© 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.)
In a preamble to a fairly recent absorption of Jarmusch’s Dead Man, I stressed that, though actor, Johnny Depp, is front and center, the film itself is not about him as a media amusement. Here I should amend that dismissal by noting that though Public Enemies is not essentially a Johnny Depp profit centre, no other actor could have contributed more in the role of Johnny to this film’s effectiveness than he. We have, in such contents, appreciated Mann’s sagacity in finding and putting into play in his “crime dramas,” meditative ambitions he shares with the filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Melville, who died in 1973 but is alive and well, courtesy of Mann. With Johnny doing Johnny, however—which of course rains down upon our current focus the satin and thought-provoking frisson of Melville regular, Alain Delon (particularly his role of the chic criminal in Le Samourai ; but, excitingly, also his role of the joyless handsome detective in Un Flic —there is another precedent invoked, namely, Dead Man (1995). The latter film would have fascinated the crime specialist in its spotlighting the odyssey of an unprepared contrarian (an effete accountant, in fact) becoming a surreal dare-devil under the auspices of a fairly bright aboriginal. The essence of that odyssey has, by 2009, been given a revamp whereby the capacity for a difficult and dangerous circulation within a virtually hopeless world history has migrated from guarded hostility and furtive gratification to the magnification of the currents of sensibility at the root of whatever stories may transpire. Wherever the day-to-day Johnny Depp may live, he is a master of putting forward the night and day shadings of the ways of intent. (The former rock star referred to John Dillinger as a proto rock and roller.) The first Dead Man had his Indian companion and professor, Nobody, egging him on to go for broke. The second (soon to be) Dead Man, Johnny, soon meets up with another (half-) Indian, Billie Freshette, whose informal PhD was all about tempering the self-destructive baggage (the music of Billie Holiday very active in this film) of a social outsider to live long enough to make a difference (the adamant anti-white hatred of Nobody having relocated in the form of Johnny’s vendetta against the rich).
The plural factor in the title, Public Enemies, does indeed emphasize that Johnny and Billie mean business in a comprehensive sense. But their rocky road is not the only threat in sight. A measure of the rigor of Mann’s disclosure in this film is the high prominence given to those opposing Johnny’s way of making money. Forming up to add backbone to the minions of law and order hitherto being no match for the likes of Johnny’s extreme motivation, there is a flank of modern criminology (the year being 1933) sold on applying analytical, systematic attention. The fledgling FBI fixes upon an elite sharpshooter and upwardly mobile corporate player, Melvin Purvis, to put out of business our mystical protagonist. And in doing so it poses the irony that the uptick of rational advantage in the cause of justice dovetails with a hard- to-discern form of public malignancy which Johnny and Billie sense very well; but perhaps not well enough. Purvis, who could be characterized as a joyless handsome detective (a younger Johnny Depp) does spearhead Johnny’s demise, and we learn in a pointed epilogue that soon after that he leaves the law-enforcement field and commits suicide some time later.
Let’s commence with the heart of the currents of these crimes by way of muted shooting star, Purvis, picking off predator, Pretty Boy Floyd, along a row within a sunny apple orchard at an antiseptic distance of a quarter of a mile. Purvis’ up-to-the-minute killing machine and his well-honed craftsmanship in operating it constitute an early stage of a seemingly sterling reign of wiping out low-skilled n’er-do-wells. (In another deployment of the Johnny Depp catchment, the actor, Christian Bale [11 years’ Depp’s’ junior] who downs one Pretty Boy, musters a low-wattage version of Depp’s patented spooky-Surrealist pretty boy, in order to facilitate reflection about the protagonist’s new repertoire.)
Though a bit paunchy, Depp’s degree of charisma is still effective. The first robbery shown takes place in a beautiful art deco bank with black and white chessboard tiles, giving it the air of the early Melville heist-movie taking place in the Deauville Casino, namely, Bob le Flambeur (1956)—Bob being also a bit too old to cut a figure as the latest craze. The cruel threat to the bank president, at the well-designed Chicago interior, “You’ll be a dead hero or a live coward,” is too preoccupied with bullying to be a modern force of disinterestedness. And it serves as an excellent introduction to the film’s most compelling figure. The actress, Marion Cotillard, who had, in 2007 won an Oscar for portraying French musical icon, Edith Piaf, would be more than a pretty face in becoming a Billie-Holiday-tough mainstay (of sorts) in Johnny’s running off the rails. Mann needed precisely a thoroughbred to maintain the possibility of live (though perhaps dead-end) hero in a district of matinee-idol disappointments. The way Billie quietly towers over Johnny constitutes the heart of the drama being nearly buried by bathetic (and yet dynamically present) melodrama. She can read him like a well-worn book and still join his death march. Far from a swooning fun-seeker, she clearly regards herself as his equal (and more) where it counts; and therefore the wild romance is more a learning curve than a curvaceous dream or soppy song. (The several visitations by Ms Holiday [in contrast to a white-bread rendition of “Bye-bye Blackbird” at the nightclub] plying the tonality of their passion into a deep, dark future with no domestic bliss in the offing.)
