Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you": cinematic love in Public Enemies

I may be biased, given my preference for gangster films, but I liked most everything about Public Enemies (except for the over-exposed and ever-grim Christian Bale). I especially enjoyed the way Michael Mann played with metacinematic moments in the movie. In an interview for About.com, Mann said this about it:

"I elected to tell a story that is about what starts with what's Dillinger thinking in the Biograph [Theater] moments before he's going to walk out and get killed. When he’s seeing, you know, Clark Gable as Blackie in [Manhattan Melodrama] really pose questions to him and almost send him messages. And Gable's character, Blackie, is derived partially from Hollywood's take on John Dillinger because he was the most famous American, second only to the President of the United States at that time."

The scene reminded me a lot of another metacinematic moment early in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Soon after Clyde shoots and kills a man after a robbery, the scene abruptly cuts to the 3-person gang in the theater watching the "We're in the money" sequence in Gold Diggers of 1933.

As Clyde cusses out C. W. Moss for stupidly causing the murder, Bonnie shushes them for interfering with her pleasure in the song and dance. In one sense Bonnie and Clyde are in the money, but they are also now wanted for murder, so their success has a bittersweet tinge that colors so much else in the film. The scene also shows how Depression-era fantasy sequences in movies contribute to their dreams of wealth that lead them to this impasse.

In Public Enemies, this communication between film dream and reality is even more pronounced. Dillinger and his gang are ever conscious of their lifestyles being like a "ride" with movie-like carpe diem intensity. After kidnapping a female teller, one of Dillinger's gangster pals tells her that he's also a "scout for the movies." Dillinger's values seem shaped by the cinema. His pick-up line for Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) has a Bond-like directness in which he promises action movie excitement in exchange for her life in which, as she admits, nothing exciting has ever happened. He says: "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whisky . . . and you. What else you need to know?" Dillinger's and Billie's odd love affair gives the film much of its narrative drive, especially as he tries to live up to the successful future that he paints for her when he's not evading the Feds.

Dillinger also enjoys sitting in the theater as the public service announcement tells the crowd members to look to the left and the right to see if they can spot him. He's both famous and delightfully anonymous, sneaking a visit to the office of the Chicago criminal investigator who's specializing in his case just as the real Dillinger would brazenly go watch a Cubs baseball game. Bryan Burrough points out Dillinger's celebrity in his article about the historical accuracy of Public Enemies: in the 1930s, a "poll of moviegoers found Dillinger was drawing the most applause of any major American shown in newsreels, rivaling President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh." Dillinger is the gangster as star, so Public Enemies keeps switching between treating him as hunted prey and as a celebrity, even as the Robin Hood quality of the first feeds the second. He's no sooner handcuffed in the back of a car, sandwiched between two policemen, than the masses of adoring crowds lining the streets oblige him to wave.

His press conference in the Indiana jail takes on a the flair of a Beatles interview when he jokingly answers about the length of his bank robberies "One minute and 40 seconds. Flat."

So what does happen as Dillinger watches Manhattan Melodrama in the Biograph theater? Mann sets up a poignant three way identification between the viewer, Johnny Depp, and the scenes in the movie within the movie. We watch Dillinger identify with Clark Gable as he decides to "Die the way you live, real sudden. Don't drag it out" on his way to the electric chair, a summary of Dillinger's seize-the-day ethos he has lived by. We watch Dillinger gaze upon Myrna Loy at length as if she were the cinematic equivalent of his beloved Billie. The transposition is remarkably effective, in part because Loy carries her own associations with films like The Thin Man, but also because we know that Dillinger will never see Billie again. We can see the movie speaking to him because it reflects the way Public Enemies has spoken to us all along--through images not only of gangsters, but also of a love refined by distance and the brevity brought on by constantly impending violence.

18 comments:

J.D. said...

Yeah, that scene where Dillinger watching MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was a nice touch and it also eerily foreshadows his doom. One of things that I find interesting is how the film posits Dillinger as part of a dying (literally) breed. The golden era of bank robbery ends with him. As one of Frank Nitti's guys tells him at one point, they make more through illegal gambling in one day then Dillinger makes knocking over one bank.

