Public Enemies

Michael Mann's biopic of a gun-toting bank robber from the jazz-age is more relevant than you might think

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You could be forgiven for thinking that films about Tommy Gun-toting jazz-age bank robbers are none too relevant in the 21st century. Sure, you could be forgiven for thinking that, but then you probably haven’t seen Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s immense biopic of John Dillinger, the gentleman criminal who became the first man in history to be given the title Public Enemy No 1. “There had been 140 bank failures in Chicago,” says Michael Mann of the period of in which the film is set. “Most people blamed the banks.” Sound at all familiar? Enter into the equation a man who has just broken out of prison on a mission to take back the ten years stolen from him (Dillinger served ten years for a youthful crime that today would probably see you receive an ASBO), live his life as fast as an exploding firecracker and well, rob as many banks as possible, and you have a truly explosive cocktail. “When I was nine or ten years old, I had a fascination with Dillinger,” says Johnny Depp, who seems to have been born to play the role of the iconic folk hero. “He was called Public Enemy No 1, but he was never an enemy of the public. That’s intriguing.”

Indeed, Dillinger was wont to treat his hostages with grace and good humour and even gave money back to customers in the banks he robbed. “The truth is stranger than the fiction,” says Mann. “We had to tone it down.” Some of the seemingly incredible scenes, such as the one in which Dillinger dons dark sunglasses to enter a Chicago police station and quietly nose upon the FBI investigation into him actually happened; this was a man that really did take prison guards hostage with a fake gun he had fashioned out of wood. “He explodes out of prison and lives the dynamic of three or four lifetimes in one,” says Mann of Dillinger’s audacity. “He has no concept of the future.”

Dillinger’s arch nemesis was the rigid and quietly troubled Melvin Purvis, the promising G Man of J Edgar Hoover’s fledgling FBI organization, played in the film with unnerving intensity by Christian Bale. Famed for his love of method acting and, perhaps unfairly, for his psychotic on-set Terminator Salvation outburst, what was Bale like to direct? “Every actor is different,” says Mann. “Christian dives into the deep end of the pool and he stays there the whole time.” That’s not to say Bale’s stunning performance is any more committed than Depp’s – whose return to playing human beings rather than theatrical fictional creations is a welcome one – or indeed Marion Cotillard's (La Vie En Rose) who plays Dillinger’s love, Billie Frechette, a woman whose stoicism and strength are utterly compelling throughout. "Michael has a great respect for women," she says."The women in his films are always very strong." This is particularly true of her character because the actress spent so much time preparing for the part by talking to the wives of real convicted men. “They were very generous to share their stories,” she explains. “I could see and feel their pain and their fears… you don’t know if your husband’s going to be home the next day.”

All three leads are supported by an excellent cast, which includes the British actor Stephen Graham (This Is England) as a trigger-happy Baby Face Nelson and Billy Crudup (Watchmen) as a fascistic J Edgar Hoover. Sure, we could tell you more about the plot of the film, but many people already know the history of Dillinger and his associates, and for those who don’t, this largely authentic movie is as good a place as any to start. “To be able to fire my Thompson out of the very window Dillinger shot his out of at Little Bohemia was very invigorating,” says Depp, describing Mann’s recreation of one of American history’s most legendary shootouts. “There were moments when I felt his presence.” Presumably spooky moments such as these came quite often – Dillinger was, after all, a man from the same part of Indiana as Depp and he had achieved a similar level of fame in his lifetime. In fact, Dillinger was so famous that Clark Gable even played a character based on him in the film Manhattan Melodrama,  a film Dillinger actually went to see on the night he was finally brought down by the G Men. So, in Public Enemies you wind up watching a scene in which Depp goes to the movies to watch Gable play Dillinger on the silver screen – in this moment, a strange dynamic is revealed that almost reaches beyond the limits of the film. “Dillinger arrives on the scene in the ultimate existential arena,” says Depp, and in this movie, it seems that perhaps the actor playing him does too.

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