Or … There Is No Rosebud.
We know a lot about John Dillinger. He was such a hunted man that his whereabouts are clocked on almost a minute-by-minute basis, and the police files are enormous. We know the kind of coat he wore, the cars he stole, we know what he ate, who he hung out with, his girl. We know that he could be graceful. People tell stories of how he would leap over the counters in banks with a slowness and beauty more like a dancer than a criminal. We know he let the regular civilians who happened to be in the banks when he robbed them keep their money – “that’s yours” he would say. We know about his spectacular jail breaks, so ballsy that you can’t believe it really happened that way. We know he loved movies. What else do we know. We know about how he was killed in the alley outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago. We know about the cray-cray shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge, and how the crimes of John Dillinger was part of the impetus to create a Federal Bureau of Investigation. There are pictures of Dillinger posing in a buddy-buddy manner with cops, and his jailers. He was a celebrity. Feared, yes, but glamorized as well. The movies of the time reflected the consciousness that Dillinger was “out there” somewhere, and it’s hard to say which came first: John Dillinger or the love affair American movies have always had with gangsters. His influence on popular culture was gigantic and, to some degree, invisible. Criminals are bad, right? They should be apprehended. But they also can have a wild lawless charm that the public finds captivating. Why else do we watch movies about criminals and even though we know they SHOULD be caught, we find ourselves rooting for them, and whispering in our heads, “Get out of there! The cops are after you!” Dillinger walked that line. People projected things onto him. It was the Great Depression. Crime was out of control. He robbed the rich (banks), and left the middle-class alone. He was conscious of his image, in a strange way. He didn’t get involved in kidnapping or ransom, because he knew public opinion was against such crimes. But robbing banks? At a time in our country’s history when banks had failed, plunging the nation into a Depression? There was a strange romance to it all. There’s more we know. We know about the “lady in red”, and we know that she actually didn’t wear red. We know what movie he was going to see the night he was killed. We know the bare bones of his hard-scrabble childhood, a mother who died early, and a father who beat him. He was married, briefly, but he became a criminal early. Maybe it just seemed easier to him.
So there’s a lot we know. But what does it explain? Does it reveal anything? What makes a John Dillinger? I’m reading a book right now about Stalin’s earliest years in Georgia and Baku and Tiflis, and it’s fascinating because even with all we know, a “Stalin(TM)” cannot be explained. There is not a smoking gun when it comes to the creation of a personality. Citizen Kane may have had a Rosebud but most of us do not. We are a mixed bag. We have inherent qualities and then our environment does the rest for us. Many people had hard-scrabble upbringings and a father who beat them and still they did not become John Dillinger. Maybe, even with his organizational skills and efficiency, he was essentially a lazy man. It was too hard to go straight. He had no sense of the future. How could he? It was all about the Now. But again, many people are lazy, and many people only have a sense of the present moment, and don’t become one of the most wanted men in America.
If you know me, you know I am basically in love with the study of criminals – whether it be tyrannical despots, manipulative cult leaders or cunning serial killers. I, too, look for the Rosebud with these people. It is an irresistible quest. What IS it that makes someone an Idi Amin? Or a Ted Bundy? People who have too-easy answers for these questions, or people who are uninterested in the question itself, bore me. Is evil something that comes from the outside? Or is it inside? There were many brutal criminals surrounding Stalin in his early days. Borderline psychopaths. Most of them ended up rising to the top of Stalin’s regime, because his sensibility required psychopathic individuals to follow him. But what was it in Stalin that made him who he was? I have shelves of books that attempt to answer that question. Some say it was his first wife’s death that was the real Rosebud. Others say it was his inferiority complex, from his pockmarked face, short left arm, and the fact that he wasn’t Russian. Who knows. It could be a mix of all of these things that created a perfect storm that left us with Stalin. Regardless, it is the study that is interesting to me, and I don’t need to nail it down. Kind of like the raging argument that cropped up after the Sopranos finale, and the theories of what it meant, and what happened after, and did Tony die? It’s not that I didn’t find the conversation interesting. I did! It was fascinating! But my sensibility is such that I was comfortable hovering in between theories. I didn’t need to nail it down in order to fully enjoy it. Tony died, Tony didn’t die … I like to swing the pendulum. The question is not meant to be answered beyond a reasonable doubt. Or, you can go that way if you like, but I think much is lost in the transfer.
