Tuesday, July 14, 2009
How To Get What You Want In Life
Tonight's movie: Michael Mann's gangster picture, Public Enemies. Johnny Depp plays the notorious bank robber John Dillinger, to whom we are introduced in 1933 as he makes his final couple plays before meeting his end at the hands of the police.
I try to think what it is about this period that I find so compelling. Several of my favorite films--Miller's Crossing, Road to Perdition, the Sting--are set in this time. As I've often said, it's the period of cross-country trains and of jazz--things which carry a rich trove of associations. It's also the era of the Great Depression and of the onset and expiration of Prohibition; so there's a lot going on in American society. I love the period's sense of style: cars are swoopy and clothes natty; everyone wears hats, especially the gangsters. It is the period of Art Deco. There is a sense of modern America congealing into something like its current shape in this period between the wars and after WWII. We became an automotive culture during this time, the fundamental character of major American cities took shape, and even out outlaws had something of the American entrepreneurial spirit.
Certainly John Dillinger was a compelling character, and many people even rooted for him, following his exploits in the press and on the radio with a kind of breathless anticipation (treating him, as Wikipedia says, like a modern-day Robin Hood). This idolatry doesn't seem like one of America's more fresh-scrubbed moments, but we were coming off a time when Prohibition made criminals out of everyday Joes, and a time when many saw banks as agents of evil as often as protectors of one's savings.
The particulars of Dillinger's life and criminal career are not well known to me, so this movie serves as a kind of introduction. The film covers the last year or so of his life, and we see him planning a couple bank heists with his gang, and then directing the crew for the actual events. It seems he was known for incredible cheek, for blithely taking great risks and for being calm amid the chaos. In addition to banks, he is known to have robbed a couple police stations, and to have broken some of his gang members out of jail.
It is this sense of confidence almost amounting to entitlement (or a death wish) that Johnny Depp captures so brilliantly here. One senses that Dillinger felt he could do whatever he wanted, and that no person or group was able to outsmart him, and he carried out his actions with grace and panache. Depp absolutely hits his marks here, neither under- or over-playing. Like Dillinger, Depp has the dashing good looks and easy manner that win us over immediately while still hinting at the impetuousity and violence that defined Dillinger's relation to the world. His foil during this period, and the man who ultimately tracks him down, is FBI agent Melvin Purvis (excellently and stoically played by Christian Bale) who is put in charge of the Chicago office of the FBI by Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) expressly for the purpose of getting Dillinger.
The story begins with Dillinger apparently being returned to a jail from which he has only recently been paroled. But this is actually a ruse, a plan coordinated with several gang members still in the jail to break them out. In what seems like trademark Dillinger style, this daring and improbable plan actually works, albeit with a casualty or two. The remaining gang makes their getaway and begins planning their next move. During this period Dillinger takes a shine to a lovely young woman he sees dancing with a stranger in a night club (Evelyn "Billie" Frechette, played by Marion Cotillard), and this subplot gives Dillinger's character a bit of humanity, when he might otherwise just be a virtuoso performer of criminal arts. Dillinger in love fleshes out the core of his character, like looking at a sculpture from a couple different angles; it's the same explosion of overconfidence, but it looks quite different depending on its application. (I see in the Wikipedia article on Billie that she lived out her life after her prison term in Wisconsin, dying in Shawano, of all places. My first wife hailed from Shawano, and Susan's parents had a cottage on a little lake there for years. I've been there many times. Now here's this John Dillinger's girlfriend connection. What's up with Shawano?)
The film suggests that one of Dillinger's survival techniques was to flee a crime committed in one state for a hideout in another, thus hampering the police with jurisdictional shackles. It was Dillinger and others like him that pushed the FBI into a greater law enforcement role, and to seek broader crime fighting powers to close this loophole--much to the chagrin of other criminal enterprises like the gambling and numbers rackets of Al Capone's Chicago partner Frank Nitti. So the film has an interesting little subplot showing Dillinger thus pursued on a couple fronts, both by the FBI lawmen and also by the criminal enterprises who will suffer from the legal backlash if Dillinger isn't stopped.
It's always interesting to me to see how filmmakers try to capture a period. Public Enemies is in color, though Mann and Cinematographer Dante Spinotti use a pretty subdued palette. There's less focus on period dialog than, say, the Coen Brothers used in Miller's Crossing. Costumes and cars and props all contribute, especially the use of the quintessential gangster gun, the Thompson sub-machine gun (or "Tommy Gun"). The Tommy Gun is a central player for virtually every gang movie of this period; you simply can't play in this genre without it. The Tommy Gun is Public Enemies' chief prop, making for an iconic image of gangsters, muzzles flashing, spraying the police with lead while standing on the running boards of a fleeing getaway car, their long coats flapping in the breeze.
Apart from a particular bit of electric guitar work played under one of the scenes (which seemed anachronistic to me), the film does a pretty good job taking us back in time. But in the final analysis it was all just a trifle too processed and packaged. Some of the filming took place in Oshkosh, WI, just next door to my hometown of Appleton (I toyed with trying to get hired on as an extra, but my schedule just doesn't permit such things), and I looked in vain to recognize anything. Except for a couple scenes nominally set in Chicago and a rustic lodge in the Wisconsin woods (both of which could easily be back lots), the film gives us little sense of place. Period, yes; place, no. And I think this is what I was left wanting. Rather than being transported back to the period, where the style is a confirmation of what we sense anyway, this film feels like it's trying to invoke the period with a cosmetic treatment. This contrasts with Sam Mendes's Road to Perdition, where great care is taken to bring us inside scene after scene, an immersion so detailed that the modern world almost surprises us when we depart the theater. Mann attempts the same trick here, but, on this detail, with much less success.
In all, this was an engrossing couple hours. I know that the complexities of a life cannot effectively be condensed into a two hour movie, especially the complexities of a whirlwind life like Dillinger's; but there is a sense of a segment of his story having been picked and sanitized and packaged for the movie. That doesn't have to be a degradation, but I left wishing for a bit less moviemaking polish and a touch more reality. That would have seemed fitting for a man who murdered people and stole great sums of money and yet cried when his girlfriend was arrested. Still, I'm glad I went and I'll look forward to adding this to my DVD collection of gangster pictures.