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Execution Without Conviction

'Public Enemies' is a terrible indicator of how America has retreated from one of its greatest inventions--the movies.

On a Wednesday night in San Francisco, opening night, in a theater no more than half full, the truth was as inescapable as rain at a picnic. Johnny Depp just wasn’t cutting it. He wasn’t even making the attempt. Once again, Michael Mann had poured his nearly liquid talent over a gangster picture without ever thinking to ask himself why. That oddly vague title Public Enemies--why isn’t it called Johnny D. or just Dillinger?--was turning into a startlingly detached and affectless movie. And the digital coverage, as elected by Mann and his photographer Dante Spinotti, was such that you couldn’t even see the stuff happening. Public Enemies isn’t a rapture of bodies breaking open, dropping to the ground and coupling in motel rooms--it is a blur. It’s like the Michael Jackson rehearsal video for the concert tour that never would be when compared with the feral litheness of any of those great videos made when he was still free and uncaptured.

When the gangster film sinks into being merely a genre, a mine for nostalgia, period clothes, and 30s jazz, then it’s exhibiting fatal symptoms. It has allowed itself to be prettified when it should be authentically shocking. If you look at the original Public Enemy (1931), there’s that scene at the breakfast table with Mae Clarke as the rather sour-faced mistress and Cagney as the grumpy hood. What’s he going to do? you ask yourself. He sees the grapefruit--we see it, too. Oh no, you say, he’d never do that in a movie! But he does it. He takes the cut fruit and jams it in the woman’s face. It’s one of the ecstatic moments in the gangster film, utterly shameless, in that our childish urge to be outlaw is summoned to the screen itself, and it is our energy that makes Mae’s face sadder still. Take that! Fuck you, America!

The thrust of that last line--insolent yet full of camaraderie--is crucial. The American movie has always been about rapport: the unity of the packed house, us and U.S. all together, the huddled mass and the unreachable screen in wondrous harmony. The gangster film is unique in Hollywood in that it takes that aspiring “us” and gives it a whole range of fresh and dangerous dreams--you wanna see Tommy gun bullets meeting a body? You wanna see the banks blown apart? You wanna see the grapefruit hit the girl?--and then sneers in the public’s face at the ridiculous “happy” and “positive” ending where law and order is restored and the huge illicit thrill is allegedly buried. The gangster film whispers in our ear, don’t expect censorship or law and order to look after you. This thing called film is a very dangerous drug, but here it is for a quarter.

The gangster film has to be possessed by that danger and insolence. Never forget that Cagney’s self-destructive dance was an essential release for the early 30s--when the country was breaking apart. Never forget that The Godfather--with its sultry insinuation that a really lethal but wise manager could look after us--came to soothe the era of Watergate. Never forget that the burning unruliness of Bonnie and Clyde coincided with 1967 and America in turmoil at home and abroad. And who could possibly forget the superb insolence of Warren Beatty (the producer) in offering “We rob banks” to the anti-social instincts of the young, in a vehicle that would carry him personally to the bank in triumph? That’s what I mean about Fuck You, America: It’s the exultant yet fond cry of deep patriotism in love with unbridled freedom--but fuelled by personal vanity, ambition, and recklessness.

So the true blur of Michael Mann’s new film comes from his failure--and it is a psychological and intellectual failure as well as an artistic lapse--to understand that America in the summer 2009, when unemployment is climbing to ten percent, yearns to explode on a line like “We rob banks.” When Beatty said that line in 1967, it was full of the actor’s cockiness, and the dispossessed farmer was as tickled by its candor, but also as moved, as we the audience. It wasn’t simply an ironic admission of occupation; it was a statement of identity, and of idealistic enterprise. Bonnie and Clyde is constructed as to tell Clyde’s story. It is only when Bonnie Parker writes the poem about them and sends it to the papers that Clyde is freed of his rather far-fetched sexual inhibition. He is identified, and at that moment Clyde Barrow became far more than the real Texan kid had ever managed before 1934. Beatty’s Clyde was also Clyde’s Beatty--this was the film in which an unusually shy actor bursting with public ambition came into its own. The several talents who made Bonnie and Clyde, from the director Arthur Penn to the writers Robert Benton, David Newman, and Robert Towne, knew they were making a portrait of their producer just as surely as the team on Citizen Kane recognized that the secret target of their exercise was not William Randolph Hearst but George Orson Welles.

Public Enemies is naked in this area of identity and conviction. I said that Beatty was a shy actor, and sometimes that helped to spoil his performances. But his shyness could be immensely seductive, and the vital metaphor in Bonnie and Clyde is of an impeded personality who longs to find a melodrama to make him vivid, to make him known. That is why the names in the title are so important, and why Bonnie and Clyde is still so moving a picture. Yes, we know that the Barrow gang is doomed. We know that these lovers will be turned to chaff in a fusillade of bullets. So where’s the tension? It’s in wondering whether two beautiful blooms--Beatty and Dunaway--can flower in unison before death. They do make it--only just--and then the death scene (voluptuous in its slowed violence) comes as an astonishing, liberating orgasm and one of the sexiest scenes in American film.

