Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

He Lived in Public

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Unlike most of my cinephile pals, I wasn't especially stoked for Public Enemies. In part, that's because I'm not a huge Michael Mann fan—over the years I've found his admittedly impressive style accompanied by too little substance, so that I tend to admire even his best films from an impassive distance. Mostly, though, it's that I tend to look with deep suspicion on anything even remotely in the biopic ballpark, assuming that it'll just be a superficial rundown of the subject's Wikipedia entry. So I got excited when I realized, after steeling myself for flashbacks that never arrived, that Enemies' entire two-and-a-half hours would be devoted to John Dillinger's final crime spree, encompassing a mere 14 months of his life. But even more gratifying than that was the gradual, if somewhat erratic, emergence of an honest-to-goodness by-god theme—one that cannily alters the meaning of the title phrase, emphasizing Dillinger's role not as an enemy to the public but as an enemy in public.


(SPOILERS commence here, including scenes that I'm pretty sure were invented for the film.)

Some of this comes with the territory, of course. Dillinger was among the last of the celebrity criminals, regarded by much of America as a folk hero; it's always seemed apropos that he met his end exiting the Biograph Theater. Accordingly, Public Enemies depicts him as extremely media-savvy, regaling reporters cellside with the same dry wit that the Beatles would later employ in press conferences and taking care to maintain a favorable image by robbing only the bank, never the customers. The grand finale spends as much time inside the Biograph, watching Dillinger project himself into Manhattan Melodrama, as it does outside, where Purvis and his men are moving into place, even though the latter is ostensibly far more cinematic. Just from Depp's subtle facial expressions, you can tell that Dillinger is seeing his beloved Billie in Myrna Loy's perfectly round face, and I for one knew what his (fictitious) dying words had been before they were revealed, as I correctly intuited that they were inspired by a line of dialogue in the movie he'd just been watching.

At the same time, though—and this, for me, is the truly intriguing part—Public Enemies repeatedly depicts Dillinger as completely anonymous, despite his celebrity status as Title of the Movie #1. When the lights come up in a different cinema, and the newsreel instructs patrons to look around for the country's most notorious bank robber ("He may be in your row!"), not only is there no citizen's arrest, but nobody even so much as whispers, points or titters. When the Chicago police arrest Billie, they all walk right past Dillinger, who's stepped outside his car and (if memory serves) is standing there holding a gun in plain sight. And in the film's most extraordinary sequence, Dillinger strides brazenly into the offices of the very task force assigned to nab him, admiring their collection of evidence and even chatting up the handful of detectives not already assigned to Biograph detail, none of whom recognize their quarry. It's as if Mann and his co-writers are showing us the last period of American life in which one could simultaneously be a household name and largely invisible—that brief window during which the mass media existed but wasn't yet available (visually, anyway; people did have radio) within individual homes. That it's also the end of another era, as stressed via scenes with the nascent Mob (whose liaison brags that they bring in as much daily over the phone as Dillinger scores in a single heist), only underscores that sense of eerie impermanence.

Thing is, though, I can't figure out how much of this was intended, and I sometimes think—perhaps you agree—that I may be reading too much into a handful of isolated scenes. For one thing, the scenes in question, though to my mind the film's most memorable, are isolated—so much so that you could remove them entirely and still have a comprehensible and reasonably gripping narrative. (Obviously the Biograph would have to stay, but there's no real need for us to be inside the theater with Dillinger.) More tellingly, though, Public Enemies omits a number of details—some of them pretty well-known—that fit the theme I've identified like one of Depp's natty suits, and would have made it even more resonant. I'd expected to see passersby dipping their handkerchiefs in Dillinger's blood outside the Biograph, for example, as I'd read about those grisly souvenirs a number of times, but Mann just cranes up and out, bypassing an opportunity to emphasize Dillinger's notoriety. We're never told that in the final weeks of his life Dillinger assumed the name of a real-life petty thief who was known for his resemblance to John Dillinger, which is roughly akin to Elvis disguising himself as an Elvis impersonator. And while I'm not entirely sure I trust this item—there's no citation in the Wikipedia entry, and I hadn't heard of it before—Dillinger apparently robbed one bank by pretending that he and his gang were a film crew scouting locations for a bank-robbery scene, which even if that's apocryphal it's just too perfect not to use.

So I'm torn, and a bit frustrated, though I still liked the movie overall. (My favorite Mann since Manhunter, actually. No, I don't like Heat; flame away.) Biopics are generally so utterly bereft of anything resembling an idea that I'm pathetically grateful for even this somewhat haphazard effort. But I lament the great film that might have been had that idea truly been explored.