On the last night of his life, John Dillinger went to the movies. It was the summer of 1934, and Dillinger, the accomplished bank robber and evasion artist, had just enjoyed a prosperous several months as the raison d’etre for our nascent FBI: He was America’s Public Enemy Number One. The first, that is, and also the most important.
In the summer of 1934, with the Great Depression on, you generally went to the movies to forget your troubles. Sometimes you’d sit through pre-show newsreels beseeching you to look around at your fellow moviegoers, see if John Dillinger was among them, and notify the authorities if so. Sometimes your fellow moviegoers would cheer at the mention of Dillinger’s name.
And sometimes you’d see a film like Manhattan Melodrama, a tale of two elegant men on opposite sides of the law, played by William Powell and Clark Gable — the latter on his way to the electric chair, declaiming, “Die like you live: all of a sudden.” Not long after hearing those words, John Dillinger stepped out into the Chicago night and was shot down by the Feds who’d been waiting for him.
In Public Enemies, it’s not all of a sudden. It requires nearly two and a half hours of setup. But that’s not so bad, as the setup involves Johnny Depp withdrawing into the role of Dillinger, doing a long, coy take on the smooth criminal. It’s almost as if Depp’s testing his own appeal (strong as ever), and wondering how broken up we’ll really be to see him take a bullet through one of those beautiful cheeks. See it and find out.
The setup also involves glimpsing Dillinger’s rival, Special Agent Melvin Purvis, through a quiet, coiled-up performance by Christian Bale; and his girl, Billie Frechette, through an inviting one by Marion Cotillard. This is not history; it’s a fantasy, mostly having to do with the durable gangster-glamour of the movies. Being a Michael Mann film, it will boil down to a vision of two elegant men on opposite sides of the law — often mumbling in the dark, and with accomplished character actors flitting around them and seeming somehow underused. The vision can seem archetypal or hackneyed, depending on your taste for its crafty presentation. Mann likes gazing at the cop-criminal Janus face; we’ve seen it before in his TV show Crime Story, and in Manhunter, and in Heat, whose manly schematics this new film reiterates. His way of directing leading actors seems increasingly to consist of telling them: Just be the icons you are.
Given the title Public Enemies, and the adaptation (by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman) from Bryan Burrough’s all-inclusive 2004 book of the same name, you might reasonably have hoped for an ensemble piece. There are sightings of Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi), plus, you know, That Other Guy, and What’s-his-name, and Whoozit. The movie doesn’t make it easy to tell them all apart. But maybe that’s just because Number One is, well, Number One.
Depp’s Dillinger to a bank president, at the vault’s mouth: “You can be a dead hero or a live coward. Open it.” To a bank customer, moments later: “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Put it away.” To Billie Frechette: “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you. What else you need to know?”
Fair enough — for a movie, anyway. And in the summer of 2009, with the great recession on, it’s better this than a film about Bernie Madoff.