I think that Dillinger probably saw the end of the era coming and tried to go for the one last score... of course there's always another one last score so maybe he would have continued had he not died.

Hokahey said...

You speak eloquently for this film. You perceptively analyze the meaning of the Biograph sequence as a unit. Yes, the Biograph sequence is masterfully filmed, but I feel I wasn't given enough depth and development leading up to that point so as to give the climax much impact. I should have felt like I had lived an epic - but by the time Dillinger is sitting in his theater seat at the end, I felt like I hadn't really gone anywhere substantial with him. The shootout/chase in the woods is also masterfully shot. But that means two great sequences - but not a great movie. Too bad; I'm a big fan of Mann's films.

FilmDr said...

J.D.,

I thought the sense that organized crime had moved on was interesting, too. They don't need a charismatic individualistic Robin Hood figure. In his way, Dillinger becomes a threat to both the criminals and the Feds, perhaps because he gets so much media attention.

Hokahey,

I've heard several critics agree with you about the lack of Dillinger's character development, but doesn't he also say to Billie "What else you need to know?" Perhaps Mann was experimenting with the New Wave technique of not explaining why criminals do what they do (as in Breathless or Band of Outsiders, or in Tarantino's movies, for that matter)? Regardless, if you didn't get much out of that last scene, then that's the film's problem, not yours, but I felt there was enough preparation. I thought that Dillinger defined himself through his actions. He's not interested in his backstory or development so much as he is in remaking himself anew with the help of the movies as a guide. He is his own media creation, and in this way, the film's structure is consistent with Dillinger's character.

Brian said...

Haven't seen Public Enemies yet, but on the use of Gold Diggers of 1933 in Bonnie and Clyde, don't forget that the "We're In the Money Sequence" is presented with irony in the Busby Berkeley musical too; the showgirls sing it with gusto but the show they're singing in has run out of dough and they'll soon be on the street looking for more work.

pomme said...

i like the fact in this movie the acts make the characters! i loved this movie as i loved "zodiac" or "the good shepherd" intense and cinematographic! and i like Bale in a subtle straight G-men( the work on the tone of his voice is really fine)!
it's a real movie with real actors!

FilmDr said...

Good point, Brian. That adds another layer of irony to the scene, but I don't think Bonnie recognizes the irony because she's still humming the song in the next scene as she puts a necklace on. The Gold Diggers scene has such a delightfully twisted hallucinatory Depression-era weirdness to it.

I agree, Pomme. Public Enemies may benefit from being an intelligent, subtle, adult film in a summer period given to special effects and puerile hijinks. I liked much of the acting of the film (Depp struck me as being almost foppish at times for a gangster. Late in the movie, he reminded me of James Joyce), but I've seen Bale play too many determined, dreary, earnest characters in a row. He should try something different, like he did in American Psycho.

T.S. said...

Excellent write-up. I, too, found myself enjoying (nearly all) the elements of Public Enemies, which I'd count among a small group of truly worthwhile films so far this year. That could be my own bias for gangster films, or my own bias for Michael Mann (who I think is one of the best directors working today), but regardless.

Your point (a few comments above) about Dillinger not being "interested in his backstory or development so much as he is in remaking himself anew with the help of the movies as a guide" is really astute," something I gleaned briefly from the film yesterday but which I hadn't yet meditated on too much until this moment. I did find Public Enemies speaking openly and willfully to/with other films to be one of its greater strengths, for all the reasons that have been put forward here and the cinematic myth-making/deconstruction that works well in Mann's hands. Depp then, to me, was the perfect person to play this version of Dillinger, half in reality and half in fantasy. I couldn't imagine anyone else slyly grinning at Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama, or earlier, pulling off a more difficult slyness in the theater when the newsreel instructs patrons to look to their right and to their left, a sea of heads swishing while Dillinger's stays still (a great homage to Strangers on a Train, another successful chase film and an exploration of the ambivalence between "good" and "bad").

FilmDr said...

Thanks T.S.,

Yes, much of the fun of watching Public Enemies lies in catching the multiple allusions to not only Bonnie and Clyde (when Dillinger lets the man keep his money in the bank, the Feds turning out the lights in their cars before a shoot-out at night, and even Dillinger's inability to dance seemed a possible subtle reference to Clyde's impotence) but also White Heat with Baby Face doing his own Cagney routine, and Titanic, when Dillinger says "I will die an old man in your arms," to mention a few. Also, Mann's desire to maintain historical accuracy (especially with locations) kept the film from ever being merely derivative.