Let’s come back to Dillinger, and, specifically, Michael Mann’s film Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger.
The best thing about it (and the thing that may frustrate other viewers) is that it does not attempt to explain John Dillinger, and it also seems perfectly willing to hover between multiple theories, letting all of them be true, in one way or another, so that you still are left with the essential mystery of what it is that creates such a hardened canny criminal. The film sticks to the facts, which means there is a certain lack of tension in the film, since we all know how it ends. Public Enemies is effective despite this. It doesn’t purport to show “the softer side” of Dillinger (yuk), and it doesn’t go for a Freudian analysis. “My daddy beat me, and that’s why I’m so bad!” Michael Mann stays far far away from such simplistic thinking and the film is so much stronger for it. It could have been insufferable. John Dillinger, just the facts of him, is fascinating enough. You don’t need to make anything up, you don’t need to have a “take” on the man – which would, necessarily, end up being rather cliched: He was a celebrity, that’s our take! He was a damaged little boy, that’s our take! He yearned for a mother figure, that’s our take. No. Michael Mann is right to stay away from such A to B storytelling. There is no “take”. At least I didn’t get one from the film. This doesn’t appear to be “Michael Mann’s Dillinger”, although, of course it is. But Mann stays in the background. Just the facts, ma’am. He does not presume to up-end the man’s psychology, he does not presume to say, ‘You know what? HERE’S what I think was going on with him.” He is smart to know that our guesses would be the LEAST interesting thing about the actual phenomenon of John Dillinger.
Johnny Depp, never the most open of actors, is perfect for this role, showcasing his natural charm (which always holds a little bit back – you never really see Johnny Depp gush or “work” people, he’s subtler than that) and also his mystery. Depp isn’t an open book, that’s never been his thing as an actor. He came and spoke at my school and he was so boring I nearly fell asleep. Sweet, but a total snoozefest. He spoke in a shy monotone, was not particularly articulate, and while he was sweet and open with us, he didn’t seem to know what to do with himself. He doesn’t talk about acting in a self-important way, he is not only not eager to tell us how he created certain roles, but that kind of talk doesn’t seem to be in his vocabulary at all. It doesn’t need to be. His work is on the screen. Look THERE to get a clue as to who he might be. So here, he resists all of the pitfalls that are inherent in the regular biopics. He has found a great partner in this with his director, who, yes, can be a highly psychological storyteller – The Insider is a great intellectual thriller, but at the heart of it it is about the psychology of the whistleblower, and the psychology of the newsman. That’s the real story. Michael Mann does not dilute the psychological aspect of his stories by trying to explain, and that’s why his films are so good.
John Dillinger has a moment where he is picking up the coat-check girl Billie Frechette (played by Marion Cotillard) – he’s seen what he wanted in her and he goes out to get it – with the same ruthless manner with which he targeted banks, yet softened with a gentleness he reserved for women. She is baffled by this man who is coming on so strong, and she says, “Who are you?”, laughing a bit. He says, tight-lipped yet also easy, almost a throw away, “My mother died when I was young. My dad beat me. I like fast cars, movies, whiskey, baseball and you. What else do you need to know?” There it is. All of the exposition in his mouth, a throwaway line that tells all but explains nothing. (Also, I would be hard-pressed to resist a line like that. Just sayin’. You want an explanation of why women swooned over this murderer? There are clues everywhere, but Mann is right to put it in a thrown away moment, rather than anything more pointed or deliberate.) There are no flashbacks to his hard childhood, we do not see a sepia-toned little boy Dillinger weeping, “Don’t hit me, Daddy! Don’t hit me!” The movie does not attempt to play on our sentiments, does not try to open up our hearts to how hard it was for poor little Johnny. Nope. We start in medias res, with the crazy jailbreak, and from then on the film plays like a bat out of hell, not stopping for one second to cue the violins. The script gives the exposition to John in that come-on moment with Billie, and that’s all we get. Looks like that’s all she got too. John Dillinger sometimes introduced himself with, “I’m John Dillinger. I rob banks.” That’s about it. That’s who the guy was. Depp does not play his line of exposition with one tiny remnant of self-pity. He tells it straight because he likes this girl and he wants to be straight with her. All in all, despite his criminal activity, Mann’s Dillinger does not come off as a manipulative liar or conman. He is not Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, done in by his own voracious appetites and penchant for intrigue. Dillinger here is quiet, brutal, calm, and opaque.
