Past comes alive with Dillinger

2009-09-07 00:00

IT’S hard to remember that crime fighting was not always as sophisticated as CSI makes it look, but that is the backdrop of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies — a Depression-era world in which robbers could easily outwit the cops and hop across state lines and out of sight.

John Dillinger was one such robber, who in a brief period from 1933 to 1934 held up a series of banks across the American Midwest and became something of a celebrity. Ordinary people felt betrayed by the banks and big companies that had caused the collapse of the economy, and Dillinger was only taking back from the banks what the banks had taken from the people.

The story of John Dillinger is also the story of the man who hunted him down, Melvin Purvis of the investigation bureau that would go on to become the FBI. Until that time, America had no national police force, just a patchwork of local and state forces that did not co-operate with each other. J. Edgar Hoover seized on Dillinger as “Public Enemy No. 1” and made the hunt for the gentlemanly crook the cause that would convince a sceptical government that he and his sophisticated crime fighters were in fact needed.

The film opens with Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, busting his crew out of jail in an audacious scheme that becomes his hallmark — he doesn’t disguise his presence from the jail guards who know him, and he disdains unneccesary violence, although he is well able to handle any weapon. A subsequent raid on a bank displays this again. He hits the bank’s manager for being too slow with the vault keys, but makes a customer put his own money away; he takes a young woman hostage to cover their escape, but gives her his coat.

Dillinger had just spent years in jail after a hard youth, and now he is determined to enjoy himself. The robberies are themselves fun, and dining in a glossy club in Chicago is also fun. And that is where he spots the pretty girl who becomes the love of his life. Billie Frechette (French Oscar winner Marion Cottilard) is a half-French, half Native American coat-check girl struggling to make ends meet after a childhood on the fringes of white society. Dillinger sees a kindred spirit and commits to Billie completely.

But for all the fun, there is a sense of time being short. Dillinger knows he can’t outrun the law for ever. His hope is for one big score that will let him escape from America completely.

By the end, Dillinger is almost willing the cops to catch him, after a violent shoot-out at a hotel in the woods. And it is his loyalty to his friends, his refusal to hide, that is his undoing.

Mann does not spend screen time sketching Dillinger’s public celebrity, and although Billy Crudup gives an entertaining cameo as Hoover, who would go on to become a towering, controversial figure in American history, the intertwining fates of the robber and the cops are not dwelt on as much they could have been. I would also have liked a little more insight into Purvis, whom Christian Bale plays as an enigmatic, somewhat dour, if immaculately tailored, figure.

Depp, whose most recent roles have been the extremely flamboyant Captain Jack Sparrow and Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, gives an understated performance. His Dillinger is cool, seldom betraying much more emotion than a half-smile.

The action is set against a brilliantly recreated 1930s backdrop, with some scenes filmed exactly where they happened, including the shoot-out at the hotel and the climactic scene in front of a Chicago movie theatre. Mann has said he didn’t want to create a nostalgic look, but rather a sense of presence in the past. His omission of devices that he could have used to remind a modern audience of Dillinger’s place in the public mind of the time means we have to get that sense ourselves. He has made a film that requires a bit of work, a bit of a sense of history. ****


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