Anonymous said...

I did see the movie yesterday, and I liked it most all the time, except when the actors were mumbling a little.

There are several dimensions of the movie you didn't mention--the music (Billie Holliday has about three songs) and the politics and attitudes towards banks. Frank Rich writes about the robbing of the rich banks today:

If the administration wants to be reminded of how quickly today’s already sour mood can turn rancid, Michael Mann’s haunting “Public Enemies” could not be a more apt refresher course. The casting alone tells you where the audience’s sympathies will lie: Dillinger is played by America’s reigning male sweetheart, Johnny Depp, while his G-man pursuer, Melvin Purvis, is in the hands of the thorny Christian Bale. [I thought Bale's performance was better than you gave it credit for. Purvis was ruthless in pursuit of criminals, a bit humorless, but fairly efficient. He did seem to have a problem with torture, and I liked the scene where he was kind to Billie after she was abused.]
“Public Enemies” doesn’t make a federal case of parallels between its era and ours. It doesn’t have to. But it’s instructive to revisit the actual history. In the book that inspired the film, the journalist Bryan Burrough writes that Detective magazine polled movie theater owners during Dillinger’s yearlong spree of 1933-34, and found that in terms of drawing audience applause Public Enemy No. 1 beat out F.D.R. and Charles Lindbergh. Roosevelt ran with it. As Steve Fraser writes in his cultural history of Wall Street, “Every Man a Speculator,” F.D.R. “likened his Wall Street villains to ‘kidnappers and bank robbers’ eluding capture” in his 1936 re-election campaign. He knew Wall Street manipulators were the real targets of the public’s ire.

Another look at this much-chronicled past, “Dillinger’s Wild Ride,” by Elliott J. Gorn, a professor of history at Brown University, is the first to be published during our own hard times. In it you learn that ordinary law-abiding Americans even wrote letters to newspapers and politicians defending Dillinger’s assault on banks. “Dillinger did not rob poor people,” wrote one correspondent to The Indianapolis Star. “He robbed those who became rich by robbing the poor.”

Gorn writes that the current economic crisis helped him understand better why Americans could root for a homicidal bank robber: “As our own day’s story of stupid policies and lax regulations, of greedy moneymen, free-market hucksters, white-collar thieves, and self-serving politicians unfolds, and as banks foreclose on millions of families’ homes, workers lose their jobs, and life savings disappear, it becomes clear why Dillinger’s wild ride so fascinated America during the 1930s.” An outlaw could channel a people’s “sense of rage at the system that had failed them.”

____________

The movie did not have to make the obvious connections between the 30s Depression and our own of 2009. Probably the reactions against torture (it works and then doesn't work in the movie) were more of a reference to Cheney vs. Obama. Mann rarely makes it seem as if the gangsters were having as much fun as did Bonnie and Clyde. The love story of John and Billie was effective because it did seem to be a story of first love, despite the fact that Billie was not a killer like Bonnie but loved Dillinger nevertheless. The actress Cotillard was genuinely loveable and sweet, even innocent.
kopkqgos

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your input, Anonymous.

My post was mostly focusing on the love story, but you point out several other interesting areas of analysis. I've been reading the nonfiction book that inspired the movie called Public Enemies by Bryan Burroughs (a great read, by the way), and it helps one understand exactly where Mann bothered to explain things in his movie and where he didn't (there are several curious omissions). I'll probably post about it later.

Rick Olson said...

A fine piece, FilmDr ... I saw this yesterday and I liked it a lot, especially the gun-battle at Little Bohemia. And Mann's digital photography, which I liked a lot in "Collateral" and "Miami Vice" was stunning in a couple of scenes.

Kevin J. Olson said...

