Home » Cinema and Television, July 2009

Public Enemies: The Old Mann’s Still an Artist with a Thompson

22 July 2009 1,939 Views One Comment author: Matt Schneider
Uh-oh. Batman's pissed. And he's got a Tommy gun.

Uh-oh. Batman's pissed. And he's got a Tommy gun.

Some stories are rather simple; they can be reduced to a symbiotic dichotomy.  Life and death. Cops and robbers.  Men of action, defined by their chosen profession, who live by the gun and die by the gun.  “You kill any real people?” one robber asks another.  “Just cops,” replies the other.  Though having little to do with the internecine squabbling of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Michael Mann’s Public Enemies follows in the reductionist vein of his last several films, finding a myriad of intersections between oppositional — and codependent — forces of self-identity.1

Public Enemies may be Mann’s most schematic film to date — a study in contrasts, gilded by period detail and graced by the presence of two of the most dynamic leading men in show business, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.  The art of good casting is in full effect here, since Depp gets to draw on a decade’s worth of colorful, expansive performances2 to carve a place in the audience’s heart as John Dillinger.  Bale’s resume is dotted with men of dour extremes, having come to the fore as the titular American Psycho in Mary Harron’s brilliant satire of masculine aggression in a modern, capitalist society; if Patrick Bateman was a predator of that clime, Melvin Purvis is the heraldic enforcer.  His biggest impact has been filling out the body armor of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, who wages war on the pirates of Gotham City.  Both Sparrow and Batman are antiheroes operating outside the laws of society, but the flamboyance, eccentricity, slapstick antics, and gleeful anarchy of Depp’s Sparrow is much more akin to The Joker than Bale’s wry, repressed, obsessive, and reclusive Bruce Wayne.  This cinematic lineage feeds into the way the characters are coded and contrasted in Mann’s film, where even though you know Dillinger is the “bad guy,” he’s much more fun to watch, so the otherwise admirable Purvis’s continually frustrated attempts to capture him are thrilling precisely because the cat can never quite corner the mouse.3

As much as the trailers showcase Bale’s presence in Public Enemies, Purvis is a supporting character — although he’s more germane to the film’s thematic focus than John Connor in this summer’s Terminator Salvation.  No, the kit ‘n caboodle belongs to John Dillinger, who works a bank floor more like a Las Vegas vaudevillian than a stick-up artist.  He sings to his hostages a cappella and cracks jokes to the press corps like a stand-up comic mere seconds before getting a fresh mug shot taken.  Mann gives Dillinger, a shameless and tireless self-promoter, every opportunity to win over his audience, although the fussbudget director’s studious distance gives the impression of a fanboy taking great pains to appear as if he’d simply suspended judgment.  But the camera loves Dillinger, because he’s Johnny Depp, and because he’s giving the crowd what it craves: action, romance, and style.

The man is constantly surrounded by crowds.  Dillinger conducts important business in the most public of places: a night club, a race track, a cinema.  One of the film’s archest scenes depicts Dillinger staring at his own face on a gigantic theater screen while the crowd obeys the announcer’s entreaties to look the right and the left, because the most wanted man in America may be in that very room!  Naturally, no one notices the gangster sitting dead center.  In another scene, he brings his newest squeeze (played by Marion Cotillard) to a ritzy restaurant, where her cheap, off-the-rack dress draws condescending attention from the other patrons.  His entire life is lived as much as possible in the public eye, at least until his fortunes (inevitably) go south.  This is the cocksure individual who smugly strolls into the offices of the men whose sole purpose is tracking him down and asks the score of the ball game, so self-satisfied about his jaunt into the lion’s den to survey his life and crimes that he can’t realize that all the lions are out setting a fatal trap.

Purvis inhabits the shadows, cramped up in a car on stakeout, or a dark switchboard room, with wires dangling all about like dendrites.   He doesn’t do well with crowds; it’s the public that stops him from apprehending Dillinger himself in the denouement.  When he’s compelled to talk to the press, he sticks to the script approved by his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, who is first introduced begging a congressional committee for more funding for his fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The nationwide manhunt for John Dillinger, Public Enemy #1, is presented as a trumped-up PR campaign, where Dillinger and Purvis square off like gladiatorial combatants, the fox and the hound: sportsman and prey, all for the viewers’ edification.  For his part, Purvis is happy just to do the job.  If he has to pander a bit to keep the bosses happy, so be it.

Like a detective sifting through the detritus of a crime’s aftermath, Mann approaches the real life exploits of outlaw Dillinger and his pursuer, Purvis, with utter emotional disconnect, following the leads, dead ends, and lucky breaks of his case file until a complete story emerges.  Detached and academic, Public Enemies feels like a clinical experiment — a film student’s fantasia of a script written by Pier Paolo Pasolini and directed by Jules Dassin.  Indeed, Mann’s film career began with Thief, a movie indebted to Dassin’s own Rififi.

Other critics have shored up their crime genre credentials by fluently discussing the homage Mann pays to classic gangster films like Little Caesar, Scarface, Public Enemy, and Angels with Dirty Faces — not to mention Manhattan Melodrama, virtually the last thing Dillinger saw before he caught a slug in the back of the skull.  Shockingly, I haven’t seen any of those films.  Instead, Public Enemies reminded me in style of early Fellini films like I Vitelloni or Il Bidone, perhaps Rosselini’s Roma, citta aperta, and the schematic density of Jean-Pierre Melville’s icy crime sagas, Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge.  Yet Dassin remains the most potent reference point for me, not least because of his acute observations of masculine dominance in underworld drama and his ability to evoke competing ethical systems deftly by juxtaposition.

