Even with all its variations through the 20th century – gloomy noirs, renegade cops, serial killers – the American crime film goes back to one source. With the birth of sound on film, the gangster grew from a hazy caricature of silent melodrama into an icon that would help to define cinema’s golden age. Even if the chatter of Cagney and the like was destined for parody, the rattle of a tommy gun became one of the first trademarks of sound cinema, notably used in “Scarface’s” machine-gun fire tearing through pages of a calendar. Even today, no image quite captures triumphant rebellion like gangsters perched on a running board, firing back at the coppers chasing them.
To look fondly on the 1930s gangster film would produce pastiche, fine for its own sake. Yet in “Public Enemies” Michael Mann, who’s proven himself over and over again to be a master commentator on crime genres, at once recalls the early sound era, the revisionary gangsters of the late-60’s/early 70s, and the historical source material to produce a transcendent vision of American cinema. It’s almost dreamlike to see this rich cross-pollination revealed through the crisp, controlled eye of Michael Mann. He may be the only director who never forgets the world surrounding the sensational crime.
His narrative is technically a piece of history, but one so submerged in legend that it is moreso folklore. More people learned of John Dillinger’s robberies from word of mouth than the headlines. Hence, his rise and fall perfectly suits a broad statement like Mann’s, for it maps a path much like the classic gangster’s (here, Depp as the immoral hero), while not forgetting the G-Men (enter the ever serious Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis), while eying the political machinations that dealt with organized crime (Billy Crudup in a flattering portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover).
Casting Deep as Dillinger is almost a no-brainer, and not for his near endless range alone. Consider the actor’s introduction in Robert Rodriguez’s b-grade jalapeno popper, “Once Upon a Time In Mexico.” Rodriguez intended to channel Leone for the final entry of his Mariachi series, while the series itself has proved forgettable save his micro-budget miracle of an opener. In “Mexico” Depp plays an FBI agent who manipulates the Mexican underworld to America’s benefit. The story hardly has room for such a character to live out such a purpose – yet when Depp delivers his character’s motivation as if he were equal parts politician and confidence man, we buy right in to Rodriguez’s hokum, thanks to wise casting.
In “Enemies,” Depp depicts such conviction, as he sneaks into a prison to break out his gang, then leads bank jobs in little over a minute’s time. He meets cute with coat checker Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) with just as much purpose, even if initially encountering her resistance in a nice turn on what could have been a routine moll. Mann himself admitted that the romance between she and Dillinger attracted him to this story, which itself had a long, uneasy path to the big screen. The filmmaker makes the most of the subplot, though it can hold only so much space in this epic scope. She serves as more of a motivation for Dillinger, once they are separated, than as a character driving the narrative. When authorities on the hunt apprehend and, quite shockingly, torture her, it appears that Mann eyes current U.S. policies beyond our crime tradition.
Depp gets the more human role, while Bale’s Purvis operates like a machine – he’s introduced when downing an almost free-and-clear Pretty Boy Floyd with a marksman’s ease. I’d guess that Bale lives for such roles, ones that reflect the full-blooded commitment that he saturates into his work. The role is undoubtedly one-note, the only variations being occasional frustration and bemusement at the evidence of Billie’s torture by one of his own. But complexity isn’t on order: he is, after all, the man who will take down a legend outside Chicago’s Biograph theater.
And what a legend it is, one that Mann and his cowriters Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman are worthy of channeling. When the feds depart on a lead, Dillinger walks right into the unbelievably named “Dillinger Squad” headquarters and, by viewing photos, headlines, and various evidence, surveys his own legacy. Much more than a narrative recap as Act 3 nears, this moment extends out to the folkloric tradition of depression-era heroes on the wrong side of the law, while channelling the grandeur of mythical storytelling in any form – yet more threads that Mann weaves into his multitudinous masterwork. This is the purest of American narratives, and this, indeed, is one of our finest storytellers.