Thursday 3 December 2009

Public Enemies (2009), Michael Mann

The first half hour of Public Enemies looks the part and sounds the part. It takes the hats and long coats out of the mothballs and practises its hard-nosed deco patter in the mirror, but those thirty minutes are flat like cardboard. They are cold, unapproachable and generate little excitement.

In the early going Mann's film is in thrall both to its gangster predecessors and its subject, the real-life bank robber John Dillinger. But. But once we feel the love between John and his girlfriend Billie (in one gorgeous scene we cut between them making love with their bodies and making love with their words, their souls), once we sense his ambition, fear and desperation and see it reflected in the eyes of the men hired to catch him, Public Enemies grows into itself and into a work of epic romantic and tragic proportions.

Johnny Depp and Marion CotillardOnce we care for and understand the chaser and the chased the chase grips ever tighter. Within this atmosphere (and Mann is a master of ambience and flow) the set-piece moments no longer stick out as constipated iconography (a clumsy shot of Dillinger leaping over a bank desk) or incongruous trailer-ready moments, but sparkle. Dillinger's second prison escape, threatening and cajoling his way up the food chain in a matter of minutes, and the last breath of a dying man on the cold air stay with me.

Mann's films have often revolved around characters on the brink, leading double lives, playing roles, yes, but playing them because they are the ones they are best suited to play. Here again he draws parallels between Dillinger and his FBI pursuer Purvis, going so far as to match a shot of Dillinger's men marching into a bank with one of Purvis' walking purposefully along a station platform. They are men trapped by destiny and by themselves, men who could find true brotherhood only in each other.

The climax of the film takes place in and around a cinema where Dillinger goes to watch Manhattan Melodrama, a gangster flick starring Myrna Loy and Clark Gable. Outside the FBI await, tipped off by one of his friends. The end is nigh. An operatic tension hangs over the thronged streets.

Inside, John watches Loy and Gable bid their tragic farewells. In his mind and ours Loy becomes Billie and Gable becomes John (they do resemble each other physically and Gable's character is said to have been based on Dillinger himself). Dillinger smiles. His expression glows with a quiet acceptance, taking the film as a comment on and validation of his life.

Most importantly, perhaps, by John associating himself with Gable, he himself takes the step onto the big screen. He passes over from a mortal man to an immortal legend. So when Dillinger leaves the cinema beaming contentedly he sees that part of him will not die. He will always be remembered and will always be loved.

A quick thought: normally when I leave a cinema and go out into the world, I can be a little dazed for a minute or two. Part of the reason for this is that things look different from a cinema reality, a reality which tends to have an artificial and 'treated' look. After Public Enemies, however, because Mann shoots with crisp high definition digital and natural light, when I went out into the real world the streets and the parks seemed cinematic. I thought to myself: that twilight, that club, those faces could be in a Michael Mann film. Public Enemies, a very good film indeed, had spilt out with me.


  1. Well Stepehn, this is a thought-provoking, expertly-written piece and I agree with the downward spiral after the first half hour or so. I am no fan of the video filmmaking style used here, and I found that we never got to know who Dillinger was in the film. Conjoined was an uncharacteristically flavorless and remote performance from Johnny Depp, who gave a one-note turn, while Christian Bale was likewise a monotonous introvert. Ironically, despite assertions to the contrary on this thread, Marion Cotillard against all odds, gave the film’s best performance, as she was a power keg of emotions, waiting to explode, like the film did in so many machine-gun set pieces that were rendered mute by their endlessness. I’ll admit that the clothes, cars, music, Depression era movie theatres and atmospheric replication was impeccable, and that Mann does exhibit that singlar style. But with me it is largely style over substance.

  2. "Well Stepehn, this is a thought-provoking, expertly-written piece and I agree with the downward spiral after the first half hour or so"

    Thank you very much but (and I'm sorry if I'm wrong) I think you misunderstood what I meant. I meant the film's first half hour is weak and that it gets stronger and stronger from there on. I've made slight changes to my opening paragraph to make this more clear.

    Like in Miami Vice the characters are revealed subtly, with a look or a small change in body language. Nevertheless I agree with you on Marion Cotillard, who has always impressed me since I saw her in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement.