I live at the movies.
If I’m not actually sitting in a movie theater staring at the big screen, I am running bits and pieces of hundreds if not thousands of scenes in my head. I call them my psychic rushes. Or, I’m writing poetry which comes to me like scenes from movies which haven’t been made yet. Nano second scenes that play out like mini films that Peckinpah might have made, that John Ford could have made, that Roman Polanski needs to make, that Kell Robertson should have starred in, that Tony Moffeit composes the soundtrack to in Dodge City, Kansas and Taos, New Mexico.
I live at the movies because they have become a kind of national mythology and I use that word with the best of all possible ambitious intentions. I live at the movies and I live in that mythology and I can’t help but dream cinematically because that’s the way I see things, that’s that way that I write poetry. I can’t help but write a focused, totally visceral poem that plays out like a movie. That plays out so tightly scripted that it seems natural like a conversation swimming with images and words. Because if I’ve learned anything from being a poet and a movie voyeur it’s that the language of film is made up of a desolation of images and gestures punctuated with words and the language of poetry is made up of an oblivion of words and images punctuated with gestures. And, in the dream of all dreams they merge into psychic films we could never understand but are absolutely compelled to take part in.
I’ve played in so many psychic Dillinger movies that I’ve lost track of the number. And, DILLINGER is the one big movie that I know because the poem has dreamt its nightmare all the way through my blood. And, this summer I’ve been dreaming it all over again with Michael Mann and Johnny Depp. And, the dream is in both color and black and white and the dream wants to go fast and the dream wants to go slow and the dream wants to be the first and last dream of an outlaw america.
PUBLIC ENEMIES is the latest emanation of that dream and will inevitably be one of the major sources for even more dreams of Dillinger to come. But, lets talk about PUBLIC ENEMIES because it aches to be talked about, because it is a cluster of conversations tortured into violence and conjuring and longing and story.
If Michael Mann’s intention was to film an outlaw epic, then he has certainly succeeded. I haven’t seen a movie this ferociously ambitious or this well made in a very long time. And, I knew this even though I was well aware that Mann had played fast and loose with the sequence of events in the Dillinger story. Even if you have only read Bryan Burroughs’ book PUBLIC ENEMIES which the movie is based on, you know that Pretty Boy Floyd was killed months after Dillinger met his fate at the Biograph Theater. Mann has him dying prior to Dillinger. You will also know that Baby Face Nelson also died many months later in a gun battle with FBI agents just outside of Barrington, Illinois, rather than at Little Bohemia in Wisconsin. You will also notice that Dillinger in real life did not take part in the jaibreak which opens the film because by that time he was being held prisoner in an Ohio jail. My guess is that Mann was probably aware of the facts but had decided that a more compact and focused script would make the movie travel that much faster. And, I fall in love with the velocity of movies that travel. The thing you have to understand is that movies are based on the history of longing, not of events.
Still, I need to ask the question. Does this somewhat cavalier use or misuse of history flaw the film in any major way. My answer is no. When John Ford made MY DARLING CLEMENTINE he placed the date of the Gunfight at the O K Corral in 1882 instead of 1881 when it really occurred. And, he included Old Man Clanton in the gunfight when in reality the Old Man had been dead months before the gunfight actually occurred, shot dead in the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre. And, he also has Wyatt Earp meeting Doc Holliday in Tombstone for the first time when in reality they both had become friends earlier in Dodge City. Did these inaccuracies hinder the film from becoming a masterpiece? Not at all. John Ford has a character in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE say, When you have the facts and the legend, print the legend. Ford was good at printing the legend. The best films of all are really about legends. In fact, these are the kinds of films that eventually become legends.
PUBLIC ENEMIES deals with one of the greatest american legends ever. John Dillinger. If Dillinger is anything, he is a cluster of contradictions shrouded in a universe of dark metaphors and even darker dilemmas. It would take a Picasso to get all of Dillinger’s faces exactly right. The end result might be a blizzard of cubist Dillingers. A gallery filled with tons of Dillinger likenesses. And, film directors don’t really have the luxury of showing all of Dillinger’s faces. Just one really good action portrait should do. Michael Mann was betting on that.
His choice is a zen minimal snapshot of the thirties outlaw. In fact, it’s almost a slomo glance. Zen because Depp’s dialogue is so unlyrical it’s lyrical. You really have to listen hard to catch the quick repartee, the half whispered menaces. What was it Bogart said in THE MALTESE FALCON? The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter. Except that there is nothing gaudy in any of Depp’s dialogue. There are no throw away lines here. The speeches are all chopped, abbreviated, clipped. This is talk with the teeth still in. It reminds me of the way that I write poems. My cadences are all in there. I can’t help but hear them. And, when Depp speaks, it almost seems as though he is sometimes speaking past the person he is talking to, as though he is talking straight into a void that he both understands and secretly longs for.
And, if the story holds true that thirties outlaws and gangsters often went to the movies to learn how to walk and talk, there is very little of that evident in PUBLIC ENEMIES. Depp makes no attempt to pretend to be doing Cagney or Robinson anywhere in this film. This is just Depp doing something so natural, so stripped down, so stark, so unpremeditated that it appears sui generis, without any precursors. Though, if you are a real moviegoer, you know that actors like Depp, Brando, Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci must have been and probably still are, haunted by the great precursors of Cagney, Bogart, Raft, and Muni. Still, there is no sign in this film that Depp is pulling from any of those golden age gangster and noir actors.