Depp nails it.
There is an element to the film which is important (although not lingered on) and that is the fascination the public had with Dillinger. A mystique surrounded him, and there is an astonishing scene (apparently true) when Dillinger walks directly into the room in the police station labeled “DILLINGER SQUAD” and wanders around, looking at all the Wanted posters and clippings, and even walks up to a group of cops and detectives, huddled around a radio listening to a baseball game. He stares at them. Nobody notices. Then he says, “What’s the score?” A couple of the guys turn, glance at him, give the score and turn back to the game. Dillinger has created his own miasma of invisibility, similar to how Marilyn Monroe used to be able to walk down the streets in New York without anyone knowing who she was. She could turn it on and off. This is a deliberate ability that only stars would have, because only stars know the value of invisibility. Most everyone else wants to be SEEN, at all costs. But there a group of cops, spending every waking hour hunting down Dillinger, look directly at him, casually, talk about the baseball game, and never realize that there in front of them is the man they have been looking for. Depp plays that scene with a fascinating mix of daring, arrogance, and calm. He KNOWS he is invisible, he can feel it. That, to me, was the clearest evidence in the film of his “celebrity” status, that he could consciously choose to be invisible in front of the very men who were looking for him. Just like Marilyn Monroe putting a head scarf over her blonde hair and having a cup of coffee in a mid-town diner at the height of her fame, with no one ever noticing her, and her name blinking in lights on a marquee right behind her.
Biopics can be tricky and controversial. The geeks of the subject matter covered by the biopic will never be satisfied (“it didn’t happen like that”), and I can certainly go there myself. Just wait until someone decides to do a film about Alexander Hamilton! I am already angry and possessive just thinking about it! But a film is different than a history lesson (thank God), and some dramatic license is usually called for. There are times when a film crosses the line, and I suppose that line is different for different people. A Beautiful Mind crossed that line for me (multiple times)when it
1. suggested that love can cure severe mental illness
2. completely left out John Nash’s open homosexuality
Obviously the story Ron Howard wanted to tell was that of love conquering this man’s disability, and to some degree that IS in John Nash’s story. His wife, by taking him back in and caring for him, allowed him the freedom of movement and mental space for him to continue his work. That was a great act of love. But in actuality, it was more out of pity and duty than what was portrayed in the film. She couldn’t bear her husband to be homeless. She was more of a nursemaid than a soulmate. Again, not that that is not interesting – it IS interesting – but obviously not the story Howard wanted to tell. But I thought the choices made in that particular film were unconscionable, because the man was gay. Or at the very least ragingly bisexual. Everyone knew it. And Alicia knew it too. But still, she took him in. She cared for him. She helped make his work possible. Now THAT is a great love story, albeit way more complicated, but I just couldn’t get past the huge THING that was being left out of the story being told. It seemed wrong. Not like rearranging events or converging characters for the purpose of keeping the story simple – these are compromises that are always made with biopics, those are fine – but I felt that there was something corrupt at the heart of the choices Howard made with A Beautiful Mind and it ruined it for me. I felt like the REAL story was far more interesting.
