Tuesday, November 10, 2015
(July 2009, U.S.)
The gangster film is as old as the Great Depression itself. During that era of economic breakdown and Prohibition, when virtually all form of liquor consumption was illegal in the United States, crime and those who committed acts of crime were as infamous as those that sought to bring them to justice. Classic actors like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney brought gangsters to vivid life in the era of cinema when the "talkie" was still only just a few years old. Real life criminal John Dillinger (played in this film by Johnny Depp) was a gangster who was notorious for not only robbing banks, but for escaping prison, as well. Dillinger was one of the most notorious of all gangsters of the time, standing out even among more violent criminals such as Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and even Bonnie and Clyde. He enjoyed being seen publicity and even styled himself as a modern day Robin Hood figure. The media of the time ran (likely exaggerated) accounts of his wild bravado and colorful personality, causing the government to demand federal action. It's said that J. Edgar Hoover developed a more sophisticated Federal Bureau of Investigation as a weapon against organized crime, using Dillinger and his gang as his public campaign platform.
Getting back to the Robin Hood figure in PUBLIC ENEMIES for a moment, it's not to suggest that Dillinger stole from the banks only to return the money to the public. The man was a gangster and gangsters didn't do that. However, because this was a time when too many American banks were foreclosing on homes and mercilessly putting families out onto the street, the fact that they were getting robbed by the same man, in turn, made Dillinger a national celebrity with the public. You see, if there's one constant in life over the decades, it's that the ordinary, average, every day person gets an irresistible thrill in watching the big corporate "villain" get a severe kick in the ass! The Great Depression was a time that was no different. As Dillinger, whether historically accurate or not, Johnny Depp clearly has a wild and wonderful time with the role, in not only bringing to life the image of a national folk hero, but also a violent man when it became necessary. And, of course, where there's criminals, there's always the good guys to pursue them. Christian Bale plays FBI agent Melvin Purvis, assigned by Hoover to lead the hunt for Dillinger and his gang. The story, the action and the dramatic performances, while solid and enjoyable to watch, certainly cannot be considered completely original. Even if I were to completely ignore the entire era of gangster films that made the Golden Age of Hollywood so beautiful, there are strong echoes of Brian DePalma's THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), as well as director Michael Mann's own films THIEF (1981) and HEAT (1995). Not to say that the viewer is being cheated out of anything brand new, it's just simply very thrilling material that falls perfectly well into very capable hands. Like it or not, that's what makes good cinema!
Speaking of cinema, one who loves it as much as I do cannot resist the film's climax in which Dillinger is finally killed at the famous Biograph Theater in Chicago after he's betrayed by a woman he trusts. Ironically, he's killed after watching a Clark Gable gangster film called "Manhattan Melodrama" (true story of how he died!) with a young lady by his side (she's played by LeeLee Sobieski and I have to tell right now that I think she's totally hot!!!). There's a certain pleasure in watching Depp's face as he watches the black and white gangster film play out on the screen in front of him. There's such a strong sense of love and admiration for not only the performers in front of him, but for the criminal activities he clearly enjoyed committing (art imitating life). Dillinger clearly loved crime, loved women, loved the public eye and loved life. Almost makes you sorry that the poor bastard was shot and killed the way he was. He might have lived to be an even more interesting figure if he'd grown old to tell his tale. And by the way, speaking of the famous Biograph Theater, this is what it was like following Dillinger's death...
...and this is it today as a performing arts theater...
I have to say it does my heart good to see these old movie theaters successfully preserved as a piece of American history, even if the history was made by the acts of gangsters and criminals! It reaffirms my deep hatred of the common multiplex of today!
Favorite line or dialogue:
John Dillinger: "I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama died when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn't know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you. What else you need to know?"