The first time I watched Public Enemies, its opening acts were engrossing, interesting and propulsive, as Mann’s movies almost always are. Nevertheless, it had a sort of icy chill about it—and not in a good Neil “I sell metals” McCauley kind of way. I could sit here and list a dozen examples of why Public Enemies is quintessential Mann, from its romanticism of outlaws to its explosive action set pieces, but the biggest surprise for me, and I suppose the biggest disappointment, is how much of this movie is moodless, at least in Mann terms. Or am I wrong?
EH: Like you, I’d place the film somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as Mann goes, and it’s definitely hard to pin down exactly what it’s doing, so you’re not wrong there. On the other hand, I’m not sure I agree that the film is moodless, just that its mood is one of slightly distanced contemplation. Its palette tends towards grays and browns, washed-out colors, not quite the sepia of nostalgic photos but definitely a cool, aloof visual aesthetic.
I also agree that the strongest moments are concentrated towards the end. The film has an accumulative effect: It’s slowly building towards what we all know is coming, assuming we know the bare minimum about the real Dillinger. It has to end, more or less, with the scene at the Biograph and the hail of bullets, so there’s no suspense in that respect. But there are all these little moments along the way, indications that death is approaching—the film is shrouded in death—so that by the end the aura of approaching doom is nearly overwhelming. The early scenes might seem comparatively underwhelming, perhaps, because Mann is just putting the pieces in place, establishing his themes and setting everything up for the inevitability of the finale. It’s a film about impending death, and it’s structured to steamroll relentlessly towards Dillinger’s final breath, picking up momentum as it gets closer and closer to that moment.
It also becomes apparent in the brilliant Biograph scene why casting Marion Cotillard as Billie was such a good idea. She does a fine job throughout the film infusing some depth and warmth into an underwritten character, but ironically it’s that scene of Dillinger watching Manhattan Melodrama, a scene in which Billie doesn’t even appear, where the true potency of their relationship is finally conveyed. The moment Myrna Loy appears on the screen in the last movie Dillinger ever saw, the similarities between Cotillard and Loy become apparent. This resemblance, emphasized by Mann’s montage of Loy shots from the 1934 Woody Van Dyke film, recasts the meaning of Dillinger’s moviegoing habits. It wasn’t just that he enjoyed going to see gangster pictures to see tough guys on screen. He saw himself up there, and his own doomed romance as well; there’s a poignancy and sadness to the montage of Dillinger looking at Loy, pining for his own girl who got sent to prison because of him. It’s like he’s really looking at Billie, thinking about his own life and where it’s taken him, what it’s done to the woman he loves. It’s amazing how much these shots convey, largely just through editing and juxtaposition. It’s at that moment—and during the earlier scene of Billie being violently interrogated and defiantly standing by her man—that Dillinger and Billie really come alive. You’re right: Seeing Dillinger watch a movie, we get to connect to him in a way we never really did throughout the rest of the film, where he’s kept at arm’s length, an archetypal criminal outlaw, a figure of myth.
JB: Yeah, see, I think attributing Dillinger’s remoteness over the first half of the picture to some kind of myth- or mystery-making is giving Mann too much credit. I agree that there is something devastating about feeling close to Dillinger precisely at the moment we know he’s about to be taken away from us, but that doesn’t mean he needs to be such a blank slate early on. Over the first half of the film I think Mann relies too much on Dillinger’s name and Depp’s celebrity and fails to truly develop the character, to give us a reason to care. I think that half-measure, as much as anything, contributes to the feeling that Public Enemies is mostly moodless. Depp’s Dillinger doesn’t have the desperation of James Caan’s Frank in Thief, or the bottled intensity and loneliness of De Niro’s Neil in Heat, or the anguish of Russell Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, or the vulnerability of Jamie Foxx’s Max in Collateral. Instead, he’s something of a paper doll, clad in the real Dillinger’s notoriousness and the real Depp’s celebrity swagger.
It doesn’t help, by the way, that many of Depp’s lines are nearly inaudible, the fault of some astonishingly sloppy sound editing. The first time I saw Public Enemies, I figured it was the fault of the theater, but then I saw it again across town and the problems were the same. There are a few instances in which Depp’s lines are somehow quieter than the lines of the person sitting right next to him, and in the first conversation between Dillinger and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) the dubbing is crude to say the least. These blunders don’t ruin Public Enemies, of course, but they are obstacles that make it difficult to fall under the movie’s spell. Not to mention that it’s rather shocking that a director who flip-flops between film and digital in order to achieve his desired visual aesthetic would be so careless about the audio. But I digress.
