Death is everywhere in this film, and not just in the generic sense where bodies drop during gunfights, like all those cops who presumably die during Heat’s big shootout. Here, death is intimate and slow, and there’s time to consider it, to linger over its details, to say one last goodbye. This is in one sense melodramatic, like the old Shakespearian tradition of the death speech, but Mann’s approach is so quiet and emotionally true that these moments are instead poignant and deeply personal, glimpses into the end of life and how these men deal with it. The theme emerges most prominently in the film’s centerpiece, the one face-to-face confrontation between Dillinger and Purvis. The two men discuss what it’s like to look death in the face, to be that close to a man as the life leaves his eyes; they’ve both experienced this, and it’s ultimately what binds them together, even as the different ways they cope with it separate them. This is an ephemeral, metaphysical moment, something hard to define, and by capturing it and lingering on it, Mann brings a kind of rough spirituality into his film. It’s a film about death, all leading up to that final death scene. It comes as no surprise, after all the other death scenes in the film, that Dillinger’s final moment is similarly conceived. The outlaw gasps out a last few mumbled words, gibberish to the audience but picked up by the special agent who leans over into the frame in closeup, obscuring Dillinger’s bloodied face, listening to his final whispered words. The film emphasizes the importance of capturing this moment, the moment when a human life disappears forever.
That for me is the essence of the film’s deeper significance. These scenes, and the parallels between them, hold the whole film together around a hard core of death. It’s interesting, actually, that Mann has made so many films about outlaws and crooks and other men with violent, dangerous lives, but only in this one does he really delve into the nature of how these kinds of men would deal with death. In that respect, it’s a worthy addition to his run of crime films, and a moving, powerful experience in its own right.
JB: Well, you sure make it sound good on paper. But, personally (and I realize we’re into especially subjective territory here), calling this film an examination of or meditation on death seems like, at best, the result of a mathematic deconstruction of the scenes. Not to belabor the point, but in a film so full of death and so supposedly fascinated by it, shouldn’t I feel something with each death? More importantly, shouldn’t I feel that Dillinger feels something? That moment at the start of the film in which the guy is being dragged by the car? It’s powerful in terms of establishing the inherent danger of Dillinger’s line of work. But just a few seconds later Dillinger is throwing a culpable goon out of a moving vehicle with little hesitation. We can infer that the first guy was a close friend and the latter guy wasn’t, but to us in the audience both victims are anonymous Dillinger associates. I’m not arguing that Mann needed to give us their backstories, just that he needed to find a way to unlock Dillinger’s psyche so we can experience these deaths through him. Think, for example, of what Steven Spielberg does with Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller in the opening seconds of Saving Private Ryan—focusing on that trembling hand struggling with the canteen and peering into Miller’s soul through Hanks’ vulnerable eyes. From that moment on, we identify with Miller, understand him. By comparison, Dillinger is mostly impenetrable.
That said, maybe I’m coming at Public Enemies from the wrong angle. Maybe my awareness of its genre similarities to Thief and Heat has me thinking that the movie intends to unveil in Dillinger and Purvis the kind of depth that can be found in Frank, Neil and Vincent. Instead, maybe this movie is closer to Miami Vice, believe it or not, in that Mann isn’t trying to draw me within his lead characters so much as he’s trying to place me within their world. By those standards, Public Enemies succeeds in that I find it consistently interesting. But, the final act excluded, it’s just that—interesting. That’s enough that Public Enemies remains one of the best cinema experiences of the year thus far, let me be clear about that. Alas, I can’t help but be disappointed that the movie isn’t more hypnotizing, scarring even. I said earlier that Cheritto’s line in Heat, “For me, the action is the juice,” is the skeleton key that unlocks the driving force behind the majority of Mann’s characters (Dillinger certainly included), and I think Heat also includes the scene that best illustrates what it feels like to connect with a Mann film. It’s the diner scene between Neil and Eady. One moment she’s asking him about books and he’s talking about metals, and the next thing you know they’re gazing over Los Angeles, lost in light and passion. At its best, Mann’s cinema is as thrilling as new love, so I wish I could say that Public Enemies sticks with me like memories of old romances. Instead, Public Enemies is to me what Duncan is to Cora in The Last of the Mohicans—honorable, just not unforgettable.
EH: Well, there’s no arguing what you do or do not feel in a film. Personally (there’s that word again), I found Public Enemies affecting and emotionally satisfying—maybe in a different way than the romance of Neil and Eady in Heat, though. That’s the thing about Mann. His best work, whatever intellectual pleasures it may have, is more about feelings, about moods and impressions. These things can at times be fleeting, hard to grasp, and they inevitably make it hard for Mann’s admirers to communicate what moves them about his films. You can see that throughout this discussion, in the places where we disagree about the merits of one film or another: We might agree about what the film is doing, but there’s an ineffable something that separates us in our appreciation or criticism of the film. Call it mood, call it a “religious experience,” call it whatever you like, but Mann’s best films transcend their surface stories, digging into the profound depths of his characters and themes. This is arguably the single thread that runs through all of his work, a desire to push beyond the surface of the story to something further, whether it’s the metaphysical noir of Heat or Thief, the introspective examination of the thought process in The Insider, or the use of violence as a metaphor for change in Collateral. Mann’s films are rarely just about what they seem to be about on the surface. He’s an obsessively probing, substantial filmmaker who’s never content to simply tell a story when he can make us feel something instead.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.