As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Public Enemies

Posted by Hedwig on August 9, 2009

I love gangster movies. I love the fedoras, the guns, the cars. I love the patter, the clothes, the robberies. I love how inherently tragic they are: in these movies, crime is exiting, seductive, but ultimately fatal. It used to be because of the production code, of course, but I can understand why it stuck: it’s part of the allure of the gangster that he’s not only pursued by the police, but also, more figuratively, by the inevitability of his (and sometimes her) own death. They live life as fully as they can because they feel so acutely that it could end at any time, try as they might to convince others – and themselves – that they’re immortal. Ironically enough, of course, they are immortal in a sense, because they survive in the public’s imagination. They survive in those gangster movies, and they would probably not live on so fiercely if not for their magnificent deaths. If they were not doomed.


Ok, ok, I’ll scale back on the hyperbole and try to avoid using one platitude after another, but Public Enemies has gotten such a lukewarm reception overall (and admittedly the occasional rave), that I just want to embrace it all the more. I loved this film. Wait, not past tense. I love this film, and I want to go see it a second time as soon as I get back from France (they’re only screening the dubbed version close to where I am). I am in love with this film, somehow. And I don’t agree at all with the detractors that call it cold.

Oddly enough, I’m not even such a big Mann enthusiast. I like and admire his films, but up until now, I’ve always considered them a bit too dour, a bit too earnest. I’ll admit it’s been a while since I’ve seen most of them (and after this great piece and Matt Zoller Seitz’ great video essays, I certainly want to revisit some), but I never really sensed much pleasure in them, or thirst for life. Public Enemies, in my experience, has those – maybe not in spades. I hesitate to say this since it’s not grand or exaggerated, but it’s there in the gracious movement with which John Dillinger jumps over a counter when robbing a bank, it’s in the brash way that he seduces Billie Frechette, it’s in his fascinated expression as he watches Clark Gable on screen at the Biograph.

Some have complained about the lack of a coherent story line. It’s true that there are loose strands in the narrative, particularly concerning Billy Crudup’s J. Edgar Hoover, who basically disappears after a promising debut, but compared to the borderline abstract Miami Vice, I had no complaints. In fact, I rather like the somewhat impressionistic snatches we get of Dillinger’s life: they cohere enough not to feel like isolated scenes, and Dillinger himself probably wanted to see his life as nothing more than a collection of highlights. Another criticism is that Dillinger is a cypher, and that Depp’s portrayal too inscrutable, but I disagree. “What do you want?” “Everything. Right Now”. It’s almost literally Antigone’s “Je veux tout, tout de suite!”, from the play by Anouilh I saw in high school. In that play, Antigone is portrayed as a stubborn teenager, and it’s a profoundly teenage feeling she and Dillinger express. He might be 30, but he is stuck in a teenage mentality, as evidenced also by his clear sense of invulnerability.

Speaking of invulnerability (and here be SPOILERS, so skip the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie): can we talk about how astonishing the scene is with Dillinger at the Chicago police headquarters? It’s possibly the best scene in the film, and it’s amazingly filmed, with a gauzy kind of lightning, and a great sense of motion. You’re walking along with Dillinger, barely believing what you’re seeing. Like Wile. E. Coyote: the trick is not to look down, or gravity will kick in. Dillinger isn’t the type to look down, and he soars.

Don’t I have any nits to pick? Sure. For instance, about twenty minutes before the ending, I thought “see! You can film great, engaging, possible to follow action scenes without using slo-mo! Take that Zack Snyder!”… and then the final scene arrives (Dillinger’s final scene, anyway). It felt like the movie, which up until then had dexterously walked the line between realism and mythologization fell over the edge towards the latter. I understand Mann’s motivation, and in all honesty it’s a gorgeous scene, but I think it might have been even better without it – or maybe I’d just like to be the movie to be more like Bonnie and Clyde.

Public Enemies is no Bonnie and Clyde, but it comes a lot closer that I thought it would, and it does put a (slightly) new spin on a very old and venerable genre. Mostly, it gives the genre a new feel. I’m not digital video convert yet, but Mann’s managed to make a thoroughly movie-ish movie with it, that both pays homage to the classics and manages to be fresh and relevant.


