At the end of the new Michael Mann film, Public Enemies, John Dillinger sits in the Biograph Theater in Chicago watching a gangster film, Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable. The Gable character says he believes it is best to die the way you have lived, “all of a sudden.” As he listens to these words, Dillinger’s face registers a look of recognition and consent. Of course, he will die “all of a sudden” immediately after he departs from the theater.
Known for films such as Heat, Miami Vice, and The Insider, Mann is a gifted director. He delivered the best of the Hannibal Lecter films (Manhunter) and the best dramatic performance of Tom Cruise’s career (Collateral). Public Enemies, which traces the final months of Dillinger’s life, is at once fast-paced and too long, entertaining and vacuous.
Based on Bryan Burrough’s book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34, which also includes Bonnie and Clyde and Machine Gun Kelly, the film focuses on Dillinger and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the FBI agent assigned to his case. It also devotes a good deal of attention to Billie Frechette (La Vie en Rose Oscar winner Marion Cotillard), the Chicago coat-check girl who steals Dillinger’s heart. (Cotillard is magnificent, particularly in a scene in which she is brutally interrogated by an FBI agent.) There is also intermittent attention to the early days of the FBI and its famous boss, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). With its title echoing that of the famous Cagney film from 1931, the film is also about film history, about the intertwining in the American imagination of classic film and classic gangsters, and about the way, as is clear from the scene at the Biograph, that gangsters in some measure found inspiration in film.
Dillinger certainly had a flair for the dramatic. There are stories that his gang cased banks by pretending to sell security systems or to be filming a movie about bank robbers. Dillinger was known for his graceful and rapid manner of entering and exiting banks. Then there is the famous jailbreak out of the Crown Point facility in Indiana, for which Dillinger used a fake gun and then commandeered the sheriff’s own car as his escape vehicle. A sort of real-life existentialist, Dillinger is not interested in where someone comes from but only where he is going.
Although he expresses and, at least in the film, seems to live out a devotion to Billie, his first love is robbing banks. Even his celebrity is of less interest to him than the thrill, the danger, the performance of robbing banks. At one point, he responds to the comment, “You’re a hero,” with the matter-of-fact question, “Where’s the bank?” Indeed, he really has no interest in the money. The film sets up a contrast, not just between John Dillinger and conventional law-abiding society, but also between him and other criminals, especially members of the syndicate, who have found ways of making money and fending off law enforcement. They ostracize Dillinger because he is “bad for business.”
The longest action scene, a shootout in the woods on the property of Wisconsin’s Little Bohemia Lodge, where the FBI cornered Dillinger’s gang in 1934, is all technique: jittery hand-held cameras, tight shots of faces and tommy guns, the use of incandescent lighting. But the scene is so long and overwrought that it distracts from, rather than deepens, our immersion in the characters and the plot.
The sense of immediacy, of direct action, and of tight perspective is, one assumes, an attempt to establish a kind of intimacy with the characters. In the cases of Dillinger and Billie, the effect is successful. It is not nearly as successful with Purvis, and it is not clear precisely why — whether it is the script, or Bale’s woeful attempt at a Southern accent, or simply that, as Purvis, Bale turns in his second lackluster performance of the summer (the first was in Terminator: Salvation). The film makes clear that Purvis’s sense of justice is real, and that it exceeds Hoover’s tendency to think of law enforcement as an opportunity for theatrical self-display or as a win-at-any-cost battle with bad guys. But the competition between the glorified criminal and the upstanding defender of law and order is really no contest. Mann bestows upon Dillinger, in the one scene in which he and Purvis have a conversation, not only greater self-knowledge but also greater knowledge of his counterpart. Dillinger sees that Purvis is not cut out for his line of work and advises him to find another.
One might be tempted to object that the film never really gives us any depth of insight or breadth of context to explain what motivates a John Dillinger or why the wider society found such characters appealing. It simply moves from one big event to the next and on, finally, to the well-known climax outside the Biograph Theater. But the pace, in the end, is precisely the point. Dillinger is nothing more than what he does. He robs banks, and in this he achieves a kind of freedom, liberation from petty concerns over a job and a family, over what others think of him, over the desire for money and advancement, even over the fear of death, as the scene in the Biograph indicates.
That accounts for both the attraction of Dillinger and his essential emptiness, a combination that Mann’s own film mimics: artistic flair wedded to nihilism.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.