The Thirties gangster movie is another film genre for which I’m a sucker. Give me a movie about guys in fedoras and trenchcoats who use tommy guns to rob banks and speed around in roadsters, and I’m a happy viewer. It’s even better when there are other guys with fedoras and trenchcoats and tommy guns (the FBI, in other words) trying to catch them. So you know I had to watch Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES.
The center of this film is John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, but almost of equal importance is FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The cat-and-mouse game they play as Purvis tries to capture Dillinger and Dillinger continues robbing banks and eluding arrest (for the most part) is very suspenseful. I don’t know how historically accurate all the details are (I have the Bryan Burrough non-fiction book on which the film is based but haven’t read it yet), but I do know enough about Dillinger so that I was aware all through the film of how it had to end. I don’t think that knowledge took away anything from my enjoyment of the movie, though, and I enjoyed it a lot.
PUBLIC ENEMIES got mixed reviews when it was released, but I thought it was excellent. It’s a determinedly old-fashioned movie and looks great, despite the fact that it was shot on high-definition video rather than film, or maybe because of that. A cinematographer I ain’t. All I know is that I really enjoyed the look and style of the film. Depp, as usual, disappears into his role and is really believable as Dillinger (except for one moment when he’s running through the woods and flapping his hands like Captain Jack Sparrow), and Bale is pretty good as Melvin Purvis. Character actor Stephen Lang turns in a fine performance as a grizzled special agent. There’s a lot of action, mostly gun battles, and for the most part they’re well-staged and easy to follow. The period detail looked good. I kept hoping Dillinger would walk past a newsstand full of pulps, but if he did, I missed it. The only magazines I spotted were copies of LIBERTY, LADIES HOME JOURNAL, and (appropriately enough) TRUE DETECTIVE. Even the music is good, with a recurring bluegrass theme during the bank robberies and chases reminiscent of the music from BONNIE AND CLYDE. Maybe a little too reminiscent, but I won’t quibble.
I won’t guarantee that you’ll like this film, but if you’re a fan of gangster movies and haven’t seen it, you really ought to give it a try. I thought it was one of the best films I’ve seen recently, and it’s one of the rare movies I wouldn’t even mind watching again. Highly recommended.
(One last note: in watching the scenes at the Biograph Theater, I realized that I’ve never seen the Clark Gable/William Powell movie that was playing there on that fateful night, MANHATTAN MELODRAMA. It’s now on my Netflix list.)