There are two scenes in Michael Mann's new film Public Enemies that stand out because of their complexity and interesting points of view. In both, which occur towards the end of the film, Johnny Depp, who embodies Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger with a subtlety that we have not seen from this actor in quite a while, becomes a kind of spectator joining us in the visual creative process of the film. In the first, Dillinger enters a Chicago building and walks right inside the special crime unit that bears his own name right on the door. Once inside, he ambles through the FBI's semi-deserted office, and through maps and pictures that document his own crime history and recap the earlier scenes and characters of the film. Depp ambles through the office like a stranger in a strange land, as if he had landed on another planet where the faces are recognizable but the language is not. Exhilarated that he has entered the holy of holiest, and fascinated as he witnesses his life translated into the foreign jargon of G-Men, Johnny Depp's expression is priceless. As he observes the photographs of his dead associates and the POV camera rests on his own mug shot (the only one not bearing a stamp that says "Deceased") that poignant existential moment ought to be the scene's payoff. But Mann has another trick up his sleeve. Johnny Depp turns around and realizes that the emptiness of the office is due to the fact that the G-men have dropped everything, and are gathered around a radio listening to a baseball game. The scene finally comes to a climax when Depp boldly asks them for the score, and he gets an answer without a single agent raising his head from the radio. The second scene is a little more problematic. In the film's climactic sequence, Dillinger has gone to the movies and the FBI has been tipped-off and are waiting for him outside the theater. Inside the movie house, Hollywood greatness is running through the projector. The silvery images of Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Clark Gable flicker by our eyes as well as Depp's. As he watches MGM's Manhattan Melodrama, a tale of the friendship between crook Gable and governor of New York Powell that ends with Gable going to the electric chair and refusing Powell's pardon, Johnny Depp's eyes are filled with wonder, as are our own. In Gable, Dillinger sees a romanticized picture of himself, as we ourselves witness the final scenes of a romanticized life of John Dillinger. But beyond this, there is something else, something deeper in Johnny Depp's eyes. Quite frankly, a look that shouldn't be there. There is way too much of the film buff on his face. He is sitting in a 1934 theatre with the look of a Columbia Film School graduate. Was John Dillinger really that much of a film lover, and would he have shown it the way that Depp does? Depp's enraptured gaze can easily label him as a Jacques Derrida deconstructionist, or an avid collector of back-issues of Cahiers du Cinéma more than a 1930's Depression era mid-westerner out for a night on the town.
But any movie called Public Enemies is referential to the world of film. Its title is inspired by the greatest of all the Warner Brothers gangster films (The Public Enemy), and following this postmodern tip of the hat, Public Enemies is also about Bonnie and Clyde, as well as Miller's Crossing and Mr. Mann's own The Last of the Mohicans, a film that was based on the screenplay of the 1936 version and which was also shot by the great cinematographer Dante Spinotti.
Spinotti's outstanding and revolutionary digital cinematography along with Johnny Depp's understated performances are just two of the many things to recommend in Public Enemies. Christian Bale is enigmatic and chilling as G-Men Melvin Purvis and Marion Cotillard plays Billie Frechette, as the most faithful and trusting gun moll in the history of crime drama. As head of the newly-formed FBI, Billy Crudup is almost unrecognizable as J. Edgar Hoover, and there are also fine, if fleeting performances by Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd, Giovanni Rabisi as Alvin Karpis, and a blink and you'll miss her turn for Diana Krall as a Torch Singer at a club. This last bit is wildly reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright's cameo as a Cocoanut grove singer in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator.
Like Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann is a good student of film, meaning that he knows how to avoid Brian De Palma "excessive borrowings" and make a good movie that manages to capture the flavor of another age and time. Public Enemies is no exception: a fine historical gangster film that entertains and often makes one ponder about our never-ending love of gangsters and the Underworld.