Slick, but no cigar: A review of Public Enemies

22 Feb

It is hard to imagine a life more suited to a Hollywood script than John Dillinger’s.

The hero-criminal of America’s Depression years was gunned down at a Chicago cinema after watching Manhattan Melodrama (1934), starring Clarke Gable as a murderous racketeer. Dillinger was betrayed by a Romanian madam in an orange dress that glowed red beneath the hot foyer lights. While not quite handsome, he possessed slick raffishness in spades, oozing a dangerous sass. Add to that thrilling bank heists, escapes from jail, and brutal gunfights, and you have a life led as if made for film.

John Dillinger

Given this, when I watched Public Enemies recently, the 2009 Michael Mann film starring Johnny Depp, I was surprised that the script did so little with Dillinger’s life. It is really a love-story with shoot-out interludes, with Depp as a Dillinger more slick than raffish, and French actress Marion Cotillard as his apocryphal part-indigenous American girlfriend.

There are moments in the film which gesture at Dillinger’s hero-status in America during the dog days of the 1930s – a scene in which cheering crowds gather to glimpse him, for example, as he is driven to a Chicago prison by police.  Such moments are treated as a sketchy backdrop, however, because the real drama centres on Dillinger’s love life and his stand-off with the young-gun detective (Christian Bales) who is trying to catch him by ‘scientific’ means (and yes, that later relationship is as tired and uninteresting as it sounds.) The book on which the film is based is Brian Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI (2004), which presumably treated the growth of ‘scientific’ policing as its main game.

If you have anything of the romantic in you, there will be something to love in Public Enemies. Thanks in large part to the ravishing Marion Cotillard, a girl who plays tough and gorgeous in all the right ways, the love-story is lush and compelling, however apocryphal it might have been. It is also thanks to the film’s artful visuals and soundscape, the latter signalled from the moment Otis Taylor’s sublimely dirty blues begins in the opening jailbreak scene.

The historian in me could only be disappointed, however, at this failure to capitalise on the details of Dillinger’s life, on the incendiary social context of his escapades, and the legend he worked so hard to create of himself as the people’s criminal. Who wants yet another love-story or a film about the FBI when these things could have been explored? Certainly anyone fascinated with the Depression era or the outlaw tradition (whether among eighteen-century Sicilian desperadoes or England’s Dick Turpin or Australia’s Ned Kelly) couldn’t view the superficial treatment these things receive in Public Enemies as anything but a let-down.

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