Saturday, July 4, 2009
Public Enemies, Private Lives
(Here there be spoilers.)
More than halfway through Public Enemies Michael Mann’s depiction of famous gangster John Dillinger’s last days on the lam, comes an expertly staged and filmed shootout and chase through the nighttime woods pitting John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his gang against the G-men led by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The sound of Thompson machine-gun and shotgun fire is amplified into forceful booms suggestive of lethal impact. Gangsters are ruthlessly shot down. Dillinger and his friend John “Red” Hamilton flee through the dark forest. Baby Face Nelson, riddled with bullets, slumps to his knees, his Thompson spitting blinding flashes of fire that illuminate his death – the film’s most strikingly shot image. After escaping the shootout, Dillinger watches Red die. Dillinger is affected; he sees Red’s death as an ominous portent. But who is Red? We don’t know, and we aren’t touched by his death.
From the woods sequence, it is a short jump to the film’s climactic sequence in which Dillinger attends a movie while the Feds gather outside the Biograph theater, ready to shoot him down. This sequence is also masterfully composed and shot. I like how it cuts from portentous images of the Clark Gable/ Myrna Loy gangster movie Manhattan Melodrama to shots of the Feds waiting outside where amplified street noises create a gripping sense that you are there, and Elliot Goldenthal’s musical score repeats a swelling theme that suggests we have covered epic, dramatic ground to get to this infamous moment at the Biograph. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I had covered much ground at all with Johnny Depp as Dillinger. In fact, I felt like I hadn’t gone anywhere with him until the woods shootout and chase. Made up of disjointed vignettes that amount to very little – or sometimes present very little information – the first half of the film took me nowhere.
Marion Cotillard, as Billie Frechette, the coat-check girl who follows Dillinger for the thrill of the risk and the allure of his charm, takes you along with her from her very first appearance through her harrowing interrogation ordeal to the film’s final image of prison bars closing on her. She gives the film’s best performance, and she delivers the film’s best speech – when she describes how stupid the Feds were to arrest her and totally miss Dillinger who had been watching nearby. The cruel treatment of her is more shocking than any of the shootings, and that is a tribute to Cotillard’s sensitive treatment of her role. Some credit is due Cotillard as well for Bale's best moment in the film: when he compassionately carries her out of the interrogation room.
Another strong supporting performance comes from Billy Crudup as a slightly awkward, mild-spoken J. Edgar Hoover determined to establish a force of Federal cops. But one of my favorite characters is Charles Winstead, the no-nonsense lawman with the craggy face and the piercingly cold eyes. As played by Stephen Lang, he is a man of few words, but he exudes the toughness and ruthlessness of an Old West marshal tracking down outlaws in lawless Dodge City. In the light of his and Cotillard's wonderful performances, it is nice that they get to share the film's final scene. In addition, Channing Tatum with his winning looks is a clever choice to play Pretty Boy Floyd for his few seconds on screen.
As for the musical score mentioned above – it is credited to Eliott Goldenthal, but why does it quote verbatim from a theme from The Thin Red Line, composed by Hans Zimmer, at the moment during the opening prison escape sequence when a wounded man, held by Dillinger, is being dragged along by the getaway car? It also borrows musical lines from Terrence Malick’s film later in the movie. And another question – why the use of digital film that looks more like old-fashioned news-quality videotape than digital? I suppose it suggests 1930s newsreels- but it didn’t work for me.
Like Public Enemies, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford examines the last days of a famous American outlaw. But even without the backstory narration, Brad Pitt as Jesse James shows us who he is and how we should feel about him by what he does and by what we see in his trail-weary eyes. Pitt carries us along with him toward an assassination as well-known as the shooting outside the Biograph. In addition, major and minor members of the James gang, Robert Ford, Charlie Ford, Ed Miller, Wood Hite, and Dick Liddil, are clearly etched personalities, and we know who they are when they are killed or captured, unlike Dillinger’s cronies Baby Face Nelson and Red. As for Public Enemies as a whole, I enjoyed two masterfully shot sequences – the woods shootout and the Biograph shooting – as well as Cotillard’s portrayal of Billie, but I felt detached from and unaffected by the inconsequential vignettes that precede and connect these moments in Mann’s mostly ineffective film.