Wednesday, July 22nd, we went to the Oriental Theatre to see “Public Enemies,” the film dealing with the heyday of the Depression-Era outlaws. Johnny Depp stars as John Dillinger, but the story also touches on the careers of Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd (Channing Tatum), George “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham), and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis (Giovanii Ribisi), the brains of the “Ma Barker” gang.
After looking up the many historical inaccuracies, I have to say I respect the film less than I did when I left the theatre. I was captivated by the many plausible details, the carefully chosen settings (I was able to recognize the Milwaukee Historical Society building in one scene, and a Baraboo bank in another) and the beautiful cinematography. Georgie said that the color pallete—the clothes, the interiors, the lighting—gave the film the feel of film noir, and I must agree. Perhaps unfortunately, it also gives the film an air of verisimilitude which gives you the impression of reality. If you accept the film as being an updated “Untouchables,” it works well. Some scenes are blatant cops-and-robbers fantasy, as in Purvis riding on the running board of a speeding sedan, firing a Tommy gun single-handedly at the fleeing bad guys. Spoileriffic discussion of specific behind the cut--
The film is not so much a historical document as it is an elegy for the last age of the romantic robber. When the “Feds” start making things hot, Frank Nitti, Capone’s successor, cuts Dillinger and his men off from aid and shelter, one of his henchmen noting that a single one of the organized crime betting boiler rooms makes as much in a day, every day, with police protection, as Dillinger can take in a good robbery. We agreed that the story, perhaps unintentionally, follows the classic arc of the Twentieth Century, wherein the craftsman and the artisan are overtaken and displaced by industrialization and mass production. Dillinger and his gang are the last of the craftsman criminals, being made obsolete by the telephone, the radio, the airplane, and “scientific” law enforcement.
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Viewed carefully, the movie actually does not glamorize the lives of the criminals overly much. The opening sequence, dealing with a supposedly Dillinger-engineered breakout from the Indiana State Penitentiary, is grim, stark, and brutal. Dillinger and his men have to abandon their wounded, although Dillinger is always shown as being upset about the injury or death of his gang members. There is no music track until the next scenes showing the (out-of-sequence) death of “Pretty Boy” Floyd, which has a score that harks back to “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” As the film notes, events and characters have been combined for dramatic effect. In point of fact, both Floyd and “Baby Face” Nelson outlived John Dillinger, and Melvin Purvis (played in the movie by Christian Bale) was not present at the death of either man.
In fact the movie is ambivalent about all the characters. Although in his first bank robbery scene, Dillinger tells the bank customers he isn’t there for their money, just the bank’s money, very “Robin Hood,” but then does not scruple to use a female bank employee (likely a low-paid clerk or teller) as a shield and hostage when escaping. Nelson is pretty fairly characterized as a ruthless killer.
The G-men do not come off as total good guys either. Even clean-cut Purvis is shown standing by as an agent tortures a gravely wounded man to extract information (another historically untrue scene—the information given by the wounded man in fact came from another source), and a member of the Chicago FBI office is shown abusing Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) in another sequence that didn’t actually happen. (Historically, it does appear that police and federal agents were very rough with wives and girlfriends of robbers, many of whom went to prison for harboring fugitives. J. Edgar Hoover notoriously gave a “no quarter” order regarding the wife of Nelson, which caused many people to believe he had ordered her summary execution.)
Hoover (Billy Crudup) is not portrayed sympathetically. He veers between his goals of empire building on the one hand, and trying to do it with the “best young men,” in which he is disappointed when Purvis tells him that the young staff of his Chicago office are not up to the job and need to be augmented by some experienced manhunters.
Depp reads well as Dillinger, switching from his roughly magnetic personality to a “thousand-yard stare” when contemplating violence. Bale as his nemesis, Purvis, comes across as a Southern gentleman who’s been given a dirty but necessary job to do and who is doing it to the best of his ability. They are well supported by the cast of G-men and gunmen. Marion Cotillard does a good job as Frechette, as does Branka Katic as Anna Sage.
Definitely for adults, the movie has minimal sexual content, but lots of gunfire (to be expected when the favored weapon of both sides is the Thompson sub-machine gun), and “gangster violence”, with considerable, but not excessive, levels of bloodshed.