Public Enemies (2009)

Michael Mann | 2hr 20min

Notorious bank robber John Dillinger is a slippery man, but he at least can’t be faulted for his honesty. The same day he meets his soon-to-be lover Billie Frechette, he also confesses to her the truth of his shady career. He moves fast with no inhibition, knocking down her uncertainty with a suave openness that comes naturally to Johnny Depp, so it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that when he is finally arrested and driven through crowds of Americans in Depression-era Arizona, he finds them cheering for him rather than hurling abuse. In such trying times where masses are suffering beneath the crushing capitalist system, his legacy effectively becomes a success story – not of a rule-follower rising to the top, but rather a criminal who dubiously levels the playing field by targeting the wealthy elite.

Michael Mann is well-acquainted with such urban crimes dramas as these, where criminals and law enforcers circle each other inside sprawling cities and ultimately discover something of themselves in their foe. It is a well-worn convention that he perfected in Heat and resurrects here in Public Enemies with Depp and Christian Bale, chronicling the final years of the real John Dillinger as he is tracked down by FBI agent Melvin Purvis across 1930s America.

Mann using the edge of the phone booth as a practical split screen, shoving Depp off to the left of this widescreen frame and displaying the train station on the right.

The result is a crime period piece that luxuriates in the extravagance and dilapidation of the Great Depression, studying this vast inequality to understand the frustration which motivates Dillinger and his crew of robbers. All of them are so used to the inside of jail cells that escaping almost comes as second nature to them, pulling it off twice in this film much to the frustration of the FBI. The first comes right at the start with Dillinger executing a carefully plotted prison break at Indiana State Penitentiary. The second comes much later and happens entirely spontaneously, proving him to be particularly resourceful in his use of a fake gun.

Architecture dominating Mann’s set pieces, whether it is the looming concrete slabs of prisons or the opulent period decor of 1930s banks.
One of the greatest shots of the film, using one of Mann’s many low angles to catch this light fixture behind Depp inside an old-school movie theatre.

The foundation of Mann’s success in Public Enemies is made up of thrilling set pieces like these, as well as his production design which opens ripe opportunities for marvellously imposing compositions. With a deep focus lens and a penchant for low angles, Mann turns majestic bank ceilings and opulent light fixtures into gorgeous backdrops for Dillinger’s crimes, setting him up as a dauntingly confident figure unafraid to take what he wants. Elsewhere, forest hideouts and concrete prisons become settings for action sequences beyond Dillinger’s comfort zone, forcing him to reckon with the grittier side of his job. Mann achieves a beautiful crispness in these set pieces, and yet in darker lit scenes he also occasionally lets through an ugly digital grain that is difficult to excuse.

This widescreen format lends itself surprisingly well to these close-ups, inviting us into Dillinger and Purvel’s inner worlds while using the background to keep us rooted in the setting.

Even beyond his long shots and excellent staging though, Mann brings an intimacy to his widescreen frame with close-ups of Dillinger and Purvel, their mental fortitude gradually wearing thin. Though their direct interactions are scarce, they are also incredibly revealing, as the two share a common understanding of the heavy conscience that comes with taking a life. With this established, the tension that leads into their final confrontation is immense, as Mann cuts between the FBI’s advance upon the movie theatre that Dillinger is inside, and the Clark Gable film he is watching. Just before he leaves, it delivers some wise words of advice.

“Die the way you lived, all of a sudden, that’s the way to do it. Don’t drag it out, living like that doesn’t mean a thing.”

There might be a roughly equal balance of screen time between Purvel and Dillinger in Public Enemies, but it is clear which one Mann is more fascinated by. As this notorious bank robber is gradually drained of his resources and his allies, he begins to shatter and take even greater risks, at one point walking through a police station in disguise and asking them the baseball game score out of sheer audacity. Public Enemies may not be the intensive study of opposing equals that Heat so effortlessly pulls off, but in Mann’s superb staging and Depp’s magnetic performance, it nevertheless becomes a compelling examination of an unjust system slowly squeezing out its most vocal dissidents.

Deep focus and magnificent staging in shots like these, staggering actors across layers of the frame.

Public Enemies is currently available to stream on Binge and Foxtel Now, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

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