Gangsters have occupied a rather over-elevated rung on the movie subject-matter ladder since the first hand-cranked silents unspooled for the hungry hordes a century ago. Criminals lead such dramatic lives, so full of danger and tragedy and excitement that we naturally look to them for our movie myths and anti-heroes. We fantasize and fetishize these quintessential losers so dutifully that they continue to exude glamor and power some seventy-odd years past their reign of terror. Their Depression seemed more romantic, more photo-ready than our own, their poverty and hard times made picturesque by the passage of time. Criminal desperation and anarchic violence gets rendered literary and archetypal. So which film featuring the fall of which ill-fated bank robber/lover makes the grade? Depp’s dapper Dillinger faces off squarely with Beatty’s Barrow.
Public Enemies (2009) Michael Mann directs Johnny Depp in an ambitious fever-dream version of the last gasp of 1930s glamorous gangster life in Chicago. John Dillinger is the film’s centerpiece, released after nine years in prison only to be squeezed uncomfortably and fatally between two larger and far more deadly forces – the burgeoning FBI and organized crime. Dillinger and other infamous crooks meet their famous ends at the hands of Melvin Purvis and his nameless G-men.
The Defending Champion
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Arthur Penn directs a sterling script by David Newman and Robert Benton with an uncredited assist from the formidable Robert Towne. Glamorous Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway head up an otherwise convincingly hardscrabble Depression-era cast of exquisitely chosen character actors, Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Wilder, Denver Pyle, and Dub Taylor to name a worthy few. All the paint is peeling, all the midsummer heat and smalltown boredom waft off the screen. Bonnie Parker meets Clyde Barrow, and the rest is history, an elegiac toboggan ride of doomed romance and dysfunctional family business.
As anyone who’s entered my inner sanctum can attest, Johnny Depp figures prominently in my personal, not-so-terribly-private daydream world. No surprise, then, that I fairly sprinted to the theater to watch his latest incarnation, prepared to lose my heart and leave my head at the door. Alas, I did not fall in love. Something essential is missing in Public Enemies. While Dillinger’s popularity with the people is alluded to a few times, and several characters profess their fierce loyalty, no connections are all that apparent. The movie presents Dillinger as heroic, smart, and essentially decent for a bad guy, but we learn nothing particular; most of the film is (let’s be charitable here) unclear. Depp’s Dillinger moves through untethered and underdrawn, unknown and ultimately unknowable. Even his instant attraction to Billie Frechette seems random and forced, not to mention astonishingly mutual given his remarkable extenuating circumstances. Their relationship, while central to the film, never quite rings true or specific. Just another bored hatcheck girl with a three dollar dress, won over by a fur coat and a chance for adventure. Is infamy and inevitable loss really all that preferable to anonymity and boredom? You betcha. At least it is for this French-Indian whore.
The film is crawling with award-baiting pedigree and indie cred. Actors who have registered elsewhere — Christian Bale, Lili Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi — all fail to score big here, upstaged by a series of undistinguished and indistinguishable car chases, night gunfights, prison breaks, and bloody deaths. (Cast as scheming trainrobber Alvin Karpis, Ribisi’s uncanny resemblance to the real Dillinger is remarkable.) Billy Crudup has some wicked fun mocking Hoover, and Marion Cotillard makes the most (or is it moist?) of her girlfriend role, plopping big tears from beneath her impossibly long eyelashes and executing an Austin Powers-style no-nudity bathtub scene. The lovers even stay curiously clothed for their one passionate love scene. I’m not complaining, mind you. I’m merely mentioning. These are two very big movie stars, and they have nothing to prove. Cotillard looks great, and she’s clearly got some chops even in her non-native language, but her chemistry with Depp burns on a very low flame. All their onscreen time together doesn’t generate much heat either.
It’s difficult to love a film or even to admire it when one spends two hours staring at characters we barely know. Famous and infamous names are dropped, and with other more successful gangster sagas solidly stored in my memory bank, I knew enough about Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and Frank Nitti to make heads and a tail of this viscous stew, but the proceedings did precious little to expand my understanding of these stalwart go-to bad guys. The only fresh idea by my count was a little conceit about the syndicate cutting these indie operators loose as organized crime enmeshed with crime-stoppers and became big business, crooked and profitable beyond these small time crooks’ biggest dreams. For all movie bad guys, retirement and relocation is perennially one big job away, the big job that never ever arrives.
Melvin Purvis and his nameless cohorts on the G-man side of the cops and robbers game set their jaws and aim their guns, humorless, cruel, and incompetent Keystone Kops. Wrapped up in their state-of-the-art wiretapping technology, over-the-top informant questioning, and scientific investigation techniques, they manage to miss the actual object of their massive search multiple times over the course of the film. If Hoover is the government gavoon at the top of this topsy turvy good vs. evil pyramid, these guys are his buffoonish representatives at large. Actual crooks and hoods and killers play rebels without much of a cause, stealing from banks and treating civilians with an occasionally careless chivalry that can turn unfortunate.
Yes, the big bad banks are perennial villains, and Hoover a smirking simp and ambitious pretender, and yes, we are in on the joke. But isn’t there more to this movie-making stuff than serving up a reheated platter of hash with a patina of style and glamor? The Tommy Gun fights go on forever, a never-ending 4th of July fireworks show in the dark woods. Cars with their romantic running boards and shiny black exteriors whiz by in every direction over and over again. The banks, with their art deco symmetry and painted ceilings, dazzle. The bleak jail cells and prisons oppress. But does it amount to more than the sum of all these seen-it-all-before parts? Where’s the heart?
Bonnie and Clyde packs more than a period punch. It takes its sweet time developing characters and relationships so that every shocking act of violence, every shot, every hit, every betrayal, matters. Frank and adult, complex in its treatment of sexual dysfunction and family psychology, the film’s humor remains fresh, its insights still significant and smart.
That said, Dean Tavalouris’ impeccable art direction doesn’t miss a period trick in spite of the mid-sixties overly lit* cinematography. We are right there in the seedy, fading small towns of Texas. Theadora Van Runkle’s costumes set off a beret-wearing, drop-waisted, menswear frenzy in the stores of the late sixties, while managing to accurately mirror the historical era pictured in the still frames that start the film and tell everything you need to know about each character. The editing by industry giant Dede Allen remains modern and elegant. Standing tall, Bonnie and Clyde is still a technical masterpiece, made only slightly less marvelous in the forty-some years since its astonishing and groundbreaking debut.
(*A word on 1960’s Hollywood films and the tendency to light without apparent source. Ignore it. Over lighting was the best cinematographers could do at the time, and your learning to make allowances for technical limitations is worth the effort. Otherwise, you’ll miss out on film classics.)
I truly thought this would be a much fairer fight. Even with its Tommy Guns blazing, even with its timely and relevant scenes of violent interrogation and the useless information and loss of moral highground that sort of thing might generate, even with Johnny Freakin’ Depp, Dillinger can’t quite unseat Barrow and Parker. Bonnie and Clyde and their band of sorry losers finally win.