So what does happen as Dillinger watches Manhattan Melodrama in the Biograph theater? Mann sets up a poignant three way identification between the viewer, Johnny Depp, and the scenes in the movie within the movie. We watch Dillinger identify with Clark Gable as he decides to "Die the way you live, real sudden. Don't drag it out" on his way to the electric chair, a summary of Dillinger's seize-the-day ethos he has lived by. We watch Dillinger gaze upon Myrna Loy at length as if she were the cinematic equivalent of his beloved Billie. The transposition is remarkably effective, in part because Loy carries her own associations with films like The Thin Man, but also because we know that Dillinger will never see Billie again. We can see the movie speaking to him because it reflects the way Public Enemies has spoken to us all along--through images not only of gangsters, but also of a love refined by distance and the brevity brought on by constantly impending violence.


Wow. Brilliant. What a wonderful way of stating what's at the heart of Mann's newest film.

Depp's acting at the end of the film in the Biograph scene is nothing short of phenomenal. His sly smiles show a man acquiescing to the fact that he will not live forever, that he will not see his love Billie again, and that his profession of robbing banks is dying as more organized forms of crime were taking shape.

The tension in the last scene -- despite knowing what happens -- solidifies that Mann is one of the premier auteurs working in film today. The meshing of music, digital photography that is intensely close to the subjects, and the fine editing all make for the perfect coda to a perfect gangster film.

Your review touches upon one of the things I look forward to most about a second viewing: Dillinger's love of the "spotlight". The interview in the jail, as you point out, is a perfect example of how he was comfortable playing to the public -- even if he was deathly serious about the way he introduced himself as a man who "robs banks."

He does indeed seem to be evoking (and aping) some of the style found in the gangster films he loves so much -- especially in the scene at the coat check counter where he tells Billie that she's "his girl". He oozes confidence and seems to be channeling Gable and Cagney and others from that era.

It's well documented that a lot of the gangsters from that era learned to talk the way they did from the movies -- but I like that Mann is smart enough to not bog the film down with historical tidbits like that. Instead he trusts his audience is intelligent enough to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions about what makes these people tick -- and that final scene is brilliant in showing just how influenced and infatuated Dillinger was with film.

Great thoughts, as always, here.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Rick,

I liked the use of digital photography too. I wonder if Mann meant to add a more documentary feel to those scenes.

Thanks, Kevin,

I left out one detail of the Biograph theater scene. At one point, Myrna Loy's character says "Bye Blackie" to Clark Gable's character (who was in part modeled after Dillinger), so Mann even manages to allow Billie's surrogate to say goodbye to Dillinger, and evoke the Billie Holiday song "Bye Bye Blackbird" in the process. That makes the scene even more poignant, because in a sense, through mediators (Manhattan Melodrama and Charles Winstead), both Dillinger and Billie say goodbye to each other at the end of the film.

MovieMan0283 said...

I agree with Brian's point about Gold Diggers. I brought this up in a piece I wrote about the film, and someone else pointed out another layer of irony: the film Bonnie & Clyde is ITSELF a glamorous refashioning of the Depression era!

(The Gold Diggers piece is here:

http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2009/02/gold-diggers-of-1933.html)

FilmDr said...

Movieman,

Thanks for the explanatory link. I still think the metacinematic treatment of the Golddiggers scene is complicated by Bonnie's naive reaction to it. She doesn't want to acknowledge the way the movie treats the scene ironically.

After reading Burrough's Public Enemies (the original book), I will never look at Bonnie and Clyde the same way again. I wouldn't call the movie a "glamorous refashioning of the Depression era," although that is partially true. I think of it more as an American reaction to the stylistic heightening of the American gangster cinematic tradition as filtered through the French New Wave, specifically films like Breathless and Jules et Jim. But regardless of the historical inaccuracy of Bonnie and Clyde, in terms of whiplash shifts in tone alone, it is still a classic. There's also something very nuanced about the way the movie invites the audience to identify with B&C, and then messes with that identification.

Stephen said...

I love this review. I too thoroughly enjoyed the film,

Mann walked the tightrope between shallow documentary reconstruction and tired gangster genre tropes. It eventually gained a true identity all of its own.

I wrote a little something on it - not as in-depth or as insightful as you piece - here:

http://checkingonmysausages.blogspot.com/2009/12/public-enemies-2009-michael-mann-first.html

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Stephen, for the comment and the link. I still think Public Enemies was a bit under-appreciated by the critics.

johan smith said...

i like these pictures