Public Enemies aka My Love Affair with Johnny Depp Grows


From the very first camera shots, I was hooked on this movie. I’ve wanted to see if for ages but missed it at the theatre. It hits on just about everything I like, to steal a title from a book on my shelf: Badmen, Bad Women, and Bad Places. (Tales of, by Eckhardt) It follows the height of Dillinger’s career as bank robber during the fourth year of The Great Depression.

My notes from my iPhone during the movie:

  • Interesting camera shots/angles
  • I’m not here for your money; I’m here for the bank’s money.
  • Damn, Christian Bale looks good with a gun (this is a totally random thought)
  • “You can be a dead hero or a live coward.”
  • Absolutely excellent scene bringing Dillinger/Depp off plane amid flares, reporters, and cameras. In terms of aesthetics, this scene blew me away.
  • It’s a wooden gun! Don’t fall for it!
  • I cannot believe you arrested Billy! No – Johnny’s crying.
  • Do NOT shoot Dillinger in the back. please…

[I include these so that you can see I really did try to start off as a good film critic and rapidly went downhill.]

That being said, this is a great film. How could it not be? Mann directing Johnny Depp as Dillinger, Christian Bale as FBI Agent Purvis, and Marion Cotillard as Billy in 1930s Chicago with excellent supporting cast? Prime classic material. While it was a great film – Depp was brilliant, and that probably goes without saying – some it just didn’t rise to the occasion. Agent Purvis (Bale), for example, was such a static character. I can tell he was conflicted, but why? I need more than what Bale gave me. As for the Billy/Dillinger relationship, it too was not quite enough. Granted, he’s hot and tells her:

I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn’t know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you… what else you need to know?

He’s hitting on all fronts. His mama’s dead. His daddy beat him. He’s all American, and he chose her. Sure, I get it. Maybe could have fleshed it out a bit more, is all I’m saying.

As in the notes above, I have to mention one particular scene because I thought it was fantastic. They are bringing Dillinger back to Indiana, again, and they’ve got armored cars, FBI agents, police, and lots of reporters on hand. It’s night. They send off flares to light the scene and take photos, and the shots are just magnificent. This one doesn’t really do it justice, but you can get an idea of what it was like. They lead Dillinger through the streets, and he really was like a celebrity. He lifts his manacled hands and waves, a modern-day Robin Hood (except he sure didn’t distribute the money like RH would have).

With movies like this with such a large cast of supporting characters, it can be difficult to keep track of all of them. Baby Face Nelson is thrown in; you’ve got Dillinger’s own posse. Then there’s other gangsters, the FBI agents, the police. That, though, is the nature of a gangster movie. There’s a lot of action here, and I have to say Stephen Lang, the guy I couldn’t stand in Avatar, really stood out to me. He plays Agent Winstead who is brought in to assist when it’s clear that there are not enough experienced FBI agents to go up against Dillinger. He’s insightful, quiet but commanding. I was riveted when he was on screen, even though it wasn’t for long.

After Dillinger’s subsequent escape, the final scene at the Biograph, the theatre where Dillinger was finally brought down, was also compelling. He goes to see Manhattan Melodrama, a great classic film with Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy, the irony of which can only be true (and is, according to FBI files). When he comes out, agents are surrounding the area. Dillinger figures out what’s going on, pulls his sidearm but is shot down before he can fire. Dillinger whispers his last words, and Agent Winstead (Lang) hears them but tells no one except Billy, “Tell Billy: Bye Bye Blackbird,” what he tells her early on in the film when they first dance together.

It is not an easy task to make an audience so totally identify with a cold-blooded killer, but Depp does so with his portrayal of Dillinger. Without saying a whole lot, you know his life story, his motivation, and as he says, where he’s going: Anywhere he wants. The fatalism that Billy knows is never discussed, only pushed aside. Dillinger lives this life because he has no other, and the film does a great job showing just that. Had Bale’s portrayal of Agent Purvis been a little more like that of Dillinger, I would have given this 5 stars. As it is, I wouldn’t mind adding this to my permanent collection. 4/5

If you like this movie, try also The Untouchables, American Gangster, The Godfather, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, On the Waterfront, Bonnie & Clyde.

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