A Little Depp’ll Do Ya! Johnny Gets His Gun

Public Enemies
Running time 143 minutes
Written by Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann and Ann Biderman
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring  Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Channing Tatum, Stephen Graham, Giovanni Ribisi, Billy Crudup

America’s enduring obsession with the folk-hero outlaws and gangsters of the 1930s is about to get ratcheted up a few notches. Ace director Michael Mann’s  Public Enemies, with Johnny Depp as an unlikely but undeniably mesmerizing John Dillinger, opens on July 1, but I liked it so much I am compelled to write about it early. I don’t think anyone will mind. Thrilling, glamorous, richly textured and breathlessly action-packed, it is one of the best movies of the year.

Eschewing biographical data and jumping instantly to the point, it begins in 1933 with the world’s most famous bank robber’s daring and imaginative breakout from a Lima, Ohio, jail (he literally walked right out into a waiting car). Since no cop could catch him and no prison could hold him, it was the first of many. For economically downtrodden Americans, it was the fourth year of the Great Depression, but for Dillinger and his gang, which included the psychotic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham); the paranoid Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum); ruthless schemers Harry Pierpont (David Wenham) and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi); and the murderous Homer van Meter (Stephen Dorff), it was the golden age of bank robberies. They’re all here—their depraved personalities, mind-boggling escapades, narrow escapes and horrible endings—inspired by Bonnie and Clyde and pursued with a vengeance by ace F.B.I. mongoose Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The actors are uniformly wonderful, and the film never lags far from the action, even in the love scenes.

Yes, the story has been told before, in countless movies and TV shows, but the Dillinger played by Johnny Depp is such a lover that it soon becomes clear why his strange mixture of danger and charisma inspired foppish, inexperienced crime fighter J. Edgar Hoover to label him “Public Enemy No. 1” while the disillusioned public—broke and already unsympathetic to the banks that had lost their savings and foreclosed on their homes, farms and businesses—cheered him on as a modern-day Robin Hood. (During his heists, Dillinger often took the time to destroy loan files and mortgage records.) In his element among the crooked cops and flashy Roxie Harts of Chicago, Dillinger met and fell for his one and only. The girl who knocked his socks off was Billie Frechette, alluringly played by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard in her first role since Edith Piaf in the unforgettable La Vie en Rose. Billie is presented as a sweet, naïve country girl, half-French and half–Native American, from the Menominee Indian Reservation, who meets Dillinger at a dance in November 1933 and fears his aggressive overtures. In real life, she had already covered a lot of territory in the Chicago underworld, and her first husband was in prison for mail robbery when she met Dillinger. So becoming the lover of Public Enemy No. 1 was actually a rung up the ladder for an adventuress. They lived together as passionate companions until she was arrested in 1934 (although she drove a getaway car only one time) and served two years in prison for harboring a fugitive. She went on to live a respectable life until her death in 1969.

The movie catalogs this romantic subplot, juxtaposed with both the exploits of the Dillinger gang and the frustration of Southern gentleman G-man Purvis and the fledgling F.B.I., with its antiquated crime-detection techniques, in their efforts to trap them. There is violence (it’s a movie about gangsters, not naughty kids on skateboards), but it’s never as bloody as anything in a dozen Martin Scorsese movies. And the shootouts are leavened by humor. Dillinger is so full of cocky self-confidence that when he finally comes face to face with Purvis in prison, the exchange is surprisingly raffish. “What keeps you up nights, Mr. Dillinger?” asks Purvis.  “Coffee.” These are hoods who remain undaunted in their belief that no one can catch them (“They’re not tough enough, smart enough, or fast enough”), and even when he’s dragged off to prison to await execution under armed guards, buoyed by the “bravos” of the crowds outside, Dillinger remains optimistic. He was as adept at staging escapes as he was at robbing banks and taking hostages, and squeezed out of more tight spots than Harry Houdini. He may have been on the wrong side of the law, but there is no doubt whose side the audience is on. Transferred from an Illinois jail to an escape-proof state penitentiary in his native Indiana in 1934, Dillinger steals the car of the female county sheriff (Lili Taylor) and drives back across the state line, risking everything for a reunion with Billie. There’s a marvelous scene, tightly staged by director Mann’s all-encompassing camera, where he walks boldly into the Chicago Police Department, enters the Dillinger investigation offices, peruses the wall photos of everyone he’s known and lost (including Billie) and asks the preoccupied cops listening to a ball game, “What’s the score?” The events of July 22, 1934, when he met his fate at the hands of special agent Purvis and his agents outside Chicago’s Art Deco Biograph Theatre, where Dillinger had just watched Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Manhattan Melodrama, are brilliantly detailed, including footage of the movie itself. Ironically the press had nicknamed Purvis himself “the Clark Gable of the F.B.I.” You learn things. I never knew Dillinger had been set up by his moviegoing companion, an illegal brothel madam from Romania who betrayed him to Purvis to protect herself from being deported. (Excellent work by Branca Katic, one of the stars of the hit HBO series about Mormon polygamy, Big Love.) Even the Biograph marquee has been faithfully reproduced.  

It’s all here, exhaustively researched and painstakingly re-created. Curiously, there’s no mention of Dillinger’s wife, Beryl, and Michael Mann’s screenplay, co-written with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, takes liberties by condensing some events and combining a few characters, but with so many informers, gunmen and tertiary historic plot contributors, it’s amazing that so few key elements found their way into the discard pile. From Billy Crudup, as the silly, publicity-seeking J. Edgar Hoover, to Johnny Depp’s magnetic starring role, replete with neatly cropped hair, piercing dark eyes, no sign of a tattoo and a lewd smile in the corner of his eyes, every role large and small is polished to perfection. (Johnny Depp gives the best performance of his career.) Even the bank plunders in broad daylight seem freshly staged. Since it’s more in the biographical vein of Bugsy than the grand opera of The Godfather, no easy comparisons come instantly to mind. But with the shiny cars with white-wall tires; the tailored, double-breasted pinstriped suits that give you an idea where Giorgio Armani’s fashion inspiration comes from; the music (lots of early Billie Holiday and big band jazz); and the navy blue midnight world of the Great Depression—Mr. Mann does more to illustrate the fabric of the gangster era than any film since Pete Kelly’s Blues.

In the process, Public Enemies becomes one glamorous, glorious, gun-blazing whale of an entertainment.


  A Little Depp’ll Do Ya! Johnny Gets His Gun