08 July 2009
Perhaps more than any other film genre, the gangster film is distinguished by its symbiotic relationship with its subject matter. Perhaps not so much anymore, but certainly during the 1930s with films such as Wellman's The Public Enemy or Hawks's Scarface -- films which not only interpreted the gangster lifestyle and myth, but which largely helped to create and characterize it: it is said that John Dillinger's trademark leap over the counter was taken from the movies; Al Capone is said to have loved Scarface.
Michael Mann's latest, Public Enemies, references this relationship during one scene in which Dillinger watches a screen gangster played by Clark Gable and gives one of the few genuine smiles throughout the two-and-a-half-hour film. It is a significant scene because it speaks directly to Dillinger's life as a projected image, a self-created myth, but it also reminds us of the conventions of the gangster genre picture and thus of how Mann's film fits, if at all, within that lineage.
What strikes me most about Mann's film is his interpretation of Dillinger, as the person and as the gangster. While we have come to know Dillinger as a smirking, confident wise ass, Depp's characterization suggests that that public persona is completely an act which covers up the somber, deadly serious private reality. As Dillinger, Depp is pale and thin-lipped, constantly serious to the point of approaching a parody of Alain Delon's Jef Costello in Le Samourai. Even with Billie, his apparent true love who gets the closest to Dillinger within the film, Dillinger appears tense and emotionally blocked. Many viewers have noticed the lack of chemistry in scenes between Dillinger and Billie, made worse by some terribly contrived dialogue ("What do you want?" / "Everything, right now.") that sounds more like line rehearsals than a conversations. It appears like bad acting on Depp and Marion Cotillard's parts, but perhaps it is bad acting on Dillinger's part.
In other words, no one is able to really know Dillinger, not even Dillinger himself. His true nature is lost somewhere behind the image he is projecting as a notorious gangster, buried so deep that it becomes inaccessible. Thus when he deals with people he deals with them as Dillinger the image, not Dillinger the person; he is reading lines. Dillinger the person remains an enigma, hidden behind a stony face and distant eyes. We are shown so much of Dillinger as a deadly serious person that when he does say something characteristically witty or affable (in front of a reporter or to a bank customer) it becomes incredibly clear that it is an act, perhaps even performed poorly. This is much unlike other gangster pictures in which the gangster's charm is so authentically contagious that we as viewers want to be their pals, whether as a public persona or a private person, though we may even be a little frightened of him; Dillinger is always frightening because he is unknowable.
In this way, Public Enemies can be seen as a type of revisionist gangster picture. It questions the established myths of the gangster as charming and tragic hero, suggesting he is exclusively and overwhelmingly tragic. Unlike Tom Powers in Public Enemy or Tony Camonte in Scarface, Dillinger seems constantly aware of death, as if it were hovering over him like some persistent ghost, reminding him of his fate: he seems as aware of the gangster as tragic hero archetype as we are. This gives new meaning to the gangster's love of his projected image, as seen in films or in newspapers, for in Dillinger's case it exceeds vanity and instead becomes an attempt to deny death by claiming immortality through legend.
Which leads me back to the last part of the film, in which Dillinger watches Manhattan Melodrama in the Biograph theatre. Dillinger's private smirk at the projected images of Clark Gable and Myrna Loy exposes more about him than any other moment in the film. I get a feeling that Mann's Dillinger is one completely absorbed in the suspense of belief that cinema allows, something which he transfers over into his real life -- Dillinger plays a certain character, making his life into something fit for the screen. It seems beyond coincidental that Billie looks like Myrna Loy or that Dillinger would choose to have a 'stache like Gable's -- maybe he learned to smirk from the same actor. When Dillinger leaves the theatre he dies, and perhaps that is the most appropriate way for him to go -- once he leaves the images and illusions there is nothing else but death.