Here, with Public Enemies, Michael Mann avoids those traps by not worrying whatsoever that this is supposed to be a defense of John Dillinger. It’s not supposed to be a defense. Mann doesn’t think it is, and so he doesn’t film it in a defensive manner. A Beautiful Mind, with some lovely acting mind you, felt defensive because it had something to hide. It was pulling a fast one on us. It overplayed its hand (“this is the greatest love story ever told!”) because the filmmakers knew that there was a huge element not being shared. But Mann doesn’t have a theory. He has a story to tell. It is two stories actually. The story of John Dillinger, and the story of Melvin Purvis (played beautifully by Christian Bale), the lawman in charge of bringing him to justice. And with taut spareness, and an almost elegiac sense of “what it was like”, it doesn’t deviate from those two stories. The two men are not defined by who they are and where they come from, they are defined solely by what they do. Another similarity to The Insider, as well as Michael Mann’s other films. Dillinger robs banks. Purvis tries to catch Dillinger. Plenty there to keep us busy without getting all Freudian.
The love story between Dillinger and Frechette is told with refreshing simplicity but also (and herein lies its strength) with not a lot of detail. It’s a sketch. I really liked that. It adds to the sense that these are people on the fringe of civilized society, with not a lot of time for niceties and backstory-sharing and courtship. They get right to the point. She hesitates. But there’s something about how he hones in on her that takes her in. She’s a lost soul, too. Again, this is not dwelled on or played up too much, but Billie Frechette was part Indian, grew up on a reservation, and had a lot of bitterness about the prejudice she had been shown in her life. Cotillard suggests this with one bitter line, when she comes clean about her Indian blood, in their first exchange. “Some men don’t like that,” she throws at him, like a gauntlet, daring him to flinch, or be grossed out by her tainted blood. He couldn’t give less of a shit. He says, “I’m not most men.” And that’s that. Never mentioned again. But it’s enough, it’s sketched in enough, that we understand that she too comes from nothing, that she too has had a rough time of it, and whatever this man offers her – a fur coat, kindness, loyalty, tender sex – is enough for her to throw her regular life away. Makes total sense. And all we need is one line to do the entire job of their relationship. That’s good filmmaking. Good acting, too.
There’s one sex scene, and it’s handled just right. Mann did it as a montage, almost, just glimpses, fragments, not dwelling on naked buttocks, or naked breasts, he doesn’t film it lovingly or romantically, he doesn’t “walk us through it”, which can be so deadly with sex scenes, since by now we’ve seen it all. Sex is not just sex. It’s expressing the specific relationship between the two people – even if it’s a one-night stand. Sex itself is always the same (with, naturally, variations), but the relationship is what is important, in terms of story. I guess I’m old fashioned that way, but I’m not talking about love, I’m talking about what sex itself expresses, and how that differs from couple to couple, depending on the context. Too often sex scenes become generic, thrown into the mix, and the actors involved suddenly cease being characters, with issues and human-ness and perhaps feelings about getting naked with another person … they instantly become blue-lit gorgeous Olympic athletes, having the best sex known to man, making us all feel bad about ourselves. These sex scenes can be hot, I like looking at naked bodies as much as any person does, but in terms of story they can leave me cold. I think it’s much hotter to still allow the characters to live, breathe, exist, in the context of sex. Don’t Look Now, with one of the most graphic sex scenes I can think of, is a perfect example. For me, the reason it is so hot is not just because you see two naked bodies writhing around. It’s hot because it comes out of the context of what that couple is going through at that time, which is a total HORROR, and they are trying to renew their marriage, and remember what the hell it is that they are doing with each other. THAT is why it is so hot. Betty Blue, which basically opens with a slamming-hot sex scene, is also in this category, because from the get-go we know everything we need to know about both people involved. It’s HOW it’s done, and that is no easy task, because naked bodies are distracting, in and of themselves. The Big Easy, which actually has no nakedness, has what I believe to be the hottest sex scene ever put on film (although I’m open to persuasion) – and they aren’t even having sex. What is hot about it is that Ellen Barkin plays an uptight repressed woman who manages to suggest that she is in total DESPAIR about how repressed she is. And instead of suddenly letting loose when she finds herself in the arms of this hot dude she’s really into (Dennis Quaid), and becoming a sex goddess and Olympic athlete of erotica, she is still that repressed bundle-of-nerves-and-sadness that we have come to know. She brings her SELF to the scene. She stops him, she freaks out, she wriggles away from him, she basically cannot deal with the unleashing of her sexual energy, it’s too much for her, it brings her to tears. Marvelous stuff. I love it when a movie allows for that. It resists betraying the characters. Thank you.
