© 2017 by James Clark
The many films of Michael Mann seem to be all of a piece in exuberantly delivering that cinematic Midas Touch of “action adventure.” Hardly a subscriber to settling differences with quiet and surgically elegant precision, there is about his shootouts, in a film like our present concern, Public Enemies (2009), World- War emphaticness.
You could leave Public Enemies at that, and go on to sprinkle biographical, political, ethical and cinematographical appreciations. Or, you could allow the overt but tangled delivery of poetics to bring about a lifetime of delicious toil. In the opening passage where bank robber and gangster, John Dillinger, is introduced to an Indiana penitentiary, that world of ignored drama is alive and well. We might have known that something special was up, when being drawn into the delivery of the prisoner-protagonist from a long-distance perspective such that the tiny vehicle and its complement (one handcuffed and one not handcuffed) could be likened to a visit to the Bonneville (speedway) Salt Flats. Coming closer to the pair, we—who were not only moving upon a lunar surface but sky having more to do with an astronomical observatory than a neighbor of the Gary steel mills—see them approaching the entrance, which could have been constructed by Charlemagne in the 8th century. This mix of the past and the future carries far more perceptual weight than the subsequent (not this again?) jail-break, prepped by the new-con’s contingent of long-termers but requiring that functional violence about which the man of the hour (accompanied by a fake, one-man police detail) excels. That prompt exit of figures easily overtaking normal activity involves a reprise of the uncanny, unearthly surround, before the interior of the getaway car hits us with almost full-scale schemers congratulating themselves. Johnny greets the powers-that-be in that dungeon with the rebel yell, “I’m John Dillinger. My friends call me John. But a son of a bitch like you better call me Mr. Dillinger.” That trash-talk is soon undergoing an antithesis whereby our leader, shown in close-up within the cramped confines of the Model-T, evinces that the road ahead will be a tortuous test. He clasps by the hand a seriously wounded partner sprawled on the running board.; and as the latter dies his face shows not simply the loss of a pal but the loss of coherence within his cogent mission. Prying loose the death grip, he watches the body impact the dusty terrain, with its bedrock in the mix, and feels a distinct absence of the lyricism by which he has navigated for a long time, his 9-year hermitage at that pen being an excellent place for an exceptional spirit to deal with intentional conundrums. (To emphasize how fluent he is with crisis, there is a second passenger flying off that iron-age car, someone within the gang who behaved badly during the escape. Johnny slugs him and then throws him out. We are struck by our protagonist’s effort to regain the savoir faire of the earlier part of the day.) A rally of sorts occurs for him on the dirt farm road where a sanctuary has been engendered. The spare, dark, earthy grassland brings about a calm we must not forget in the ragged hours ahead. (An a capella, Eastern European men’s chorus adds crisis in the form of straining for a disinterestedness which can’t be manhandled.) Nor should we lose sight of the young woman being the lynch pin of the advent of the safe-house on the pragmatic grounds of which the escape succeeds. As Johnny heads for the car to get underway with his perhaps overthought-approach to other people’s money, that sombre but still beautiful factor, precipitating a camera angle showing a firmament, calls to him. And in a whispery voice corroded with harsh disappointment—disappointment that the promise of a long-term life out on that piercingly-true backwater (or elsewhere) turned out to be a cruel ruse—she makes scant verbal sense but towering physical impact notwithstanding. Johnny may be officially an ex-con but our filmic momentum is about to disclose that he’s pretty much all con, especially conning himself. (During his 9 years behind bars, he seems to have mastered a rhetorical sub-genre of preachy fondness about the meek, in the course of happily crippling the rich.) “OK, Doll, I’m sorry,” is the simplism he offers, while getting down to his real register in the car: “Let’s go to Chicago… make some money!” (Somewhat more convincing humanitarianism surfaces during the breaking out of the pen. He forcefully orders an inmate to stop beating a guard; and he’s, momentarily, at least, dismayed that another struggle ended in a low wage-earner’s death.) Continue Reading »