A worry for the maker of any period film is that audiences may struggle to relate to the tribulations of a past era. In Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, set in 1930s Chicago, that concern is actually inverted: the film has so many modern echoes that it risks resembling too strongly the here-and-now, only with vintage Buicks instead of SUVs, Tommy guns rather than AK-47s.
The story is set in the middle of the Depression. Banks are commonly believed to have betrayed their customers. Jobs and homes have become luxuries. During a “war on crime” launched to thwart the prolific bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), the government sanctions “vigorous interrogation” – otherwise known as torture. Telephone lines are tapped, with conversations put literally on the record: the stylus accumulates furry curlicues of vinyl as it bites into the rotating disc. When the FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) tries to trace Dillinger through the type of coat he wears (32 per cent wool, salt-and-pepper weave, since you ask), we could be watching CSI: Chicago, circa 1933.
But it is the high-definition digital photography, rather than parallels with current events, that gives Public Enemies the untidy informality of tomorrow’s reportage. It doesn’t look like other films, or much like a film at all. (You would compare it to a home movie, if that didn’t imply amateurism and long takes of Auntie Beryl doing the hokey-cokey.) Mann’s camera produces zingy, wide-awake images, and achieves an intimacy with the actors that renders the term “close-up” inadequate. Admirers of Depp in particular will be thrilled to make the acquaintance of the actor’s ear lobe.
While the camerawork is up close and personal, the rest of the movie feels muted – a consequence, perhaps, of prioritising detail over drama. Restraint to the point of detachment has long been a Mann characteristic, though it would be less jarring if his visual sensibility hadn’t suddenly gone haywire.
As it stands, Public Enemies is something like the opposite of A Clockwork Orange. Whereas Kubrick’s picture let loose its anarchic hero within a rigid aesthetic framework, the characters in Mann’s film feel mostly remote and unknowable, despite the coaxing of the camera, and a lively score that ranges from Delta blues to negro spirituals.
Interestingly, it is Purvis rather than Dillinger who is the greater enigma. We learn nothing of the lawman’s extra-curricular life, and little about him at all beyond his first scene, in which his mixture of patience and marksmanship renders “Pretty Boy” Floyd significantly less pretty.
Dillinger himself has woken up to the idea of settling down, and believes a coat-check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) might be the moll of his dreams. Over a romantic dinner, he confesses he’s a bank robber. By the time he has assaulted one of her customers, it’s love. Depp and Cotillard are an engaging couple, but it would have been helpful to have had more scenes of them together to explain why Billie devotes her not-unexciting life to waiting around doing . . . well, what exactly? The emphasis on her importance to Dillinger can seem disingenuous when the film can’t work up much curiosity about her in his absence.
It is typical of Mann to keep his characters estranged. In Heat, his adversarial heroes encountered one another twice in the course of three hours; the effect was like a macho Sleepless in Seattle. Public Enemies goes one better, or one worse, by having Dillinger and Purvis meet only once, in the briefest of scenes. Goading his pursuer over the memory of a murdered FBI colleague, Dillinger smirks: “That’ll keep you up nights.” It reflects poorly on the film that this is played as cockiness rather than the gloating malice it clearly is.
Any horror in the film at the crimes of Dillinger’s gang is transferred on to the sociopathic Baby Face Nelson, played by Stephen Graham, who provides a jolt of nervous energy missing from the rest of the cast. (When he kills someone, you can see how alive it makes him feel.)
Not that Mann can’t pull off some agonising suspense when the occasion demands. In the tensest scene, Dillinger sneaks out of prison in a stolen car, only to have his getaway impeded by the world’s slowest traffic lights. Few of us who see Public Enemies will be able to resist pretending to be Dillinger the next time we hit a stubborn red signal, even if we’re only on the school run or popping out for HobNobs.