arresting moment perhaps being when Dillinger's mentor dies while hanging out a car door in Dillinger's grasp. It's the first of those many looking-at-the-face-of-death moments and sets the tone for the rest. The other set-pieces are effectively done, but if Public Enemies was an opportunity for Mann to top the bank robber in Heat, I don't think he pulled it off. Elliot Goldenthal's original score was cliched and weak; he's done a lot better a lot of the time.

So Public Enemies gave me a lot to talk about, and I think I ought to leave it at that for now. I've watched the Milius Dillinger too recently for me to judge Mann's film with full fairness, and Mann's departures from Burrough's book are also prejudicing me slightly. I think I can be objective enough to say that the film is rich with content that each viewer must judge for him or herself. Whether anyone agrees with Mann or Depp's interpretation of Dillinger differs from the question of whether they made a good film. For the time being, while I lean toward liking Milius's film better, I think I can say safely that Mann's is also a good film and a worthy addition to the Dillinger canon.

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