Monday, December 3, 2012

Cinema 2009: Public enemy, romanticized

"Public Enemies" from 2009 grabs you early and keeps you locked in better than a midwestern jail could hold John Dillinger.

Director Michael Mann uses Steadicams and surround-sound to involve viewers viscerally in the bankrobbing acrobatics and notorious jailbreaks that earned Dillinger the official status of Public Enemy No. 1 in Depression Era America. Dillinger's style and sangfroid, and an adoring press, helped make him a legend. Mann's cinematic technique has the effect of handcuffing the viewer to the chaos of shootouts and getaways. That technique — along with the unfamiliar look of digital film — creates a jarring immediacy that seeks to impart to the viewer the instincts and perceptions of that determined and fearless man.

In less frantic scenes, the camera framing is studied, even artsy. But the pace is never flat-footed. The film bobs and weaves like a bank robber on the lam.

Mann, a native Chicagoan, conjures the city of Big Shoulders, with an artistic grace, using selected, almost iconic locations and cultural artifacts from the era (or thereabouts).

Johnny Depp plays Dillinger with an understated intensity, conveying a no-nonsense man of action. The substance of the man is mean criminality. Dillinger robs banks and escapes from cops with the unerring agility of a big cat. In Dillinger's downtime, hiding out after a heist or cleaning his Tommy gun, Depp affects a faraway look, less the proverbial 1,000-yard stare of the hardened killer than the unfocused yearning of a frustrated romantic.

FBI Agent Purvis (Christian Bale) pursues Dillinger using the same weaponry and fast cars as the bad guys. But whereas Dillinger exhibits style, whether giving a female hostage his coat or bantering with the press while in sheriff's custody, Bale's Purvis is devoid of panache, focussed solely on bringing down Dillinger.

When Dillinger meets a bored coat check girl, Billie Frechette — played flawlessly by Marion Cotillard — the famous felon seduces with smooth pickup lines and sudden, subdued violence. Dillinger convinces her later things will work out, revealing only hubris. But it sounds like self-confidence to the naive Frechette.

Could Frechette's love be the bank robber's salvation? Dillinger talks with Billie of leaving the life, settling down. It is the one big soppy mistake in a script that, apart from some timeline manipulation for dramatic effect, actually captures the ironic truth about a career criminal who, each time he is able to elude the law, is caught ever more deeply in a dead-end destiny of his own design.

Mann, who also co-wrote the screenplay, ties up the romantic plotline with a big Hollywood bow in the form of fictitious last words whispered by a dying outlaw. The trope underscores the mistrust among law enforcement agents but more importantly allows closure of the love story that ran parallel to Dillinger's brief but breathtaking bankrobbing career. Frechette's defiant face-to-face with one of the men who shot her lover becomes a moment for all to mourn Dillinger's softer side as revealed by those, alas, invented last words.

Cotillard quietly stuns in that closing scene as a locked-up Frechette who demonstrates a strong sense of self worth, despite her situation, and who learns something about love and herself at the same time.

Of course, it is all Hollywood hogwash. A more accurate conclusion is outlined in a David Wagoner poem from 1966. Wagoner's free verse litany bears the spoiler-alert title: "The Shooting of John Dillinger Outside the Biograph Theater, July 22, 1934." It includes the following lines describing the immediate aftermath of the shooting:

When they shouted questions at him, he talked back to nobody.
Did Johnny lie easy?
Yes, holding his gun and holding his breath as a last trick,
He waited, but when the Agents came close, his breath wouldn't work.

I recommend both the film and the poem.

No comments:

Post a Comment