Revisiting the 'golden age of bank robbery'

The 1930s gangster movie is back.

Does anybody care?

Public Enemies, set in the "golden age of bank robbery," when the likes of Baby Face Nelson, Ma and Pa Barker, and Bonnie and Clyde were looting and shooting across the land, is the first A-list Depression-era crime pic since Brian DePalma's The Untouchables.

And like the '87 hit, Michael Mann's burnished new enterprise pits two mighty stars opposite each other. (And showcases Chicago's palatial Union Station, too.)

The G-man? Melvin Purvis, played with steely - and squinting - determination by Christian Bale.

And the bad guy? John Dillinger, the cool and elusive stickup artist, with Johnny Depp, swaggering jauntily in a wardrobe of nifty suits, as the famous outlaw.

Full of rocketing DeSotos and crackling shootouts in the woods, Public Enemies looks and feels as though it should work. The bank jobs (innumerable) and prison breaks (two) are staged with cross-cutting zeal. Mann's longtime cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, imbues the '30s decor and sets with sleekness and cool (deploying lots of vertiginous handheld shots), and Billie Holiday works her melancholy magic on the soundtrack.

But ultimately, the movie's a bust. In a recent interview in the New York Times, Mann laid out his artistic mission for the film: (SPOILER ALERT ahead for the history-challenged!)

"You know John Dillinger is going to die," Mann said. "So . . . the story has to have hijacked the show-and-tell nature of the plot. The story has to be about the inner experience of the guy, so that by the end, it's not about him getting shot. Do you understand his inner experience? Is your heart with him? Do you know him? That's the battle."

A battle lost.

Inner experience comes down to a couple of lines of Depp's Dillinger muttering, like a Zen heistman, "We're having too good a time today, ain't thinking about tomorrow."

His romance with a French-Indian hat-check girl, Billie Frechette (Oscar-winning Edith Piaf portraitist Marion Cotillard), is presented as soul-shaking, but whether it's Cotillard's difficulty with the English dialogue, or just the fundamental inadequacy of that dialogue, the love between these two doesn't seem epic. In fact, Cotillard's best scene comes in the epilogue, when she's face-to-face with a G-man - intense, her eyes on fire and streaking tears at the same time.

Public Enemies isn't a total wash. The nascent days of forensic sleuthing - wire taps, the "scientific" approach to crime-stopping, as Purvis puts it - are depicted in fascinating detail. As is the birth of the FBI, and the blustery J. Edgar Hoover (a staccato Billy Crudup). And no film in which so many fine talents show up, even fleetingly, can be a complete waste: Lili Taylor as an Indiana sheriff, Leelee Sobieski as a Chicago hooker, and an uncharacteristically understated Giovanni Ribisi as another of the legendary bagmen of the time, Alvin Karpis.

As Public Enemies navigates toward its finale, Mann mounts a terrific scene of Dillinger in his seat at the Biograph Theater, taking in Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy in the 1934 crime pic Manhattan Melodrama.

Depp and Gable have the same mustache going. But the movie that Gable's in seems a whole lot more interesting than the one from which Depp's John Dillinger is about to make his fateful exit.

 


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/


Public Enemies

Directed by Michael Mann. With Billy Crudup, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Stephen Lang, Rory Cochran, John Ortiz, Jason Clarke, Johnny Depp, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff. Distributed by Universal Studios.

Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for gangster violence and some language).