He fought the law
There’s no plot, but Michael Mann’s gangster film is pure cinema, writes Donald Clarke
THERE ARE few cults like the Michael Mann cult. Though films such as Heat, Miami Vice and The Insider have performed erratically at the box office, this laureate of the urban alpha male has continued to command a fanatically dedicated and endlessly forgiving following. So, when it was announced that Mann was to direct Johnny Depp in a film based on the life of John Dillinger, the hosannas were many and deafening.
Born in 1903, Dillinger remains the coolest and most enigmatic of the villains who gained dubious Robin-Hood status while robbing banks and breaking jails during the Great Depression. Come to think of it, he sounds a little like the character played by Robert De
Niro in Heat. Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who became Dillinger’s most dogged foe, could be a more puritanical version of Al Pacino in the same film.
With Depp as Dillinger and the increasingly monolithic Christian Bale as Purvis, Public Enemies gained classic status before it even began shooting. We didn’t need to see the thing to install it as The Greatest Film Ever Made.
It must be hard to retain your humility when bombarded with such devotion and, sure enough, the finished product turns out to be one of the most conspicuous manifestations of directorial arrogance to inhabit cinemas since Titanic. Though tautly written in graceful noir patois by our own Ronan Bennett, Public Enemies doesn’t allow any of its principals anything you could call a personality. So hectic is the action that it is often difficult to discern which hoodlum is being peppered by which lawman. There isn’t much of a plot.
What else? Oh yes. Despite costing $80 million (¤56 million) or so, it occasionally looks as if it were filmed on your baby sister’s cheaper camera phone.
And yet. Public Enemies remains one of the most compelling, intriguing, delightfully frustrating films you will have the privilege of seeing this year.
Mann may revere storytellers such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, but his genius has always been more to do with the creation of mood. Closer to a Mark Rothko (walls of looming ambiance) than a Pablo Picasso (walls of busy society), Public Enemies envelops viewers in menace and invites them to drift into a peculiar class of trance that remains unbroken by cacophonous Tommy-gun battles and crashing motorcars. Making good use of Elliot Goldenthal’s surging chords and Dante Spinotti’s cinematographic nuance, Public Enemies may stumble as history or drama, but it gains epiphany as the purest of pure cinema.
This famously meticulous director has ensured that every aspect of the picture – the purposefully one-note performances; the largely colourless costumes; the restrained exposition; even the carefully designed credit font – is in keeping with the picture’s inclinations towards violent austerity.
Mann’s extraordinarily stubborn decision to stick with a class of high-definition video that variously flares, blurs and conceals parts of the frame may be further manifestation of that dangerous arrogance, but it can’t be denied that the images are in tune with the picture’s Arctic tenor.
So where’s the story in all this? Despite its not inconsiderable length, Public Enemies has a plot that can be summed up in a handful of sentences. We begin with Dillinger, already a villain of renown, breaking out of jail and embarking on a new reign of crime with a gang of lesser associates. He meets and falls in love with an intelligent, forceful singer (a very strong, if underused Marion Cotillard) and offers J Edgar Hoover (an amusingly clipped Billy Crudup) the opportunity to form the FBI. Many banks are robbed. A few more prisons guards are frustrated. It ends how it famously ends.
As this non-story progresses, the atmosphere remains so bewitching that it becomes easy to forget that Depp – in wry, quip-happy mood – is never invited to make a human being of Dillinger. Like Sherlock Holmes, Spider-Man, Columbo or Robert De Niro in Heat, this John Dillinger is a kind of super-being who, before a final, glorious catastrophe arrives, will not be permitted any frailty, doubt or vulnerability.
In one key scene, Dillinger sneaks into the room assigned to the police officers on his case. Leaning beautifully on a wall, he asks the cops what the score is in the baseball game playing on the wireless.
Such confidence. Such panache. Such arrogance. Perhaps Mann sees himself in Depp’s character. On the evidence of this strange, mad, brilliant film, he can still (just about) allow himself such hubris.
Johnny Depp as Public Enemy No 1