6 Responses to “Public Enemies”

  1. joel said

    You and I are a little alone in completely enjoying this movie, Hedwig, but I do disagree with you on one part, the ending of Dillinger. The entire long closing sequence of Dillinger’s final day is wonderfully filmed, from the headquarters scene you mentioned to the Biograph scene (where Dillinger is having an intimate “conversation” with the perception of who he is, or at least what he wants to believe is the perception of him), to his tragic ending.

    All of this worked for me because Mann is showing the mythos from Dillinger’s perspective, which is really the public’s perspective of Dillinger. The entire film is soaked in death, from that opening prison break where Dillinger drags his cohort’s dying body to all the other deaths in-between. Each of these deaths has had some significance to, as we’ve watched the life drain from one man after the next. By the time we reach the expected conclusion, Mann’s direction has transcended the somewhat straight-forward narrative style of the first 90 minutes and become utterly impressionistic.

    In a sense, by using the slo-mo, Mann is prolonging Dillinger’s life and keeping the myth alive for a few moments longer. He is engaging the public’s (and hopefully the audience’s) desire to let the anti-hero live. No one really wants to see that kind of fire extinguished, even one as violent and dangerous as Dillinger. And then after his death, the film is awash in the harsh light of reality, as the flares and flash bulbs illuminate the passage of yet another man to myth.

    It’s only too bad that the film doesn’t gel more cohesively around that build-up to the finale because those closing scenes with Depp are some of the best work Mann has ever done in my opinion, and the Biograph scene is the best acting Depp has done in years.

  2. Hedwig said

    Wow, Joel! That’s a really fascinating take on the end… And you’ve got me convinced. I’m afraid I let my general prejudice against slo-mo (except when used by Wes Anderson) get in the way, and if I’m honest with myself, I loved that scene. You’re right: I didn’t want Dillinger to get shot, and the suspense was pretty excruciating.

    The Biograph scene is indeed amazing, which is also why I chose this picture. You understand, in that moment, how he wants to see himself. You understand why he loves Marion Cottilard, too: she looks like the gangster moll he always wanted to have. And somehow, I think it also helps him accept his death: Clark Gable dies, after all, and he does so with a smirk.

    I’m glad to have you on my side in this debate. With you and Manohla (and, to a certain extent, Matt Zoller Seitz), I’m in good company!

  3. Nancy Stillwell said

    I saw Public Enemies for the second time over the weekend. I too, love this movie and am disappointed by the less-than-phenomenal box office receipts.
    I think it will boomerang around again at Oscar time. I predict several nominations–Depp for best actor, Cottilard for best actress, Crudup for Supporting Actor and Mann for best director. And I think Colleen Atwood is a slam dunk for Costume Design.

  4. Hedwig said

    Ah yes, the costumes! They’re almost a character, aren’t they? I really loved the dress Billie refers to as “cheap”, too, but it’s the jackets and fedoras, especially. And the jacket even has a function in the plot!

    Not sure about Crudup though… kudos on looking totally different, but I thought he hammed it up a touch.

    By the way: welcome, Nancy, don’t remember seeing you in the comments before. Glad you stopped by 🙂

  5. joel said

    You know, for about half this movie I thought they were drawing some metaphor between the FBI’s handling of Dillinger in the 30’s and the FBI’s battle with Al Qaeda in modern times. In both instances, the bureau must “retool” to take on a foe they’re not really prepared to handle, one (in Bin Laden and Dillinger) that slips between borders and has a notorious celebrity that makes him difficult to pin down. In both instances, this criminal is requiring law enforcement to change its tactics and get it’s hands dirty.

    It’s a somewhat shaky analogy, but I thought there were some interesting connections. Then about 2/3 the way Mann just drops that like a hot potato and focuses on Dillinger and the whole movie changed completely. I’m not even sure if what I initially picked up on was even intended after the movie ended.

  6. […] the little gold man, but which I would rank below A Serious Man, but above the others listed here: Public Enemies, and Bright […]

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