Several years ago, I found myself working as volunteer coordinator for a small non-profit organization based on the grounds of Crown Hill Cemetery, the cemetery where infamous bank robber John Dillinger is buried.
I would visit Dillinger's grave often, perhaps inspired by both a sense of morbid curiosity and a sort of kinship with the man who was considered a hardened criminal by law enforcement and a folk hero by the common man.
It's odd really. Why would I feel so connected with such a man? After all, I'm a law-abiding practitioner of nonviolence who would most likely feel tremendous guilt if I were to steal even a pack of bubble gum from a local drug store. Yet, it's true. I've always been fascinated by the Dillinger story...the myths, the facts, the grave, the museum, the stories and his tragic ending outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre after watching "Manhattan Melodrama."
Michael Mann's "Public Enemies," starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as lawman Melvin Purvis, is a subtle near-masterpiece featuring one of Johnny Depp's best performances and, yet, he's very nearly overshadowed by the riveting performance of Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette, the coatcheck girl with whom Dillinger becomes dangerously intertwined.
"Public Enemies" starts us off in 1933 during Dillinger's famous Lima jail break, after which he flees to Chicago and his largely protected and sheltered by the post-Capone syndicate. By this time, Dillinger has become Public Enemy No. 1 and FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) hires Purvis to head up his Chicago office and track down Dillinger.
Before long, Dillinger is again captured and is jailed at what is deemed the impenetrable Crown Point jail in Crown Point, Indiana. Not surprisingly, Dillinger eventually escapes and again heads for the safety of Chicago. Dillinger's return to Chicago is met this time with resistance, as the Mob has turned to quietly controlling gambling and the very public bank robber is deemed a threat to their much more lucrative business. Forced to join forces with the hot-tempered "Baby Face" Nelson (Stephen Graham) and an ill-fated rendezvous with Frechette leads to her capture and incarceration. As nearly any history buff knows, Dillinger's downfall comes after the betrayal of longtime confidante Anna "The Lady in Red" Sage on July 21, 1934 outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre.
Despite stand-out performances from Depp and Cotillard, "Public Enemies" never quite achieves the cinematic greatness for which it seems to be obviously striving. Lacking the spark and excitement of Arthur Penn's 1967 classic "Bonnie & Clyde" and the visually arresting style of Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables," "Public Enemies" may have as its strongest attribute being one of the most factual, honest and character-driven of contemporary gangster flicks.
Depp isn't mesmerizing as Dillinger, but that's really the point. Depp gets inside Dillinger and brings out the man who was simultaneously a bank robber, folk hero, media magnet and, in an odd sort of way, role model. Depp's Dillinger shatters the myths of Dillinger and brings forth the anti-hero Dillinger, a man who refuses to turn to kidnapping because his public, the public that embraces him, wouldn't want it. An actor who has never found a flamboyant character he couldn't humanize, Depp gives a finely tuned, disciplined performance as Dillinger.
On the flip side, Marion Cotillard serves up a memorable performance in her first English-speaking lead role as Billie Frechette. Initially as guarded as Dillinger is confident, both seem to become ever so slightly more vulnerable as their ability to be honest with one another grows. During a scene in which Frechette is battered mercilessly in an effort to force her to reveal Dillinger's whereabouts, Cotillard is a miraculous blend of vulnerability, courage, defiance and loyalty.
Of the three lead roles, Christian Bale is easily stuck with the film's most underdeveloped as Melvin Purvis, a lawman who must've been much more complex than the big screen has ever captured given that he resigned from the FBI a mere one year after Dillinger's demise and would, eventually, end his own life. Yet the Purvis we witness onscreen isn't much more than a caricature of the steely, determined lawman that we always seem to see in these types of roles. This is particularly disconcerting given Bale's recent cinematic choices which seem to center on characters who are, well, steely and determined.
To his credit, Mann takes great care with his supporting roles and even the most minor characters are inhabited by such familiar character actors as Lili Taylor, Giovanni Ribisi, James Russo, Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Lang and the aforementioned Billy Crudup. Crudup, Lang and Taylor, in particular, have memorable appearances in relatively brief screen time.
Dante Spinotti's cinematography captures the 30's era quite beautifully, despite a touch too much reliance on hand-held camera work, and Colleen Atwood's costuming is perfectly evocative of the period. Anyone familiar with the Biograph Theatre will be in awe of Mann's attention to detail, especially in an awe-inspiring final scene.
While "Public Enemies" never quite soars to the heights of "Bonnie & Clyde" or "The Untouchables," it is easily one of 2009's most satisfying action dramas for adults. Featuring memorable performances from Depp and Cotillard and a strong supporting cast, "Public Enemies" is an intelligent and compelling story about a man whose true story is as intriguing as the myth that has enveloped his life long after his death.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic