Tell Billie for me. Bye, Bye Blackbird…”
So ended gangster John Dillinger‘s life. According to Special Agent Winstone, Dillinger uttered those words with his dying breaths and asked the agent who shot him (one of a several FBI agents who had a hand in gunning him down) to pass them on to Billie Frechette. The fact that this, the closing scene of the Michael Mann film, Public Enemies (2009), was totally fictional shouldn’t bother you as a viewer, After all, that was an elegant tear that fell from Billie’s eye. Billie, of course, was portrayed by Marion Cotillard.
Mann has fashioned a gangster film wrapped inside of a love story. Here, the gangster is neither demonized or glamorized. For certain, Johnny Depp’s Dillinger is not a heroic character. He may be mythic in the sense that in real life, Dillinger took on the G-Men, when the country was in dire shape. But that is different from heroic.
The Michael Mann / Johnny Depp take on Dillinger was that he was fearless. He didn’t fear confrontation with the FBI. Nor did he expect to be turned down by Cotillard’s Billie, which she did at first.
When Billie protested that she wasn’t going to run off with a man she barely knew, Dillinger laid out all his cards as well as a brief summary of his life so far …
I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn’t know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you… what else you need to know?
So Dillinger and friends robbed banks, just like Bonnie and Clyde.
In fact, a question comes to mind. Did Mann pay homage to that film? I think he did. Dillinger died in hail of bullets, and he fell in slow motion. I think Mann was acknowledging Arthur Penn‘s visual conception of the Bonnie & Clyde ambush.
But Penn romanticized his characters to a degree, and Mann did not. Yes Public Enemies did a good job with the Frechette/Dillinger romance. Their glorious passion and love was there for all to see. But we never got to know much about Dillinger and Frechette did we?
Another view is the Mann reprised his theme of the obsessed hunter and hunted that he brought to the screen in Heat. DeNiro‘s Neal McCauley has now been updated, or maybe I should say backdated to Depp’s 1934 Dillinger.
Vincent Hanna, played by Al Pacino in Heat, has resurfaced as Melvin Purvis, G-Man extraordinaire, played for the most part by Christian Bale in a one-note style. Though Bale looked great in his vested suits, suspenders, overcoats, and fedoras, we learned nothing about him during the film – which was clearly an extended chase, or hunt throughout the film.
Purvis was obsessed in bringing down Dillinger. He chafed under the iron grip and protocol as laid out by Hoover and Tolson. When Purvis asked to import some good men from Texas and Oklahoma. Hoover’s response was, I can’t hear you…
But Hoover was trying to make a name for himself, and would. The FBI came to life during this period.
Somehow Purvis did get the kind of men he wanted. Most notably portrayed by Stephen Lang, as Special Agent Winstone.
I can’t decide if it was the combination of his gray hair and blue eyes that made it impossible to not notice him. Or maybe it was his steely determination, his square jaw look, or his utter fierceness which was matched on-screen, not by Bale’s Purvis but only by Depp’s Dillinger.
The action was deadly throughout the film, someone always got shot. This was so much the case, that the bank jobs themselves seemed almost an afterthought. While the film was extremely violent, it seemed that most of the violence was displayed on the shooter’s side. The rapid-fire machine guns, or Tommy guns as they were called. The muzzle flashes. It was so exciting, if I may call watching men shot to pieces and die exciting – then this film has that – in spades
The alternatives? Dillinger and cohorts planning a job – or divving up the money. The G-Men setting up their ambushes.
The negatives – the over reliance on closeups. Sometimes I felt I was watching Cary Grant on Mt. Rushmore clambering over those stony presidential faces in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. Only most of the time it was Bale’s stern-faced Purvis.
The lack of depth to the main characters. The fact that quite often we didn’t get an introduction to the latest member’s of either The G-Men squad or Dillinger’s gang. In short it was hard to follow.
Michael Mann’s Public Enemies was ‘okay’ to quote my brother. ‘But it wasn’t as good as Bonnie and Clyde’ he said. The Penn film preceded Public Enemies by 42 years.
In fact, Mann’s flick wasn’t as good as Public Enemy No. 1 – the French gangster flick directed by Jean-Francoise Richet which I reviewed earlier this year. In that one, we followed Jacques Mesrine‘s career in crime through the years which ended in his execution/ambush just like Bonnie & Clyde’s, as well as Dillinger’s.
In Mann’s Public Enemies , we saw Dillinger in the last year of his short but violent life. in which he was anything but heroic. I think that’s why the film was only just okay.