Public Enemies is the latest in an ongoing parade of “Procedural” bios, a newfangled trend wherein biographies are boiled down to various expensive short scenes blurred together. The movie that results becomes less a narrative than a string of tabloid tableaux: true events that may or may not add up to anything depending on your mood. Recent procedural bios include: Zodiac, American Gangster, The Aviator and the original and best, Goodfellas (actually the real original would probably be “The Naked City”). They edit the thing together in a steady flow of historically accurate violence and hazy sex, and let the characterization arise (they hope) naturally from the events instead of going out on a limb and being true crazy.
Depp, of course, is amazing as Dillinger; effortlessly shape-shifting and disappearing in plain sight, and looking like he’s having a good time doing it. Depp’s never once lost his wit and penchant for moral ambiguity. Why can’t Christian Bale remember he was in American Psycho ? Bale spends the film acting like he’s trying not to cry, like the world stole his lunch money. The good part is, he’s not talking in that hoarse voice he used in The Dark Knight, though his southern drawl is just as repressive. Bale can be macho fey and morally bankrupt as well as Depp if he wants, but Bale’s in that minimalist, sullen pupa stage that so many of these big stars get into, which one day breaks open to reveal a beautiful Jack Nicholson-esque butterfly, ala Tom Cruise, in Tropic Thunder — if they’re lucky. If not, they wind up chasing fading trends in a long tail coat and wispy goatee, ala Leo Di Caprio.
Can you see Leo or Bale ever dancing in a fat suit? Maybe one day… for now they’re wrapped tight in the choking silken strands through which poutiness glints in their bedeviled eyes and they convince themselves it’s gravitas.
Back to the Procedural Syndrome: endlessly interesting to watch if done right (Scorsese if he’s working without DiCaprio, Fincher) but just a lot of flashy, riveting nothing if done wrong (Scorsese with DiCaprio, either Scott). Michael Mann lives in it both ways by blowing your mind and leaving you feeling ripped off at the same time. His big problem, in my mind, is his refusal to get dirty, to make anything seem lived in or other than a big expensive costume party. There’s never a moment when Depp’s shirt isn’t freshly pressed and sharp as the snap of a gray fedora. It’s clear Mann loves the shine on the old marble banks of Chicago; he loves them like the woods in Last of the Mohicans, but who else loves bank marble? So what, you caught the gleam, so what. And Mann was working from a solidly crafted novel for Mohicans. Dillinger’s life ultimately is not a cohesive narrative, but a gangster myth — full of sound and fury and ultimately it’s hard to care about someone who takes and takes and never gives – he tells one farmer “we want your money, not the bank’s” – but five minutes later and the farmer’s money would be in the bank, so it’s crap to say he’s a Robin Hood. He robs your money from the guy who tried to keep it safe for you… that’s hardly charity work.
We love our gangsters if they gloat and live it up like Al Pacino and/or Paul Muni in Scarface, but merely showing up at a posh club and buying fur coats won’t convince us you’re alive, not the way James Cagney or Lawrence Tierney were alive. Nonetheless, if you like 1930s hats and overcoats for men, you will love Public Enemies.
I watched Manhattan Melodrama recently and its chilling to imagine Dillinger seeing such stunningly-lit electric chair hand-wringing, not knowing he would be dead before the next show yet knowing it could happen anytime, even during the credits. Clark Gable stars in Melodrama as a gambler who winds up facing the electric chair and he’s as happy as a clam about it; Mann’s clearly enthralled by characters who can look mortality square in the eyes and not flinch –if you’re not afraid either you can have a nice paranoid meta moment watching Dillinger watch Gable go to his death and thinking of asking for whom the bell tolls, eyeing the exits with your hand on your holster. The question is, can we or Mann look life in the eyes and not feel the need to run out the door until it kindly leaves the room?
For all its swagger and big settings, Public Enemies isn’t any more revealing about Dillinger’s true character–or even more exciting overall–than the ultra-low budget PRC version, Dillinger, (1945), starring beloved real life thug Lawrence Tierney.
Even better them all is The Lady in Red, which tells the real underdog story here, the saga of one of those background whores (ignored in Mann’s film) who turns out to be just as gutsy as Dillinger (he teaches her to shoot), played by Pamela Sue Martin! Instead of following true events, Corman’s team just made the damn thing up and packed it with machine gun vengeance, screenwriter John Sayles’ budding sociopolitical indignation and good old fashioned sex appeal.
What I longed for after Public Enemies though was the warm humanism of Peckinpah or Nicholas Ray, or Coppola or even William Friedkin, where you could actually feel personal connections between people and death meant something. In Peckinpah they might be dirty killers but they made big moist eye contact. They shared private jokes and laughed for no reason; they tested and teased, tossed ’em back and horsed around rather than just brooding taciturnly or smirking. People in Public Enemies act like they live in a bleak dystopia, and after awhile all big-chinned Chicago guys in fedoras look alike. A ridiculously bushy mustache does not the Frank Nitti make, as they say. I longed for someone to ask, “What’s the rumpus?” or pull out some rotgut or smoke a cigarette. Anything to lighten the confusing mix of serious gritty editing and blurred-in minor characters.
On the other hand, the movie feels like it’s 40 minutes long, and yet its 2 1/2 hours. Right there, Mann must be doing something right. But the image I wanted to leave you with is something that will perhaps illustrate my point above about Peckinpah and soulful eyes. Take a look at Kris Kristofferson’s eyes below in the album cover (he played Billy the Kid for Peckinpah); think about the eyes of our screen stars today… and then take your hand away from your face / now is the time for your tears.