Period gangster movies aren’t the staple they once were—Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables,” now over two decades old, was the last great example—and Michael Mann’s take on the 1930s John Dillinger-Melvin Purvis faceoff, a counterpart to the Al Capone-Eliot Ness one De Palma dealt with, is about as likely to revive them as Lawrence Kasdan’s ambitious but pallid “Silverado” was in its effort to reinvigorate the western in 1985. Simply put, “Public Enemies” is a stylish stiff, hobbled by surprisingly uncharismatic lead performances from its stars.
Comparisons with De Palma’s superior picture are damning. “The Untouchables,” of course, told the story of the naïve idealist Ness’ ultimate victory over crime boss Capone (Robert DeNiro) under the tutelage of a wily old police veteran (Sean Connery). David Mamet’s script played fast and loose with the facts in fashioning a mythologized fable of the time, but it was brilliantly constructed, imposing a compelling dramatic arc on the events and creating iconic figures of good and evil.
By contrast, the trio of scribes who wrote “Enemies” stick a lot closer to the historical record, but in following the dogged, often clumsy fourteen-month pursuit of notorious bank robber Dillinger (Johnny Depp) by Purvis (Christian Bale) in 1933-34 they fail to elevate the story beyond its particulars, content to maintain a one-damned-thing-after-another approach that never builds much momentum, despite the periodic shootouts that serve as set pieces. And at times their choices verge on the ludicrous: how else to explain a scene in which two gangsters loudly discuss their plans for a heist in a crowded theatre, where they’d be overheard by everybody around them (especially since the house also conducts on on-screen photo-ID spot on Dillinger—a moment played for laughs? Or the sequence near the close when Dillinger wanders amiably in the squadroom of Purvis’ task force and goes unrecognized? Even if these things happened, they’re played much too broadly, and might better have been jettisoned in favor of an expansion of the subplot in which Dillinger is effectively expelled from mob society by the Capone outfit, which is quickly becoming a smoothly operated business under Frank Nitti, who’s concerned that Dillinger’s raucous behavior will bring the law down on them too. It’s an idea reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s “M” that could have been followed to greater effect.
The treatment is particularly weak when it comes to characterization. Dillinger is introduced masterminding a big escape from the Indiana prison where he was previously an inmate, and the narrative then continues through his bank jobs, his recapture and daring escape from another Indiana jail, a botched South Dakota heist with Baby Face Nelson, a big shoot-out in Wisconsin, and his eventual death outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre, where he’s shot after watching a picture. But apart from a brief monologue about his unhappy childhood, the picture reveals little of his inner life; he’s just presented as a popular bad-boy (although the screenplay never explains the historical context that made him, and others of his unsavory ilk, such heroes to the public at the time).
As for Purvis, there’s even less explanatory background. He’s just a stiff, ramrod-straight agent forced to use harsh methods in his pursuit of his quarry, but ultimately keeping to a moral compass when one of his underlings goes too far. (In fact, the only interesting bit of subtext is the suggestion that Purvis and his team were faced with the same kinds of choices that mark America’s contemporary struggle against terrorism—J. Edgar Hoover as Dick Cheney, in other words, and the righteously-inclined Purvis pushed by events to a brutality that’s not part of his nature but pulling up just in time. That perhaps explains his resignation and putative suicide, which, however, are merely noted in a final title rather than dramatized—emphasizing how tepidly the comparison is drawn.)
And while Depp and Bale are among today’s most imaginative actor, neither finds much to build on in the characters as they’re written. Depp opts for a coolly cocky attitude but little more. It was apparently hoped that his romance with coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) would provide some emotional heft to Dillinger, but like everything else human in the movie, the intensity of their relationship is assumed rather than portrayed, and though Cotillard is mostly successful in suppressing her accent, she’s otherwise merely adequate. The tight-lipped Bale, meanwhile, is about as dully one-note as he was in “Terminator: Salvation,” and he doesn’t even seem comfortable in the period suits. The supporting cast largely blends together into an amorphous mass, but there are a few who stand out from the crowd. Some do so positively—Billy Crudup as a clipped, publicity-seeking Hoover, Peter Gerety as a rhetorically overblown lawyer, Stephen Lang (with a touch of Sam Elliot gruffness and a distinguishing hat) as one of Purvis’ men, and Stephen Graham, who makes a convincingly repulsive Nelson. Others—like Adam Mucci as a particularly inept and cowardly FBI man—stand out for the wrong reasons.
As usual with Mann’s films, “Public Enemies” is handsomely appointed. Nathan Crowley’s production design, Patrick Lumb and William Ladd Skinner’s art direction, the set design and decoration and Colleen Atwood’s costumes all contribute to a vivid period feel. The thirties tunes that occasionally intrude, however, are obvious—especially “Bye Bye Blackbird,” which becomes a motif, badly used at the end, and Elliot Goldenthal’s forgettable score can’t hold a candle to Ennio Morricone’s music for “The Untouchables.” And the cinematography by Dante Spinotti, while generally lush, sometimes opts for jerky and agitated camera moves that are more irritating than effective. De Palma’s ultra-smooth, ultra-flamboyant tracking shots might have been excessive, but he used the technique to breathtaking effect in his famous set pieces in hallways, on rooftops and most memorably in the Chicago train station. By contrast Mann’s bank robbery scenes here are rather messy (and always set in buildings that are huge and palatial?), and the other big moments—the prison escape at the start, the later escape from the Indiana jail, and especially the violent shootout at Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin—lack the choreographic sharpness one would expect.
Mann does switch to the languid De Palma approach in the sequence of Dillinger’s death outside the Biograph; here one almost gets the feeling he’s trying to match the famous train station stairwell montage from “The Untouchables.” But he doesn’t succeed. One’s left with the sense of a pale homage to what was already a great homage (De Palma was mimicking Eisenstein, of course), merely the final confirmation that Mann’s failed to deliver the classic gangster movie he was obviously aiming for.
The sequence does, however, give the director the opportunity to insert some scenes from “Manhattan Melodrama,” the 1934 picture that Dillinger watched that night, which he uses to suggest that his protagonist identified fatalistically with the cocky hoodlum, played by Clark Gable, who went off to execution jauntily at the end of that flick. The idea is a pretty weak one, but the footage from “Melodrama” shows that even in their heyday, there were mediocre crime dramas too, and that “Public Enemies” has plenty of company.