The ups and downs of being sensitive predators will not detain us very long, Public Enemies being a unique, not a run-of-the-mill, errant nail biter. A night out with the gang in the wake of its knocking over the posh bank involves a bit of strategy with a savvy adviser. There is Johnny refusing to go into kidnapping (“Public don’t like kidnapping…”)—in a situation which the man with smarts describes as, “Robbin’ banks is getting’ tougher;” moving on to a fat target which could net more than a million. The idea-man moots leaving the country after that, but the diplomat-patriot flatly maintains, “No plans…”; this elicits, “Well, you ought to. What we’re doing won’t last forever;” Johnny argues, “We ain’t thinkin’ about tomorrow!” This logic fleshes itself out in Billie’s coming into his view at that same nightclub, a vision of easy-going self-confidence with a smile miles from his grim vigor. He soon tells her at a restaurant later that night, “Where I’m going is a whole lot better than where I’ve been. Want to come along?” She laughs and tells him, “Boy, you’re in a hurry!” Though she’s well aware she’s looking at a crash-test dummy, his approval of her beautiful presence and his wanting to keep it close-by comes through as sincere. Moreover, in her accounting for her name, Billie Freshette, being about a French father and a native Indian mother, she is impressed by his thinking for himself (for better or worse). “Most men don’t like that…”/ “I ain’t most men.” At a posh restaurant on leaving the rather saccharine music at the bar, that topic of the subversion of fat cats gets some development. ‘What is it you do?” she defines. “I’m John Dillinger. I rob banks…” is his welcome to a firm where she’ll never be more than a temp. Her face in close-up registers a trace of disappointment. And then she beams out a rich smile and rich laugh redolent of the minefield which life presents to her interests. (Don’t for a moment compare this emotional volcano to Romeo and Juliette.) He proceeds with the instinct of diplomacy: [I rob banks] “where all the [unworthy] people here put their money…” But she’s far more taken by his suicidal exposure than any of the vapid apologias he might contrive. “Why’d you tell me that?” she asks, with a smile of incredulity. “You could have made up a story” [like anyone preferring not to go to an early grave]. Too sincere to rock (at the bar she tries to teach him how to dance the two-step; he doesn’t enjoy it), he samples some salt-of-the-earth literature: “I’m not gonna lie to you…” She punctures that dime-store sentiment with a cheery, “That’s a curious thing to say to a girl you just met” [recalling the girl he suckered on the raw prairie whom he just met and lacking Billie’s appetite for the intrinsic solitude of life as it is]. Having seen him in a corporate spotlight at the watering hole, she notes that, “Well, it’s me they’re looking at this time. They’re looking at me because they’re not used to having a girl in their restaurant in a 3-dollar dress.” After some more disparagement by him regarding the boring and annoying status quo, she wants to know how he intends to kick ass in the bind she’s well aware of—her cracking the Big Town being stalled in a job as a coat-check nobody. Where are you going?” His answer would be far from cogent for a sensibility lighting up those beautiful and knowing eyes. “Anywhere I want!” On their heading out, he’s interrupted by another of those information-men Chicago was full of in that boom time for outlaws and bust time for those playing by the rules. He tells her, “Go wait for me outside.” Of course, she doesn’t wait, being hardly a candidate for his pet. When he does track her down at the coat check another day, he tempers his typical hard justice for underlings with, “Repeat after me: ‘I’m never gonna run out on you again.’ Say the word.” The word of course is “No,” she not giving a fig for his big and patently unsupported dreams.
However, after watching him childishly saving face by beating up a patron impatient for his coat, and asking, along lines of probing his sanity, “Why’d you do that?” she listens closely to his reply, “‘Cause you’re with me now” [as on the same page]. Her way of settling the dead-end was to state the obvious, “I don’t know nothing about you” [except you’re in for a disappointment, a disappointment that could still have momentum]. He, with characteristically sophist cleverness, cites that his daddy would beat him up as a toddler “because he didn’t know no better way to raise me…” Johnny links that disadvantage to his progressing to fast cars, whisky and women…” Her agreeing to walk away from a steady job in the midst of the Depression does not reach full stature until the scene, later that night, in a pricey hotel room, as they’re making love, and she lines up her early life on an Indian reservation—destitution and child abuse lightly mooted—with his days of hard knocks and chaos. Sure, he’s also provided a dazzling fur coat that was supposed to be her reward for being OK being pushed around. But Billie (Billie Holiday in the air in that shadowy bedroom), by way of skeptical patience, has, far from falling in love, seen fit to take a flyer on his crazy (as yet nebulous) notoriety and do something about her shabby strivings to date. “I had a lot of Indian friends. Nothing exciting happened.” She asks him, again, about his vision of sufficiency—the FBI-build-up including Purvis’ tribute to his boss, G. Edgar Hoover, as a “visionary”—and receives the same busy signal. “Everything, right now!”