And Public Enemies does not (unlike Beautiful Mind) overplay its hand, in terms of the relationship in the film, because it has nothing to hide. It doesn’t try to make Billie Frechette the “rosebud”, she is not a great lost love, she was not his last chance at civilization and normalcy – Mann resists simplistic interpretations altogether. John Dillinger was not a faithful kind of guy, and he consorted with prostitutes (one of whom ended up betraying him) and gun molls. He mainly lived in a male world. He dipped into the female world from time to time, obviously, but that was more often than not out of physical need than a burning desire to experience true love. But the relationship with Billie Frechette does stand out, in his life story, she is definitely important in the Dillinger lexicon, based on the mere fact that she went to jail for two years for him, and so the film is right to pluck her out of the sordid crowd, and make her “the girl” in the movie.
There’s a jump cut to their sex scene. He invites her in to his apartment (obviously rented for him as a safe haven – “I’ve been staying here a while. About one day now,” he says to her as he takes off his coat – he comes right out on their first “date” and tells her who he is and what he does, he is already a wanted man at that point, famous, but he doesn’t play her, or try to fly under the radar), there are floozy women peeking out of other bedrooms, and the atmosphere between Dillinger and Frechette is tight, tense, and something’s got to break. We don’t get the seduction scene. We get the jumpcut. Mann does not satisfy our need for neatness, for linear storytelling. However they get into bed it doesn’t matter. They get there. There is not a swelling soundtrack to cue the highly-trained audience, “Oh, look, they’re falling in love.” Love shmove. It’s rougher than that. Not everyone is destined to have a “great love story”. Sometimes one or two intimate moments of connection is all we get. And that’s not just okay, it’s just the way it is. Mann doesn’t softpedal this fact. The scene is rather graphic, but not because we see body parts, we actually don’t. It’s graphic because it feels real. It’s filmed in fragments, but unlike most other sex scenes the fragments we see is not thrusting butts, and glimpses of naked boobs or almost-glimpses of mon veneris … the fragments we get are their faces, kissing, his hand near her mouth, her mouth on his fingers, tears on her face, her unshaved armpits (halleluia – a glimpse of reality, of the TIME in which this film took place), how nothing feels objectified, her body parts are not dwelled on, neither are his, things are happening too fast for that, his focus on her face as he, well, moves down offscreen (hm, where is he going?), then these are all interspersed with calm exhausted moments where they lie in each other’s arms, still awake, but spent, brief moments of talk, and then back to the fragments of sex again. Through this, you get the sense of their primal connection. Those magical times when everything seems to stop – and yet at the same time, when you look back on it, all you can perceive are glimpses, sensory moments – his mouth on your wet cheek, his hands on your neck – and then, a breather, where you talk quietly as the sun rises out the window. It’s a highly effective scene, not just because it’s so different from so many other sex scenes, but because it, in maybe 20 seconds, tells us their bond, without ever having to resort to language. He doesn’t just flip her over and fuck her (like Heath Ledger did to his wife in Brokeback Mountain, another wonderful sex scene – not because it’s erotic – but because, again, it shows us the relationship, what goes on behind closed doors with this particular couple). He’s into her. He connects. John Dillinger didn’t connect with many. And perhaps his connection here is momentary, we guess that it is, because that’s the kind of guy he is. But that doesn’t stop the film from taking the time to just … breathe for a second … and show us these two people at this particular time.
