/ 4 September 2009

Cops and robbers

”What’s robbing a bank compared to owning one?” asked Bertolt Brecht. Now that the financial world once again throbs to the stifled laughter of taxpayer-enabled billionaires and bonus addicts unable to believe their luck, maybe the time is ripe for Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s brooding, sweltering but oddly subdued hagiography of the United States’s most famous bank robber: John Dillinger.

This was the scofflaw who in the depths of the Depression was turned into a national celebrity both by a sensation-hungry press and the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation, which wanted nationwide power to collar those bad guys evading arrest simply by speeding over state lines. Billy Crudup gives a nice performance as the buttoned-up, squeaky-voiced J Edgar Hoover announcing his War on Crime, and Christian Bale is convincing as his top agent Melvin Purvis. He’s well educated, highly motivated and fiercely disciplined.

But the movie’s star is Johnny Depp, who in his earlier days might have had to play those lesser Dillinger associates with nicknames such as ”Baby Face” and ”Pretty Boy”. Now, in keeping with the A-lister’s gravitas and prestige, he is Dillinger himself. The bank robber was a countercultural mega-star, apparently adored by the public as a mixture of Jesse James and Harry Houdini. Depp’s Dillinger busts out of prisons with the same unruffled insouciance as he busts into bank vaults; he vaults casually over the bank teller’s counter and smacks the bank’s president around a little prior to gaining access to the strongroom.

He disdains a disguise and, in a cinema, when his ”most wanted” image flashes up on screen and a stern voice tells the audience to look left and then right to look for him, Dillinger coolly refuses to follow instructions, even when it is clear that doing so might actually conceal his face to the people on either side.

Depp is an almost absurdly attractive man. His handsomeness has assumed a sleek, leonine quality in early middle age, and he is always watchable. But my problem with Depp is that it’s as if he is wearing some invisible brand of eyeliner, some Kryptonite-kohl that kills off the emotion. This is a pretty taciturn Dillinger he’s giving us, and Bale is already doing taciturn. Purvis is supposed to be the tightly wound, slot-mouthed G-Man continually outsmarted by the impish criminal. I was longing for Depp to loosen up, the way he did as Jack Sparrow, his Keith-Richardsy pirate of the Caribbean, or as the film director and angora enthusiast Ed Wood. But this role is apparently way too serious.

Mann’s fans will recognise his signature touches: there are the huge close-ups of tense male faces looming up and filling the screen, and with cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s high-definition video, the skin pores are as distinct as bullet holes.

(Spinotti’s camerawork, incidentally, has fluency and immediacy, though I have to say the much-admired HD video, for me, sometimes looks murky and grainy with the ”glowing” effect of white light.)

Mann adores gunfight sequences — not with weeny handguns, but with larger weapons and rifles. As in his bank-heist drama Heat, the shootouts in Public Enemies look like full-scale military engagements. Mann films traditionally have a big dialogue face-off between the alpha dogs: in Heat, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino squared up in a coffee shop for their cop-robber summit; in Mann’s underrated Ali, Will Smith’s character went nose to nose with Joe Frazier in the front seats of a car. Here, Dillinger and Purvis meet while the notorious robber is in jail; Dillinger taunts Purvis through the bars with the lawman’s lack of combat experience and swaggeringly claims he will soon be out of the joint — thin-lipped Purvis insists the only way this can happen will be on his way to the electric chair. Not true, of course.

Everything is very, very male. Sweaty maleness and testosterone hang heavy in the air like undischarged thunder. After leaving the farmhouse in which his gang is holed up, Dillinger is desperately accosted by one of its young women: ”Take me with ya, mister!”

”I can’t, darlin’, I’m sorry.” No women are allowed a ridealong in Dillinger’s car — or in his film. He has a notional girlfriend, hat-check girl Billie Frechette, played by Marion Cotillard, in whose honour he gallantly slaps around some tiresome hatless guy whining for his headgear while Dillinger is trying to have a conversation with his new amour. But cool-customer Dillinger never looks all that passionately devoted, either to her or even, oddly, to the mounds of cash for which he is imperilling their relationship.

Mann’s G-Man opera has the ingredients of a great film that don’t quite come together. But they are certainly potent. There is a surging, sombre orchestral score by Elliot Goldenthal that channels the spirit of Bernard Herrmann’s music for Taxi Driver. It’s a picture with virility and confidence and, unlike Dillinger’s machine gun, which the man himself expertly takes to pieces, it never quite jams, and gets off one or two lethal rounds. —