What’s robbing a bank compared to owning one?” asked Bertolt Brecht, and now that the financial world once again throbs to the stifled laughter of taxpayer-enabled billionaires and bonus-addicts unable to believe their luck, maybe the time is ripe for Michael Mann’s brooding, sweltering but oddly subdued hagiography of America’s most famous bank robber: John Dillinger.
This was the scofflaw who in the depths of the Depression was turned into a national celebrity both by a sensation-hungry press and the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation, who wanted nationwide power to collar those bad guys currently evading arrest simply by speeding over state lines. Billy Crudup gives a nice performance as the buttoned-up, squeaky-voiced J Edgar Hoover announcing his War on Crime, and Christian Bale is formidably convincing as his top agent Melvin Purvis: No 1 Wanter of the No 1 Wanted Criminal: he’s well educated, highly motivated, fiercely disciplined.
But the movie’s star is Johnny Depp, who in his earlier days might have had to play those lesser Dillinger associates with nicknames like “Baby Face” and “Pretty Boy”. Now, in keeping with A-lister’s gravitas and prestige, he is Dillinger himself. The bank robber was a counter-cultural megastar, apparently adored by the public as a mixture of Jesse James and Harry Houdini. Depp’s Dillinger busts out of prisons with the same unruffled insouciance as he busts into bank vaults; he vaults casually over the bank teller’s counter and smacks the bank’s president around a little, prior to gaining access to the strongroom. He disdains a disguise, and in a cinema, when his “most wanted” image flashes up on screen and a stern voice tells the audience to look left and then right to look for him, Dillinger coolly refuses to follow instructions, even when it is clear that doing so might actually conceal his face to the people either side.
Depp is an almost absurdly attractive man. His handsomeness has assumed a sleek, leonine quality in early middle age, and he is always watchable. But my problem with Depp is that it’s as if he is wearing some special, invisible brand of eyeliner, some Kryptonite-kohl that kills off the emotion. This is a pretty taciturn Dillinger he’s giving us, and Christian Bale is already doing taciturn. Purvis is supposed to be the tightly wound, slot-mouthed G-Man continually outsmarted by the impish criminal. I was longing for Depp to loosen up, the way he did as Jack Sparrow, his Keith Richardsy pirate of the Caribbean, or as the film director and angora enthusiast Ed Wood. But this role is apparently way too serious.
Michael Mann’s fans will recognise his signature touches: there are the huge closeups of tense male faces looming up and filling the screen, and with cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s high-definition video, the skin pores are as distinct as bullet holes. (Spinotti’s camerawork, incidentally, has fluency and immediacy, though I have to say the much admired HD video still, for me, sometimes looks murky and grainy with the “glowing” effect of white light.)
Mann adores gunfight sequences – but not with weeny handguns, rather with larger weapons and rifles: as in his modern bank-heist drama Heat, the shootouts in Public Enemies look like full-scale military engagements. Mann films traditionally have a big dialogue face-off between the alpha dogs: in Heat, De Niro and Pacino squared up in a coffee shop for their cop-robber summit; in Mann’s underrated Ali, Will Smith’s Ali went nose-to-nose with Joe Frazier in the front seats of a car. Here, Dillinger and Purvis meet while the notorious robber is in jail; Dillinger taunts Purvis through the bars with the lawman’s lack of combat experience and swaggeringly claims he will soon be out of the joint; thin-lipped Purvis insists the only way this can happen will be on his way to the electric chair. Not true, of course. Dillinger wins a final victory, of a sort: for all Purvis’s much-vaunted procedure, Dillinger finally has to be gunned down outside a cinema by an old-fashioned cop.
Everything is very, very male. Sweaty maleness and testosterone hang heavy in the air like undischarged thunder. After leaving the farmhouse his gang is holed up in, Dillinger is desperately accosted by one of its young women: “Take me with ya, mister!” “I can’t, darlin’; I’m sorry.” No women are allowed a ride-along in Dillinger’s car – or in his film. He has a notional girlfriend, hatcheck girl Billie Frechette, played by Marion Cotillard, in whose honour he gallantly slaps around some tiresome hatless guy whining for his headgear while Dillinger is trying to have a conversation with his new amour. But cool-customer Dillinger never looks all that passionately devoted, either to her or even, oddly, to the mounds of cash for which he is imperilling their relationship.
Mann’s G-Man opera has the ingredients of a great film which don’t quite come together. But they are certainly potent. There is a surging, sombre orchestral score by Elliot Goldenthal which channels the spirit of Bernard Herrmann’s music for Taxi Driver. It’s a picture with virility and confidence, and unlike Dillinger’s machine-gun, which the man himself expertly takes to pieces, it never quite jams, and gets off one or two lethal rounds.