Later, when Billie is suddenly arrested, right under Dillinger’s nose, and he watches her being dragged away by the cops, he drives off, not sure where to go, what to do, and Depp, as he drives, suddenly breaks into tears. It’s an amazing moment. We’ve seen almost zero recognizable emotion from this guy, and that is part of what makes this such a damn fine performance. He allows nothing human to get in the way of the story he and Mann are telling which is: Here is what John Dillinger did. But there are stories that he “cried like a baby” when Billie was arrested (she told it herself, he must have told it to her, and she eventually relayed it) – and so Mann and Depp show that, like they show everything else he did. He cries like a little kid, a bursting of sobs, wiping the snot off his nose, you feel his panic more than anything else. It’s a storm breaking, a momentary lapse in Dillinger’s cold world. I suppose it’s unfair to keep imagining how this or that moment would have played with another director (say, Oliver Stone) or another actor. The moment of Dillinger bursting into sobs because his gun-moll part-Indian chickadee was arrested would have been lingered over with as much purpose as the sled Rosebud burning up in the fire at the end of Citizen Kane. The shot would have been highly subjective. But Mann remains objective. If I had to tally it up, I would say that the sex scene was, perhaps, the only really subjective scene in the film, because you feel you are in that bed with them. You lose your distance. But in the rest of Public Enemies, even with Dillinger bawling and wiping his nose, we remain distant. Objective. It’s not an unfeeling film, far from it, and I actually liked Dillinger a lot. But my feelings about him were irrelevant to the film actually working. By that I mean, the film didn’t NEED me to “see his side of things”, or to “feel sorry” for what he had gone through as a boy. If Public Enemies had had a theory, or a thesis, that it needed me to buy into in order for the whole thing to work, I might have been annoyed. But it did not do that. No, it assumed that I came to the table with my own thoughts, feelings, and I’m a grown woman, I can make up my own mind about the guy.
Praise Jesus, a filmmaker that trusts me, that leaves space for me.
None of this would have been possible without the strange compelling opacity of Johnny Depp, in his portrayal of John Dillinger.
It takes not only a brave actor, but a very smart actor, to let some things remain a mystery. John Dillinger is not to be explained. He is to be examined and remembered. It is a time in American history that was important. He was important. What made him the way he is is certainly the least important and interesting part of the story and Johnny Depp understands that. And so what does he do in this movie? A great acting teacher of mine used to say to his students when we were lost in the middle of the scene, or trying to figure out “what to do” – he would say, “Just do what the character does.” That’s a start. A leap of faith. Nora dances a frantic tarantella to keep her husband Torvald from going to the mailbox. I played that part. I agonized over that scene. I turned myself inside out trying to “do” it. And then I remembered my acting teacher’s words. Sheila, just do what the character does. Ibsen has written that Nora does a tarantella with ever-increasing abandon and panic. That is in the script. It cannot be denied, gotten away from, underplayed, or ignored. Don’t worry so much about “how”. Let go, and just do what the character does. It helps tremendously in those moments when you are stuck.
Johnny Depp does not worry about “how”. He does not worry what we think of Dillinger, or how we judge him, what we “take away” from the film, what “message” it has. Those are for other more intellectual types to blather on about. Johnny Depp, here, just “does what the character does”.
Easier said than done.
It’s one of my favorite performances of the year. Because it leaves so much unexplored, and so much of it is played between the lines. It resists interpretation. It is a fact. Like Dillinger was a FACT. Depp doesn’t play an idea here. So many actors when they play gangsters are playing ideas, and many of those ideas actually originate in John Dillinger. Even back to the movies in the early 1930s, Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties, and all the other gangster flicks that continue on to the present day. Actors base their performances on either the memory of Dillinger, or the memory of James Cagney playing a Dillinger kind of guy. What is real anymore? Did the movies create John Dillinger? Did Dillinger create the modern-day iconic gangster? Chicken or egg?
Depp sidesteps this entirely. He does this by remaining opaque, and yet never less than compelling. A man of action. A man of appetite. He had no apparent grand theories about why he did what he did. Let other people assign the “Robin Hood” title to him (as they did). He didn’t care. “I’m John Dillinger. I rob banks,” he said.
He liked fast cars, whiskey, baseball, movies and nice clothes.
That’s what the man said about himself. Why don’t we just take him at his word and see where that leads us? It’s more than enough to chew our teeth into. Why not just play THAT?
By playing it simply and opaquely, he leaves vast swathes of ground bare and open for me to contemplate, ponder. He lets the question remain a question. And so I will be thinking about his scene where he’s wearing an invisibility-cloak in the Dillinger Squad Room for a long time to come.
It will stay with me.