John Dillinger, the Great Depression’s Public Enemy Number One, is forever connected to the movies. Not only did he copy his signature bank robbing move of gracefully leaping over the teller’s counter from an obscure crime film but he also was gunned down by FBI agents on July 22, 1934 as he stepped out of the Biograph Theater on Chicago’s north side after a screening of the Clark Gable gangster flick Manhattan Melodrama. As befits a notorious movie lover, in death the charming thief has become a popular movie character. On screen he’s been portrayed by a succession of good looking tough guys; Lawrence Tierney, Warren Oates, Robert Conrad, Mark Harmon and now, in a new film from Michael Mann, Johnny Depp.
At the beginning of Public Enemies Dillinger is a crook turned folk hero. His daring bank robberies made him the bane of law enforcement but a hero to the public who blame the banks for driving the country into a depression. Noting the bandit’s popularity, Bureau of Investigation chief Edgar J. Hoover (Billy Crudup) senses an opportunity to raise the profile of his then little known crime busting outfit. Making Dillinger the country’s first Public Enemy Number One he mounts a very public campaign to bring the charismatic outlaw to justice. Leading the charge is the equally charismatic Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the man who served as the model for Dick Tracy.
Director Michael Mann brings his usual lush visual style to Public Enemies, but unlike his most recent films (Miami Vice and Collateral) this is a surprisingly intimate film. Mann shoots almost every scene in tight close-up, showcasing the sculpted faces of stars Depp, Bale and Marion Cotillard. It’s an unusual style for a crime drama, but zeroing in on the actor’s faces emphasizes the intimate relationships between the characters, turning these bygone figures into living, breathing people rather than historical stereotypes.
Mann also surprises with his use of sound. This is a quiet film. Dialogue is mumbled, there is music, but it is used sparingly. The film’s calm is sporadically shattered by gunshots, which only makes the violence more jarring.
Mann’s stylistic choices—along with those of cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who gives the film a Godfather-esque feel with his use of shadows and darkness—breathes life into a familiar story.
In front of the camera there is star wattage to burn. Depp seemed an unlikely choice to play Dillinger; too slight, too good looking, but he is effortless in the role, bringing charisma and confidence to the film. Bale, in a secondary role, heaps on his usual intensity, but the histrionics of his recent work in Terminator: Salvation has been replaced with a smoldering, understated strength. Marion Cotillard as coat check girl Billie, brings believability as Dillinger’s girlfriend who’s willing to risk everything for a man she barely knows.
Performance wise the one false note here is Billy Crudup as Edgar J. Hoover. Crudup, usually a fine actor, is one note, a seething mass of insecurity and arrogance and little more.
Public Enemies is a movie of contradictions. It’s a romantic gangster movie; an art film disguised as a summer blockbuster; a film about a thief who was seen as a hero. It’s a complicated character study that holds up to more than one viewing.