a veritable trove of images, questions and answers about the "golden age of bank robbery."

Public Enemies

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            “He died in a hail of bullets.” The familiar phrase erupted in the early 1930s along with a relatively new invention, the Tommy gun. Named for its inventor and designed as a weapon to sweep wartime trenches clea n of young soldiers, it was adopted by the rising G-man, J.Edgar Hoover and his FBI as well as by the criminals he chased. It was 1934 and the G-men and the gangsters were at war. “Public Enemies” is a veritable trove of images, questions, and answers about the Golden Age of Bank Robbery.

            Director Michael Mann has created an intriguing, and possibly enduring, image of the era and its most famous celebrity bank robber, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). As the FBI’s “most wanted” criminal, Dillinger had acquired a romantic aura as the country’s most elusive thief. Hoover (played here by Billy Crudup), the new guy on the scene, knew he had to get Dillinger if his fledgling agency were to survive. He assigned Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to get Dillinger “dead or alive” by any means, at any cost.

            Under director Mann’s finely tuned hand, Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard (as girlfriend Billie Frechette) lift this movie out of the ordinary. Depp gives Dillinger an appealingly peculiar sense of values e.g. by putting his jacket around the shoulders of a shivering hostage in one moment and shooting a man dead in the next. His character seems a mix of mental illness and personal honor. It is Cotillard’s Billie who reaches Dillinger’s core. “What do you want?” she asks shortly after they meet. “Everything; right now,” he replies. Yes, but then he adds “I’m going to die an old man in your arms.” And so they begin to live the contradiction.

            The first third of the movie creates the atmosphere: fedora topped G-men swinging Tommy guns from the running boards of black Ford V-8s; wind-up movie cameras, motorcycle cops, fur-collared lawyers, big bands, dial phones, pool halls and period music.

            The mid-section – best and strongest - starts with the meeting and romance of Dillinger and Billie Frechette. Watch Dillinger’s face when Billie is captured by the police. Watch Billie when she is told Dillinger has been shot. So powerful isBillie's pull on the audience that when she leaves the screen, the tension drains away and the movie goes flat. Marion Cotillard’s Oscar for playing Edith Piaf was no fluke. She gives this gangster’s girl heart and loyalty that wins the audience and stumps the cops.

            And consider your own emotions when Dillinger sits in a movie theater watching Clark Gable, William, Powell, and Myrna Loy in the gangster movie “Manhattan Melodrama.” We think of Dillinger’s blood-soaked history along with Hoover’s ego driven career. The American culture did not need John Dillinger during the Great Depression; nor did it need J. Edgar Hoover who built the FBI into his personal tool of vengeance for decades after agent Melvin Purvis shot his prey.

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