However, Mann’s homages are clearly evident. He has seen THE UNTOUCHABLES, he has seen Milius’s DILLINGER, he has seen BONNIE AND CLYDE, he has seen GOODFELLAS. He probably has seen every gangster and outlaw movie filmed from the thirties on. He knows the look of the railyards, the rooftops, the farmhouses, the streets, the woods, the tenements, the nightclubs. I found myself looking for the windblown hat from MILLER’S CROSSING. And, then I saw it when Winstead throws his hat away while chasing Dillinger and Hamilton along the lake shore in their escape from Little Bohemia. Mann has clearly done his homework, those movies must have been playing in his head. Playing relentlessly in his head. They play in mine.
It has also been suggested that Depp may have modeled his portrayal of Dillinger on the actual sound of Dillinger’s voice. This puzzles me since in the nearly forty years that I’ve been working on DILLINGER I’ve never heard any recordings of the man’s voice, nor have I discovered any sources where I might find these recordings. Or maybe I just haven’t been looking hard enough. In my case, a long time ago I decided to invent the way he sounds because it’s as midwestern as I am. I know I have heard voices like his for much of my life. I have heard those voices coming at me from passing cars. I have heard voices like his calling across fields and floating above front yards on hot summer nights. As for Depp, it’s quite possible that he and/or Mann may somehow gained access to the recorded sound of Dillinger’s voice. If that has happened, then Depp’s performance and the sound he got into his own voice based on Dillinger’s speaking style is indeed unique. A once in a life time shot at the sound of a myth. In my case, I took it straight out of the blood.
Either way, it all really comes down to Depp’s overall performance. Which is uncanny, almost other worldly. I think it’s every bit as good as Bardem’s Chigurh in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. In truth, Depp really doesn’t resemble Dillinger any more than Joaquin Phoenix resembled Johnny Cash, Salma Hayak resembled Frida Kahlo, or Marion Cotillard resembled Edith Piaf. An actor’s resemblance really plays toward an illusion that validates some darker dream of psychic acceptance. All I know is that somehow Depp managed to channel Dillinger or shapeshifted himself directly into the shadow of the outlaw. Once that happens, the film’s ultimate illusion completes the ragged edges of the dream.
As for some of the other members of the cast, Bale’s Purvis is, at least for me, standard issue boiler plate, not at all that interesting. He’s believable, he works but he doesn’t pull me in. He doesn’t surprise me. He doesn’t shake toward something sweaty quivering and new. His work in 3:10 TO YUMA was much more edgy and vulnerable. Billy Crudup as Hoover is a cross between Movietone News wackadoo wackadoo and aging eagle scout. The two actors who should have been given just a little more depth were Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette and Stephen Graham as Pretty Boy Floyd. They were almost relegated to playing ciphers in the film. Cotillard, who won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in LA VIE EN ROSE, was nearly lost in this role. She ends up as beautiful wallpaper, flapper décor, someone who is almost totally reliant on Dillinger. In real life Billie Frechette was a much more interesting and darker woman who could be equally feisty and fiery depending on the circumstances. Graham as Baby Face Nelson is little more than a kind of sociopathic cartoon in the movie. In real life, he was a much more complex man and very likely a homicidal maniac. I would be willing to guess that Cagney based his character of Cody Jarrett in WHITE HEAT at least in part on Baby Face Nelson. One quick note. Diana Krall in the cameo role of the torch singer should not be missed.
Still, in the final analysis, PUBLIC ENEMIES belongs to Depp as the actor and Michael Mann as the director. They both share a tremendously large stake in this movie. What Depp has accomplished is unique. He has created the kind of character which becomes iconic, unforgettable, unrepeatable. It can’t be done this way again. One glance of Depp with that Thompson and you can’t help but think of Dillinger. Other examples are Brando in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and THE GODFATHER. It just doesn’t get any better than that. Bogart in HIGH SIERRA, CASABLANCA, and THE BIG SLEEP. William Holden in THE WILD BUNCH. Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in CLEMENTINE. I could list more but you get the picture.
Movies are movies are movies are movies. But, what are the stakes here besides money and maybe just maybe having that slight shot for the Oscar even though PUBLIC ENEMIES is a summer release and the serious Oscar runs begin in the fall. What are the stakes when you make a movie about one of the most elusive american bandits ever? What are the stakes when you know that you are not just going up against the movies made this year but the movies made sixty or seventy years ago? What are the stakes when you know if you are Depp that this could give you a face and a look that rivals James Dean? What are the stakes when you know if you are Michael Mann that you are competing against Raoul Walsh, Samuel Fuller, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola Sam Peckinpah? These aren’t just Oscar stakes, these are blood stakes, this is the stuff that dreams are made of. This is the stuff that brings the demons right out of the woodwork.
And, Michael Mann knows it. PUBLIC ENEMIES is his second masterpiece, flawed as it may be. His first really great film is HEAT. Roger Ebert stated in a recent review that Mann had eliminated the mythology from this film. And, I think Ebert was using the word mythology as a kind of synonym for sentimentality. There really isn’t much if any sentimentality in this film unless you want to nitpick and say the last scene between Billie Frechette and Charles Winstead is a little sentimental. As for the mythology, seventy five years after his death Dillinger has become an unmistakable american myth. He’s certainly an iconic outlaw, more in the old west tradition of Billy the Kid than in the street urban tradition of Michael Corleone. In many ways, Dillinger is the outlaw archetype. All of the anecdotes, all of the stories, all of the histories, all of the fantasies, all of the nightmares, and all of the dreams concerning any kind of american outlaw have been gathered into the Promethean creation of Dillinger, via novels, biographies, films, and poetry. He owns them. Depp owns them. Mann owns them.