That is the standard in electing to make a film about John Dillinger. It is not enough that for a moment he was a hoodlum celebrity, or that he was eventually gunned down by Melvin Purvis and a small army as he came out of a Chicago movie house where he had been watching Manhattan Melodrama. We have to care about him--and for that the film has to love him, and see an exuberant demon in his casual brutality. That’s what made Beatty, and Cagney, and Pacino in his playing of Michael Corleone.

But this film never knows why it is interested in Dillinger. He has no mission, no need--he seems as dumb as the real Dillinger probably was. When he meets his girl, Billie Frechette (played by Marion Cotillard), we don’t feel the pressure of death on their relationship. We don’t even feel that he likes her more than the other available dames. Remember, we are not dealing with real gangsters here. In life, we understand that just about everyone from Billy the Kid to John Gotti was close to cretinous promiscuity, but in our fascination with the “bad” we easily admit these stooges to our world--thus they become at least as smart and faithful as we are. The glory of the gangster film rests in that potential metaphor of the figure from history stepping forward into the limelight to be really “bad,” to ask, like Edmund in King Lear, that “God stand up for bastards.” It is that insurrectionary “us” being appealed to, the dark Hyde figure that has always longed to thrust a grapefruit (or something more obscene) in a nun’s face.

Is that objectionable enough to make clear the subterranean violence being courted in gangster pictures? Is it frank enough to explain the enervating vagueness of Public Enemies? Johnny Depp has been famous for two decades. He is sometimes called one of our great actors. And he has had his moments of cheek and charm, from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to Donnie Brasco and the spurious panache of his laid-back pirates. But isn’t it clear by now that he lacks the creative need or the emotional stamina to seize a part and to dominate a film?

And there’s something else: Depp’s looks are fading into cheeks and jowls--he is 45 now, a fate that the real Dillinger was spared (he died at 31). Dillinger the movie character should be an animal or a dancer--he needs to have been inspired by Pacino’s outrageous Tony Montana in Scarface. He should sing the way he shoots, and as often. He has to have zing, and a sense of counting away his own seconds of life--and if you don’t know what zing is, then you don’t understand commanding a screen as time passes. But Depp is stiff and listless (which isn’t the same as thoughtful). Encased in the skin and lifestyle of an actor, he doesn’t know what to do with the perilous adventure of crime (and on film it’s easier to see the crime done for risk instead of reward). Cagney taught us the lesson 70 years ago and more: A gangster is so full of life that he makes death seem like a bogey-man and a spoil-sport we can smell and taste.

Depp’s Dillinger is a male model in his own movie. Public Enemies suffers not just in comparison with Cagney or Bonnie and Clyde. Six years after that classic, American International Pictures (a house of cheerful exploitation) hired writer-director John Milius to make Dillinger. That picture has the advantages of brevity, directness, and a performance by Warren Oates as Dillinger that is all coarse redneck--and plainly closer to the truth. In addition, Dillinger has a lovely rogues’ gallery of supporting players: Not just Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis, but also Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson, Harry Dean Stanton as Homer Van Meter, and Steve Kanaly as Pretty Boy Floyd. This Dillinger knows it’s a gangster film, and understands the savagely split response in its audience.

The script of Public Enemies does not understand that Dillinger needs big, knockout lines: He kills people with talk before he uses bullets. When he and his girl talk, we should feel arousal in the banter--but it’s not there. In Bonnie and Clyde, the sensuality of the picture began in the way the two kids talked to each other, and it was a romance that climaxed in words. The supporting characters in Public Enemies are as drab as their coats. They don’t really figure in the film (a huge departure from Mann’s Heat, say, where the surrounding characters are rich and strange and 15-deep). But in Beatty’s film, every person with a line was memorable--not just Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons as other Barrows. Remember the couple picked up on the road--Gene Wilder and Evans Evans--true bystanders who comment on the central theme in a brilliant cameo. That panorama of special people amounted to a climate; it said that Bonnie and Clyde had an entertaining life. Michael Mann cannot get past the boredom of being John Dillinger. This may be truer to life, but it is lousy art.

Yet the most profound vagueness is in every frame and gray hue: in the digital--the way it’s been shot. An enormous self-inflicted crime of vandalism has been committed against American film--I mean the replacement of film with digital. The only comparison is with the deliberate and stupid forsaking of Technicolor in the 1950s in favor of color systems that were supposedly more life-like. Life-like is irrelevant; we are talking about the movies, after all. Technicolor and photography were beautiful. They looked like dream, like imagination. Whatever the technical and economic advantages of digital (and they are in dispute, as witness the April 2009 forum on cinematography in Sight & Sound), it looks like death. When characters move quickly--as they are inclined to do in gangster pictures--the image blurs. Whenever it fixes on a face you see uncommon and unnatural detail. It may sometimes be useful to see the pores in the skin, but it is far removed from the romance of cinematography. Public Enemies is forlorn not least because digital is less expressive than photography. But digital is the natural resource of a director who regards himself as a mechanic, and who has not begun to think through the moral implications of his abiding subject--gangsterism.

Public Enemies is a travesty and a terrible indicator of how America has retreated from one of its own greatest inventions--the movies. Arthur Penn, in Bonnie and Clyde, was an artist and a man of deep feelings. Michael Mann is as bored with his own movie as his Dillinger is with his own life.

David Thomson is the author most recently of Have you Seen? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Knopf) and Try to Tell the Story (Knopf).

By David Thomson