John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) likes being a gangster. He likes driving fast and wearing “good clothes,” robbing banks and eluding the cops again and again. He especially likes being a celebrity. This much is clear during a brief moment in Public Enemies, after he’s been captured. Riding into Indiana in the back seat of an official police vehicle, he looks out the window to see the streets filled with eager supporters. They push forward from the sidewalks, smiling and waving, calling out his name. He’s a hero to them, an emblem of possibility. In 1934, he is not poor, not depressed, and not stuck. He is, instead, a star.
John gets another look at what it means to be famous when Michael Mann’s movie conjures its most striking scene: John Dillinger inside the Dillinger Squad Room. He’s escaped custody one more time. After months on the run in Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, he’s returned to Chicago, where he walks into the police department in the middle of the day. Distracted by a baseball game on the radio, none of the detectives notices their designated prey as he casually explores their shrine to him: the camera takes his perspective as John gazes on an array of mug shots, maps, and photos of his erstwhile associates now marked “Deceased.” Cuts back to his face, reshaped by variable shards of sunlight, show a mix of pleasure, perplexity, and appreciation.
Evocative and preposterous, the scene imagines being John Dillinger as a kind of hall of mirrors. In Indiana he was celebrated by consumers—of newsreels, Hollywood gangster pictures, and dime novels. In Chicago, he observes the vaunted “modern techniques” of police surveillance. In both instances, John sees himself in others’ eyes.
These two scenes, so smart and succinct, reveal what’s best about Public Enemies, but also what’s most disappointing. Like many of Mann’s movies, this one is impressionistic rather than linear, more allusive than assertive. At times, its take on Dillinger, one of the Great Depression’s most popular public figures, is almost perversely intimate, a study not of his relationships or his motives, but of his self-awareness. He understands what people like about him. No matter that he is a brutal murderer and outlaw. John is also a gentleman, unlike most of his colleagues and adversaries: he gives his overcoat to a female hostage who feels cold; he won’t take bank customers’ cash, only the piles of bills stored in vaults; and he won’t get into the reportedly lucrative business of kidnapping because, “The public don’t like kidnapping.”
John’s opponents are equally conscious of the workings of PR. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) retaliates against a senator who refuses his appropriations request by smearing him in Walter Winchell’s gossip column (he’s a “neanderthal”). On hearing that Special Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) has gunned down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Hoover assigns him to “get” Dillinger. After years of feeling mocked by this crook, a host of cops, sheriffs, prison guards, and federal agents are glad to be on board with Purvis’ aggressive campaign: they record phone conversations, wait outside apartment buildings, and assiduously track down where the bad guys sleep, eat, and shop. Though they are thwarted repeatedly—as the outlaw is at least as good at breaking out of jails as he is at robbing banks—the authorities remain determined to get their man.
As John and Purvis match wits, the film matches compositions, underscoring their competition with huge, low-angled, and mostly mobile facial close-ups. Purvis is single-minded, with no apparent life outside his “task.” John, by lamentable contrast, is framed as a more conventional hero, his romance with hatcheck girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) a central organizing element in his grander mythology. Their scenes together are fleeting and frequently silly (“You’re dark and beautiful,” he tells her, cherishing her half-French, half-Native American heritage; when she invites him into her bathtub, he offers himself and “Prince Albert,” a clunky nod to his legendarily large penis).
They also tend to slow down John’s more interesting plot, his evolving relationship with his public. It’s possible to read Billie as a particular instance of that public, as she is especially impressed by his generosity and style (he wins her over with an expensive fur-collared coat). But mostly, she is a typical movie-gangster girlfriend, impossibly beautiful, briefly skeptical of his charms, and finally a little vacuous, all to the end of indicating his sympathetic emotional vulnerability.
That’s not to say that John “develops” in Public Enemies. He and Purvis are introduced pretty much fully formed, their cat-and-mousing not illuminating or altering them so much as it occasions a series of elegant, carefully wrought images. Mann’s much-remarked stylization is thematic here, in that the G-Man and the outlaw both invest in appearances and value advancing technologies as these enhance or debilitate their reputations. That their so-called enmity became so public is to the film’s point: John Dillinger had to be executed rather than arrested precisely because his career had become a show—a notorious instance of the government not working (again, and during the Depression). Sensational and turbulent, their relationship sold newspapers and attracted newsreel audiences. It was good for business, a point the players surely understood but never controlled.