Mann hones the contrasting characterizations of Purvis and Dillinger through structure.  Dillinger’s relationship with a former coat-check girl is sustained throughout the narrative, with his posthumous goodbye to her the final word.  Purvis is never shown outside the parameters of his job, never shown pursuing a life or ambition outside of catching and/or killing the enemies of the state.  Cold and assured, Purvis dispatches his G-minions with implacable calm, a haunted, glazed stare occasionally sweeping across his features as he crosses more and more boundaries in pursuit of his quarry.  In fact, it is precisely the crossing of boundaries — that is, state lines — that ultimately upsets Dillinger’s spree.  The legislation spurred by the FBI investigation to hold authority in all criminal organizations that operate nationwide, initially intended to give jurisdiction to the Feds in catching a robber who hops from bank to bank in state after state, holds dire potential consequences for the lucrative empire of Al Capone and his mafia allies.  When the bootleggers and cosa nostra freeze him out, things turn desperate for John Dillinger.

In desperation, both men break the rules they’ve sworn to obey: Dillinger his own code of ethics that has kept him out of jail and in money; Purvis the laws of his country.  When Dillinger violates his code, he ends up losing his woman and his life; Purvis finds that he is unable to come up with results unless he’s willing to ignore the letter of the law which protects its citizens from the government.  He is ultimately successful in bringing Dillinger down, of course, but at the price of his honor.  Worse still, the laws by which his entire life is defined have been shown to be subject to convenience at best, and reckless disregard at the worst.  The film’s coda tells us that Purvis later blew his own brains out, perhaps as a result of coming to see men like him as part of the problem.

As enrapt as Mann is by men with codes (and guns), the inadequacy of such codes is just as often the parting shot.  Collateral’s hitman, Vincent, finds the tables turned on him by his own getaway driver, and he dies alone on an el train; Neil’s commitment to his own brand of criminal justice in Heat leads him right into the arms of his hunter.  The jobs of Miami Vice’s undercover operatives ultimately keeps them alone and unable to close the deal on the bigwigs at the head of the drug cartels they devote their lives to fighting.  On and on the list goes, and for as much as his men rely on guns, cash, and/or a badge, these uber-men are shown to be frail, very mortal, and desperately isolated from the world.  Mann has become virtually incapable of providing any empathy, which aesthetically supports his theses, but sabotages the strength of using cinema to tell these stories.  It’s almost like he’s saying, “Come. Let us spend two hours ruminating about how impossible it is to connect with the people we’re spending two hours ruminating about.”4

Absent an emotional anchor, Mann’s obsession with violent lifestyles opens up into a filmmaker’s soliloquy on the death of professionalism by depicting the professionalism of death.  Like a dramatization of a coroner’s report, Mann wonders aloud what we can learn from the bodies stacked in the morgue.  Juxtaposition, inescapable irony — these are the tools of artists, and they are the story of law enforcement.  Sifting through his evidence, Mann connects the dots without drawing conclusions.  Three dead in prison break. The whore’s visa expired. The bank’s money is your money. Warm breath in cold air, clinging to the twigs and branches. GSW to the head. Light the flares, and hold them high.  Bye Bye, Blackbird.  It doesn’t have to mean anything; the old notion that what you do defines you is worked over like a stool pigeon being pumped for information.   Substitute the object with what you will, but this remains true: those who live by the gun, die by the gun.

Mann offers us a postmortem on the exploits of his cops and criminals, not so that we may connect with them, but learn something, even if it’s just projected by our own preconceptions of how things are.  Careerism can be a deadly subject for dramaturgy, but you throw in some fedoras and Tommy guns, and you’ve got an elegant, tumescent treatise on masculinity and society in the 20th century. I look at Purvis’s ghostly countenance, and I think, “Those who live by the camera, die by the camera.”  I guess the old Mann is still an artist with a Thompson.

Edited by Tracy McCusker.


  1. Mann is always more interested in the criminal with a code more than the law enforcement officers who live by the codes created by society.  James Caan’s Thief nailed Mann’s colors to the mast, as a protagonist drawn back to crime by the noblest intentions of freeing himself from it.  William Petersen’s profiler in Manhunter was successful precisely because he was able to think like a killer.  Miami Vice’s undercover cops take small pleasures in living “the life,” enjoying the fruits of illegal endeavor while straddling the line of public service.  Heat’s master criminal, Neil, is more capable of balancing his career and love life than the cop assigned to catch him.  Even Jamie Foxx gets his very own, personal self-help seminar from a loquacious hitman in Collateral.
  2. Most notably, of course, Captain Jack Sparrow, the ultimate icon of impish rebellion, a pirate and enemy of the state who nevertheless walked away with with three films and the adoration of an entire generation of young moviegoers.
  3. I half expected Depp’s gangster to sweep off his fedora at one point and declare, “Gentlemen, you will always remember this as the day you almost caught John Dillinger!”
  4. Mann’s entire philosophy of drama can be boiled down to the maxim that if you give a man a gun, he’s automatically more interesting than a man without one.  Granted, he has made films eschewing gunplay as the dramatic focal point, but nearly everything he’s done in the last twenty years has revolved around the modern archetype of a man living on the edge, thrown into dire circumstances by the decision to follow a personal code that sits parallel to both society and its discontents.

Leave your response!