Public Enemies (2009)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on July 2, 2009 @ tonymacklin.net.

When contemporary songstress Diana Krall sings "Bye Bye Blackbird" -- as Johnny Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) have their first dance -- it becomes the theme song for Public Enemies. It's a bolt from the blues.

Michael Mann's brilliant and deceptive new film is full of such themes lurking in its shadows. That's what makes it provocative, challenging, and rewarding.

Mann takes a well-recognized historical figure in a well-known time in a well-worn genre and gives them revitalized life. But one has to be alert to see beyond the past.

Mann is sly, inventive, and sometimes subtle amidst the familiar goings-on. He remints the fabled career of John Dillinger in the 1930s.

One expects Mann to make some pungent social criticism in his mise en scene and plot machinations. And he does, with panache.

One especially provocative sequence in Public Enemies is a torture scene in which the brutality only gains misinformation. It is a compelling mirror of today's interrogation techniques.

Mann also introduces the concept of burgeoning surveillance which is a telling harbinger of what is to come.

But Mann doesn't state the obvious; he lets the actions speak louder than words. Mann lets history -- and its meaning -- speak for itself.

A revelatory example is the infamous "lady in red," whom many people know as the woman who betrayed and who was with Dillinger at the Biograph theater in Chicago.

In actuality the woman was not in red. In Mann's movie, as in actuality, she wore an orange skirt, which some people mistook as red. And so the legend. Mann doesn't explain that he's bringing actuality to myth. It's there for us to discover.

John Dillinger as portrayed by Mann and Johnny Depp (another JD) is a glamorized figure, who seems nearly flawless His fundamental attribute is loyalty. He is charming, cool, and smart. He's Robin Hoodlum.

Besides Depp, another fortuitous casting is Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette, the coat check girl who becomes the soul mate of Dillinger. Cotillard won an Oscar as another bird -- Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007).

Public Enemies is very much a romance.

Christian Bale gives humanity to the stolid but earnest agent Melvin Purvis, whom J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) picks to head his special force to catch Dillinger. Hoover is in the process of developing the FBI and names Dillinger as the first Public Enemy #1.

Stephen Lang is memorable as the Texas lawman who assists Purvis. He adds substance to the luminous, fictional denouement.

Mann and writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman have created a canny script. Public Enemies may remind one of the scope and vision of Altman's Thieves Like Us (1974).

Mann has created an evocative, beautiful movie in Public Enemies. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti -- in their fifth collaboration -- creates breathtaking tableaus from a palette with strokes of mesmerizing light.

Mann employs scenes and shots that remind us of Hitchcock. There's suspense at a stoplight. There's a shot in a movie theater that reminds us of the tennis match in Strangers on a Train (1951).

Mann also uses techniques that may remind us of graphic novels -- flashes of light from tommy guns. There's a surrealistic night scene in the woods around Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin.

But perhaps the most effective use of past movies is the sequence in the Biograph theater before Dillinger meets his fate. Mann uses clips from Manhattan Melodrama (1934) starring Clark Gable as Blackie (more fortuity), which actually was playing at the Biograph.

One of the fundamental themes in Mann's work is about men who hold to their personal codes against society and institutions. It's in all Mann's movies -- Thief (1981), The Insider (1999).

Blackie in Manhattan Melodrama has a code; he refuses the governor's (William Powell) offer of commutation and accepts death. In Manhattan Melodrama he says, "If I can't live the way I want, at least let me die when I want." Blackie is true to his principles and character -- like Mann's Dillinger.

Dillinger watches the movie and obviously relates to what is on screen. Talk about irony.

Movies make strange bedfellows -- Gable and Dillinger. Life is image.

Mann espouses individuality, but realizes it comes with a heavy price. The individual always winds up the target of the group Business wins out.

In Public Enemies Mann has several shots of the group. One of his early shots is of prisoners trudging in a line in a gray-walled prison.

Another is a group of pasty-faced feds.

Another is a roomful of men sitting before phones taking bets. Dillinger's exploits threaten the crime mob because they bring attention to them. One mobster tells Dillinger he is "bad for business."

The group is out to destroy the outsider.

Mann's Dillinger is a descendant of the cowboy. He sings, "Get along little doggies." He lies in bed beneath a picture of a man riding a bucking bronco.

Clocks and watches punctuate Public Enemies. Time is running out.

But what a countdown!

Public Enemies is a delicious feast for an interpretive viewer.

Blackbird under glass. A rare treat.

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