Purvis’ dogged information mantra (his body language registering “nothing exciting,” and therewith we have the deadened cop and the hopped-up hood in Melville’s Un Flic ) converts the discovery of Johnny’s overcoat, left at a happy hunting ground, to tracking his latest refuge in Florida. Billie lolls in the tub there (a Venus-in-waiting), the crazy crime-wave still an unaudited platform festering in her designs upon a world-history that will never have a comeuppance. Her enigmatic and chivalrous but intrinsically stupid partner prepares to join her in the tropical paradise of their bathroom (vaguely resembling the mishap of Marat/Sade) and he’s interrupted by a rifle butt in the face by a science-supplement Swat Team.
Thus proceeds the noisy death-rattle of Johnny the John’s death throes in the key of devil-may care, who lacks Billie’s daring to watch and listen for signs of life on Planet Earth. The moment just cited could be seen as her commencement of beholding a (lost) soulmate whereby there are familiar ties to keep playing and a new solitude to master. Her first day of the new term is aptly awkward and dismissive. Rushing out of the half-shell to do what she can to lessen her mate’s distress, she yells, “Johnny! Johnny!” A cop tells her, “Put some clothes on, Miss…” Though Johnny keeps his clothes on, his remaining days merely confirm that “Everything, [truly] right now” requires important craft, light dancing, which eludes him. The old-timey melodrama of putting Johnny’s incoherent enterprise out of business rips and roars as befits a clever, balsy and connected desperado. He had, somewhat fittingly, used as a trademark the tag, “Never work with someone who’s desperate.” But, in showing off to the media contingent on being brought back to the Upper Mid-West, he emits discomposure worse than Billie’s being eclipsed by the stolid preservers of the peace. “I had to go 10 years in State Pen for a $50 theft. At prison, though, I met a lot of good fellows… [his sermon on incarceration teaching harmless lads to be hardened criminals]. So I helped set up the break at Michigan City… Why not? I stick with my pals and my pals stick with me…” The Bauhaus-inspired plane which had brought him back to lousy weather diminishes him, as do the optics of him huddled in handcuffs, surrounded by larger police and circus atmosphere recording-apparatus—the subsequent bluster with his folk following being a jaunty but pathetic bid for recovery of a confidence based on childish hubris. The eventual jail-break. the FBI elites on his and his pals’ tails, the squeaker of a getaway from Purvis and the coup de grace after enjoying a gangster movie spilling over with crude bravado he had found to be as close to integrity as he could tolerate have to be fielded as pertaining to the remarkableness of Billie’s, not his, energies. (Purvis’ zeroing in on Johnny’s whereabouts by way of threatening deportation to a Madam-friend of the fugitive, is essentially a discharge of the nausea driving Billie and, to a lesser extent, Johnny, to the fringes of normal gratifications.)
The real drama of those actions pertains, of course, to Billie. Just before the crash in the bathroom, she had, at a race-track in Florida with him, provided by the casino/bank, been stung by another hood waggishly referring to her flakey associate as becoming known as “Dead or Dead.” Billie glances at Johnny, and the latter, with a tightened face to match hers, snaps at her, “What?” She levels, “Thank you for taking me on the trip… Don’t play me for a fool. We both know it ends up, one way or another… You don’t think past today or tomorrow. They will catch you or kill you. I don’t wanna be here when that happens…” He rattles off his standard rabble-rouser, “I’m gonna die an old man in your arms. We’re too good for them. They aren’t tough enough, smart enough or fast enough!” Her face is a mixture of hopelessness and gratitude; and in the wake of that sign of his being not tough enough, not smart enough and not fast enough, she brings an ardent embrace. After the jail break, she meets up with him by disguising herself as a man (tough, smart and fast being more her role); and on the edge of a frozen lake she smiles when he promises to take her dancing in Rio after a big haul in the works. She goes along with the fantasy for its filigrees of the doability she already knows will be part of her solo ordeal. She’s in the process of fetching for him the keys of a safe-haven in Chicago, but Purvis’ methods have bugged the helper, she is jailed, beaten for information and, refusing to crack, she sends a letter (with the lawyer/partisan who had facilitated the jailbreak) to the Dead or Dead Man telling him not to try to smash his way in and out—Michigan-City style—and that after the two years behind bars she’ll see him, somehow. Not at all surprised by the prompt end of his era, she receives a visit by the special agent who killed him and heard his dying words, “Tell Billie for me, “Bye-bye, Blackbird,” (a Billie Holiday dirge they knew). Mawkishly self-dramatizing to the end though he was and though she sees it clearly, her presence on hearing this is care for the true moments and a tiny smile for what’s ahead.
One of the shootouts in his floundering days takes place at Little Bohemia Lodge, Wisconsin. Perfect for him, Somewhat off the mark for her.