Perhaps the best way to understand Public Enemies is to look back at the Mann films that came before it. So let’s begin at Mann’s first feature film, 1981’s Thief. That picture, about a meticulous thief looking to pull one last big job so that he can leave the criminal world in favor of a new life with the woman he loves, debuts themes and devices that Mann has reused and refined many times since. So my question to you is this: Eight movies later, looking backward, does Thief strike you as a bold early breakthrough, an experimental first draft, or something else altogether?
EH: There’s no doubt, it’s a remarkable debut, the emergence of a new talent almost fully formed. Mann had worked for several years previously in television, and before that he’d made some short films and documentaries on his own, so for his first true feature, he seems entirely in control, entirely sure of what he wants to say and how to say it. There are rough spots here and there—a few odd editing choices, occasional unclear visual storytelling—but on the whole it’s a polished, self-assured film for a first-time director. And it’s also a thematically rich film, the film that in many ways establishes the territory that Mann would return to again and again. James Caan’s Frank is Neil McCauley, he is John Dillinger. He’s the typical Mann lead who would reappear in picture after picture: A man totally dedicated to his work, proud of being the best at what he does, but also desperate for something beyond the work, something special of his own. Mann’s heroes and anti-heroes are almost always consumed by the desire for a family, for normality and stability, and at the same time they know that it’s not really for them, that they could never balance the life they lead with the life they want.
Mann virtually quotes from this film in Heat, both narratively (the crooks in both films escape the cops by placing a bug on a bus bound out of town) and especially thematically. Frank, like Neil in Heat, has the idea, learned in prison, that a man shouldn’t have any attachments in his life, that he shouldn’t care about anything. But he can’t help desperately yearning for a family. He carries around a collage postcard to remind himself of everything he wants, all the elements that when put together will represent his life. He seems to think of life as something you build, piece by piece, getting the ingredients together the way he prepares for a job: Methodical, mechanical, detail-oriented. He wants a wife, so he simply lays out the score for Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a damaged woman who agrees to throw in with him. He wants a son and she can’t have one, and his prison record prevents them from adopting, so instead he outright buys a baby through his syndicate boss Leo (the wonderfully creepy, lizard-like Robert Prosky). He buys a house, too, out in the suburbs with, as his partner Barry (Jim Belushi) describes it, “pink trees.” Frank is creating a model life for himself, a façade of suburban respectability, as though he can transform himself overnight into a normal guy.
The film is visually sumptuous, of course, and in that respect too it’s a bold debut, a heist movie where the emphasis is on slow-burning tension rather than action. It’s driven by the sinister motorik pulse of Tangerine Dream’s score, and the lush painterly quality of the images complements this atmospheric music. Mann places the emphasis on process: The safecracking jobs in this film are every bit as elaborate and carefully staged as the famous heist in Jules Dassin’s Rififi. Thief opens with a lengthy depiction of a robbery job, with Mann cutting around to each participant, showing his role in the plan. It’s all carefully calibrated, each piece fitting together, each person doing his specialized job at exactly the right moment. Mann shoots closeups of the wires in the alarm box, and of the drill as it slices through the safe’s exterior, revealing the lock mechanism within. Later, he spends even more time with the film’s central robbery, the archetypal crime film “one last job” that Frank plans along with his new syndicate benefactors. The gang cuts through a safe with a tremendous blowtorch rig, and Mann lingers lovingly over the sparks flying up from the super-heated metal as it slices into the door. He captures the white-hot tip of the torch, the yellow glow of the melting metal, the white fog that drifts around the room from the fire extinguisher. It becomes sensual and stylized, not just a depiction of a practical process but a celebration of heat and light and energy in this enclosed space. This is what Mann’s films, at their best, are all about: Transcending the ordinary genre conventions of what they’re showing to get at something deeper underneath, maybe the “religious experience” you mentioned, or maybe just the human vulnerability of his tough guy protagonists.
JB: I agree. Though Mann’s detractors sometimes suggest that his obsessions with machinery and procedurals reveal some kind of testosterone overload, I think such disparagement overlooks how often a man’s profession is the backbone of his identity—especially for single men. Granted, this picture takes that to the nth degree; I mean, it’s called Thief, for crying out loud. But all those long sequences of Frank at work reveal who he is and what he stands for. Thieves in the movies who claim to be the best at what they do are a dime a dozen. Frank stands out, as does the gang from Heat, because he proves it. He walks the walk. His methods, save the improvised blowtorch device, aren’t cutting-edge. Instead, Frank gets more out of a saw, crowbar and drill than the next guy. It’s not the tools that are good; he’s good. Thus, to watch Frank is to know who he is, not just professionally but personally. (And at this point I must pause to point out that while Dillinger’s multiple prison breaks establish his cunning in the early goings of Public Enemies, I didn’t get the same window into Dillinger’s soul watching him work that I do watching Frank’s thievery in Thief or Neil’s in Heat, or even watching Jamie Foxx’s Max cleaning his cab in Collateral.)