Tuesday, June 30, 2009
An ace bad man almost gets his due
When John Dillinger was shot outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago on a July night in 1934, Jack Lait of the International News service reported the event in the kind of pulpy prose that defined some of the day's best journalism: "John Dillinger, ace bad man of the world, got his last night -- two slugs through his heart and one through his head," wrote Lait.
Lait went on to report an astonishing array of details surrounding Dillinger's death. Souvenir hunters raced to the scene to dip newspapers and handkerchiefs in the bloody spot where Dillinger's body had fallen. Dillinger, who robbed banks of thousands of dollars, had $7.70 in his pocket when he was shot. Dillinger's fingertips had been dipped in acid so that he might elude identification. He'd also had a facelift, presumably for similar reasons.
I thought about Lait's description of Dillinger -- ace bad man of the world -- while I watched "Public Enemies, " director Michael Mann's carefully crafted, richly designed look at Dillinger's criminal career, beginning with his release from jail in 1933 and extending through that fateful night when Dillinger spent his final hours in the Biograph watching Clark Gable in "Manhattan Melodrama." Gable played gangster Edward J. 'Blackie' Gallagher in a story about a couple of kids who found their destinies on separate paths. Gallagher led a life of crime. The other kid -- William Powell's James W. 'Jim' Wade -- grew up to be a DA. It was a classic story: Two men from the same side of the tracks wound up on opposite sides of the legal fence.
In its own subdued way, Mann's movie also follows two men: Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the man charged with bringing him to justice, the FBI's Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). But this time the waters are muddied by ambiguity. Dillinger is as brutal as he is attractive, a man committed to living in the moment. And Purvis is too one-dimensional to be admirable.
Bale, an actor of scowling intensity, portrays Purvis as a man of keen focus. By way of contrast, Depp's Dillinger sometimes allows his mind to wander, particularly when it comes to women. According to the movie, Dillinger fell head over heels for Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). He kept her picture in his pocket watch. It wasn't Billie who betrayed Dillinger, tipping the cops as to his whereabouts, but another woman (Branka Katic).
The movie's meaning probably can be found in an anti-organizational tilt that haunts -- and perhaps diminishes -- this eagerly awaited edition to the gangster genre. Dillinger killed and robbed banks, but he worked as an independent. The FBI and organized crime -- represented by Purvis and gangster Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) -- couldn't tolerate lone actors. Both criminal and legal institutions relied on muscle and organizational heft, eschewing Dillinger's improvisational bravado. Both the FBI, which sought to arrest him, and the Mafia, which stopped laundering Dillinger's money, ultimately turned against the notorious thief. Meanwhile, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) seemed as interested in building the FBI's power base as he was in catching murderous crooks.
Based on a 2004 book by Bryan Burroughs, "Public Enemies" may be a little too eager to toe the historical line, sketching out details such as the one described above, often at the expense of characterization. It's difficult to know much about Dillinger's cohorts from watching this picture, and the romance between Cotillard -- who won an Oscar for portraying Edith Piaf in "La vie en rose" -- isn't well-enough developed. Oddly, Cottilard has her best and most furious moments when she's not on screen with Depp, but when the police capture her and try to beat her into submission. They try -- in vain as it turns out -- to get Billie to tell them where to find Dillinger.
Of course, there's explosive gunplay. The night the FBI tries to capture Dillinger at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin features a hail of bullets flashing vividly out of the darkness.
Depp, an actor geared more toward off-kilter charm than snarling bombast, tones down the gangster cliches. It's an original performance, if not always a commanding one. And in the end, I wasn't entirely sure that Mann had found a thematic statement that transcended all the period details. His observations about crime and law enforcement are not entirely fresh, and too many characters come and go without giving the actors a chance to develop them. Included in this list are some pretty good actors, Giovanni Ribisi and Lily Taylor, for example.
Mann, a director of obvious talent and fierce interests, has entered revered genre territory. In trying to avoid convention -- he may have thrown out a few bullets of excitement along with the smoking gun of cliche. There's no giddy pleasure in the movie's robberies (as in, say, "Bonnie and Clyde") and not much sense of a tragic fall, either. Artful detailing doesn't necessarily make for a great movie. Maybe the ace bad man of the world deserved some of the pulp sensibility that made Jack Lait's story leap off the page with the spark of an exploding flash bulb.
Here's the way Lait ended his lead paragraph: "It took 27 of them (FBI agents) to end Dillinger's career, and their strength came out of his weakness -- a woman."
There's more pure melodrama in that sentence than in a lot of "Public Enemies." And when it comes to gangster movies, melodrama isn't always a bad thing.