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 ’34, 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 make sure John Dillinger wasn’t among your fellow moviegoers and notify the authorities if he was. Sometimes your fellow moviegoers would cheer at the mention of Dillinger’s name.
And sometimes you’d see a film like Manhattan Melodrama, about 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, Dillinger stepped out into the Chicago night and was shot down by the Feds who’d been waiting for him.
Public Enemies—No. 1? Johnny Depp mugs as John Dillinger in the latest from director Michael Mann.
In Public Enemies, it’s not all of a sudden. It requires nearly two-and-a-half hours of setup. 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 is testing his own appeal (still strong), and wondering how broken up we’ll really be to see him take a bullet through one of those beautiful cheeks. 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 from Marion Cotillard.
This is not a history, but 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. 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 show “Crime Story,” and in Manhunter, and in Heat. His way of directing seems increasingly to consist of telling his leads: 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 book of the same name, you might 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 keep them straight. Maybe because Number One is, well, Number One.
And in the summer of 2009, with the great recession going on, it’s better this than a movie about Bernie Madoff.