Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Public Enemies


What little I know, or care to know, about John Dillinger, former "public enemy number one," gives me a pretty good idea that he was a loathsome man. That he should be played by Johnny Depp, Hollywood's number one heart throb, in the film Public Enemies is just another example of the loathsomeness of American film.

Michael Mann's films (Heat, Collateral), with the exception of The Insider, are virtually a testimonial to Montherlant's old assessment of the American film: "A perfect technique in the service of cretinism." The technique of Public Enemies, however, is far from perfect. It is hampered by the stupid craze (largely created by Mann) for hand held camerawork. Shot on digital video, it has the look and spatial feel of television. No attempt whatever is made to convey the period, except for bad haircuts and tinny music. It is all costumery and Thompson submachine guns.

One of the things I enjoyed about Brian di Palma's The Untouchables was its portrayal of Al Capone as a murderous pig. Every film portrayal of Dillinger has attempted to portray him as a typical anti-hero, sympathetic to the public for his "daring" exploits and ability to elude the cops (including the G-Men of the Bureau of Investigation). Christian Bale, as Melvin Purvis, wasted his time in a totally lacklustre role. There are a few suggestions in the film that Purvis was pressured by J. Edgar Hoover into some of his more brutal actions. An end title informs us that Purvis resigned from the Bureau in 1935, and died "by his own hand" in 1960. So much for the intervening twenty-five years.

Much is made of Dillinger watching the Clark Cable-William Powell movie Manhattan Melodrama shortly before he was killed outside the theater. There is also a rather forced attempt to suggest a resemblance between Myrna Loy and Marion Cotillard, who plays Eveline "Billie" Frechette, at least in the eyes of Dillinger. Only in one of Dillinger's sick dreams could Cotillard look like Myrna Loy. And Mann couldn't even resist the clearly overwhelming urge in filmmakers to shoot climactic scenes in slow motion, as if Dillinger's death were some sort of historic event.

It's not surprising that this film, which might have stood alongside Bonnie and Clyde, only showed people what a dead genre the gangster film is. Public Enemies resembles Bugsy in its concentration on the relationship between Dillinger and Frechette. It isn't nearly as awful as Bugsy, but I am sure several more budding public enemies have seen Public Enemies and have thrilled to its glorification of murder.

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