August 24, 2010

Public Enemy

Public Enemy has all the glitz and glamour that a film about John Dillinger should have. I have problems with the film but I have no problems with Johnny Depp’s performance, the intersection between cool and inarticulate bluntness, nor with that of Marion Cottillard, who has never been more charming. The direction is good- there are some nice tracking shots, as Cotillard and Depp traverse the screen, there is a wonderful use of light in general. The details, so far as I know, are broadly correct- Dillinger was a bank robber who profited from the failure of America to have a federal criminal policy in the thirties (as an aside, its interesting to see Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger dodge in and out of state lines to avoid state police, its a larger version of the problem of censorship in early modern London where a pamphlet published in one City ward and printed in another was immune from prosecution). But there is something unsettling about the movie.

The movie has two story lines- two plots. One follows Christian Bale playing an FBI Agent, the other sees Depp playing Dillinger. Bale’s story is all about the technicalities of investigating and catching this man- the question which involves suspense is will he get him in the end. Historically he did get him and as I went in with that spoiler- we all know as the film goes on that he will get him. The question is when. Actually the Bale story is not as tense as it could be: you get hints of the politics surrounding the early FBI but apart from at the beginning of the story, there is no real hint of the pressure that Bale’s character must have been under to catch Dillinger. To put it simply the FBI grounded its existence upon the argument that the Feds were the people to catch a Dillinger or a Clyde, failure to do so would mean political vulnerability. There is a very interesting story to tell here about J. Edgar Hoover (incidentally if ever a subject cried out for a biopic or a series of biopics- then Hoover is that subject), his relation to his agents and his relation to the criminals he was searching for. But this is not that film. Bale’s story is told straight, as a secondary tale to the main event- the story of Dillinger.

So what’s the story of Dillinger. Well in part it is the story of Dillinger’s career of a criminal- actually you might think that but the film isn’t really the story of Dillinger the criminal. Crimes punctuate the narratives but they aren’t the focus of the story. The focus of the story is the relationship between Dillinger and Billy, his half Indian, half French girlfriend, played by Cotillard. The actress does the role well- the fact she could both play the ‘girlfriend’ part in this film and a part in Inception a couple of years later which demands her to be the ‘wife’, a movement from the mid twenties to the mid thirties, demonstrates her versatility. But the character itself is not very interesting. Dillinger’s wooing of her is possibly the most interesting bit of the romantic storyline: he woos her by saying that I like whisky, robbing banks, baseball and you! What sounds at the time a confident and bold declaration (Dillinger doesn’t feel he has to say anymore because any girl hearing that would go with him) turns as the film goes on, subtly into a declaration that this man is not actually that clever or that interesting. He says things so bluntly and so curtly because he doesn’t actually have much to say.

But here is my problem. Lets put it like this. The last scene of the film is a scene in which Billy’s love for Depp is reinforced and exonerated. Again Cottillard plays the scene well. SPOILER ALERT. Dillinger when shot told an agent that to send a message to Billy that he loved her. The last scene of the film sees the agent coming to Billy and presenting these last words: Cotillard’s face does exactly the right thing, she seems in the moment to express several emotions, the crushing sadness of remembering her lover’s passing, anger at the police officer who shot him, regret and love. Its a wonderful piece of acting. But as a last impression of a film about a man who was a great bank robber and murderer, it feels odd. As if, on a much greater stage, a film about Hitler, left the audience with the regrets of Eva Braun. I realise I’ve broken Godwin’s law but I have used the comparison to shock: we think sometimes of Dillinger and his like as an outlaw, a rather nice creature, he was though a vicious murderer, a serial killer, and it seems odd that a biopic concludes not with the victims but with the face of the woman who loved him, grieving for his death.

This is a film from the perspective of John Dillinger. That in part might justify the last moments. For Dillinger his crimes were probably episodes, a means to an end, and the victims crumpled on the floor but didn’t really die, they just went pouf and were no longer problems. Here perhaps the film making is too objective, it attempts to be a history, a biography as well as a vision through Dillinger’s eyes. We also have to ask how interesting Dillinger’s eyes are: I found myself wondering about another great gangster film- Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie and Clyde’s virtue is that it shows the destructive potential of a philosophy (I’ve written about that here) but also that it shows you the paranoia of being on the run. Michael Mann the director may not share the philosophical take on the New Wave that Arthur Penn promulgated, but the paranoia is a constant between the two films. If this was a film about Dillinger, then we don’t get the sense of the sheer terror of being chased. We don’t see how uncomfortable it is to be chased. Again a scene will suffice- Cottillard and Depp are at the side of a motorway, there isn’t anywhere to stay that the police haven’t got to and they huddle together and cuddle to keep warm- but you don’t get any sense this is uncomfortable, the mood is romantic. Cottillard’s Billy doesn’t ever seem in danger- the bullets go round her, that might be Dillinger’s illusion but it can’t be ours- Faye Dunaway got her hair mussed, Marion Cottillard’s hair is always perfect.

Back in the thirties when Dillinger was around, films about gangsters had to have a moral end. During Little Caesar, Chico is gunned down by a set of posters, Jimmy Cagney’s brutes are sent to the electric chair, even a sympathetic loner who has stumbled into crime like Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past has to die to vindicate the point that murder has a price. Perhaps that was too much- there isn’t a correlation necessarily between being right and being happy. Mao Tse Tung lived to a ripe old age, while philanphropists died around him. But I’m not asking for such a ‘moral’ end- art always makes an argument about morality and I wonder whether focussing on Dillinger the lover, we give him too much credit. Its an odd film in which I want Marion Cottilard to appear less, but this is that film. We do not understand Dillinger if we do not understand something about his victims, something that makes them more than a pouf and an actor with ketchup on his neat shirt. Instead we exonerate him of his crimes. The only brutality in the film comes from the police- whatever we think of some of the more aggressive tactics of the police in the thirties in Chicago, a film about a serial killer where its the brutality of the police which shocks, misses the point about the killer himself!