Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Small Fist of Power

Public Enemies (U.S., 2009) directed by Michael Mann, 143 minutes

Much as I love the two acting leads, Johnny Depp, as the 1930s American bank robber/outlaw John Dillinger, and Marion Cotillard, as his coat check cutie Billie Frechette, this film left me cold much in the same way Steven Soderbergh's 2008 epic four hour film Che disappointed me.

Both seemed to adhere too rigidly to the history of the men to reveal the "true" man - as paradoxical as that may sound. These men are more than a summation of the gun battles they fought and who they killed. More than a series of colourful locations and authentic looking costumes. But the "real" Dillinger eludes us here.

The film does look beautiful, the costuming and selection of most of the actors are spot on - but it felt bloodless and inauthentic to me. If only they had captured the energy and excitement of the excerpt I had read from Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burroughs that the movie was based on. 

I remember reading that the director Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Collateral, Ali, The Insider, Heat), who seems to share my passion for gangsters, was pleased to be using the exact same locations that John Dillinger was found at (the safe house he escaped from during an escapade with the FBI, and the same cinema, the Biograph Theater in Chicago, where Dillinger watched the gangster film Manhattan Melodrama and was apprehended and gunned down).

The story is tragic and familiar following a well known historical pattern, knowing no geographical boundaries: an impoverished and uneducated boy rises to power through criminal means. He becomes a sort of hero to the underdog despite his violence and criminal ways. He eludes capture and can only be caught if a trusted friend betrays him. He dies young and violently then becomes canonized by the public after his death. And so it goes for Dillinger and ... Jesse James (U.S.), Ned Kelly (Australia) and Salvatore Giuliano (Sicily) and countless others no doubt.

Dillinger's tenure was short and very violent. He was released from prison in 1933 (serving almost nine years for stealing $50 worth of groceries) and was killed the following year but not until he had been involved in robbing at least two dozen banks and four police stations.

I felt too much time was spent on the car chases, bank robberies and gunfights and too little on his back story. What was Dillinger's? You don't grow up to be Public Enemy Number One unless there is some kind of trigger in your background. I had no sense of the man. I can't imagine, nor did I want to see, the Dillinger character emoting about an underprivileged background which lead to these circumstances but some hint of why ... there was only a tiny glimmer: the early death of his mother and a harsh father. The three screenwriters (which included Mann) gave us nothing to frame this cold-bloodedness and history of violence.

The only time that Dillinger came to life for me was when Depp was interacting with the lovely Billie (Marion Cotillard) - there is real chemistry there - moments of tenderness and gallantry, many small gestures of passion, short-lived as they were rumored to be together only for the last six months of Dillinger's life. Or there are touching scenes with Dillinger's men with whom he shared a brotherly (or criminal) sense of loyalty and duty.

Heck, I'm as attracted as the next gal to outlaws and bandits but I can't quite believe Depp as a cold blooded killer. He is still too pretty, even as he grows into middle age with those liquid eyes and pouty lips. I say this with regret as I adore him on screen in almost everything he does - from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape to Finding Neverland's James Barrie to the cartoonish Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy to the grotesque Sweeney Todd and many more roles.

I think in times of great economic duress and historical upheaval, when we believe that we are being exploited by unjust forces, we turn to these folkloric anti-heroes who represent one small fist in the face of authority and power. Maybe Dillinger stole from the banks that had "ruined" so many lives during the Great Depression because as one characters says, "he was just giving the customers back their money".

I couldn't help thinking of another outlaw whom I have written of many times: the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano (1922-1950). In one of my first posts on this topic, I talked about the links between the post-Civil War outlaw Jesse James and the mid 20th century Sicilian bandit Giuliano. There seem to be many similarities here too between Dillinger and Giuliano.

Both men surface when society is in a state of economic chaos: Dillinger was at the height of his bank robbing powers during the Great Depression and Giuliano appeared during WWII in a country under siege where there was a great need for rationing and, consequently, an even bigger need to sell and buy food on the black market in order to survive. Their criminal careers began with a quest to feed themselves.

Dillinger stole $50 worth of groceries for which he was sentenced to ten years; Giuliano was smuggling black market goods (cheese and wheat to be exact) and faced a long prison sentence for this crime had he not escaped the clutches of the carabinieri.

Anecdotal stories told of Dillinger mingling with the "common folk", in cinemas, on the street, as did Giuliano. They seemed to glory in their ability to evade the police and mix in with the people. In this film Dillinger walks straight into a detectives' squad room, even asking a group of them listening to a ball game on the radio who was winning. There were many such stories about Giuliano moving freely in the streets, even amongst the police, undetected.

They were generous and extravagant at times to a fault and were famous for it. They were well liked by the press for their quick-witted responses and mocking ways towards their enemies and the authorities. 

Both were impeccably dressed (Depp is fabulously attired here) ... even Giuliano who was rumored to have lived in hiding in caves for seven years was always well-groomed and admired for his handsome demeanor. 

They were both ruthless when betrayed or thwarted: killing whomever, whenever, they were threatened with exposure or their plans in peril: former allies, the young, were not spared nor were the deaths anything but vengefully violent.

Each had a streak of gallantry and romanticism (real or imagined by their admirers?). Didn't you love the way Dillinger threw his coat over the captive female bank clerk's shoulders as they exited the bank even as he was robbing it? Or the way he sang a folk song to the bewildered mechanic, while he was hijacking Sheriff Lillian Holley's new Ford car, with the captive mechanic in it? Or his gentleness with Billie when he swore he would never leave her, his tender nickname for her (from the song Bye Bye Blackbird sung beautifully here by Diana Krall). His last dying words were meant for her and her alone.

Giuliano was famous for his chivalry. In one story he stole a duchess' jewels and left her a book of poetry in its stead. He was enamored of the knights of Charlemagne's time. He gave money unstintingly to the poor and grew outraged when his mother and sisters were insulted and threatened as they often were.

The people close to them (accused of no crimes) were physically abused and tortured for their allegiance: here Billie Frechette and also members of Giuliano's family who were harassed, arrested and imprisoned for years for their protection of his whereabouts.

They both died young and very violently in a hail of bullets (Dillinger at 31, Giuliano at 28) betrayed by those close to them (Anna Sage, a formerly friendly Romanian madame from a brothel he frequented in Dillinger's case and Gaspare Pisciotta, Giuliano's best friend, sometimes referred to as his cousin). 

They were both romanticized and adored by the common man (and woman). And remain so today ...

We don't care for thieves and killers, nor should we, but most of us still idolize those who, in some small way, shake the corridors of power and authority and survive but a little while, fight valiantly and are soon extinguished by forces greater than themselves.


Andrew Smith said...

Great review! Thanks. I'll probably still see the movie (cos I'm as big a fan of JD as you) but maybe wait for DVD. Thanks too for the Giuliano info. My curiosity is much peeked, will look up more about him. Andrew

Michelle said...

Andrew, you would really appreciate Salvatore Giuliano's story ... my second (unpublished) novel is about his life. He is venerated in Sicily like a saint.