Opacity Is a Virtue: Johnny Depp as John Dillinger

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 (reality), 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?

Depp does.

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.

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70 Responses to Opacity Is a Virtue: Johnny Depp as John Dillinger

  1. Catherine says:

    I wasn’t a huge fan of the film, but I did go nuts over that scene in the movie theatre when the pre-film commercial comes on telling the patrons to look left and right for Dillinger. Depp’s face, the whole set-up, the uncomfortableness…brilliant.

  2. red says:

    Seriously, like – everyone looking around?? Dude is right there!!

    What were your issues with the film? I’d love to hear.

  3. Catherine says:

    Okay, tbh I couldn’t remember exactly, I just knew I hadn’t liked it. Which is part of the problem, for me. Such a fast fade. Didn’t stick in my mind at all. But I knew I’d left a comment on The Film Experience post about the film, so I dug that up:

    “Firstly, I had sound issues as well. A lot of the time I had trouble understanding what people were saying (not just Marion Cotillard, although she was the most difficult to understand!) because the sound kept dipping in and out. I’m in Ireland, so it seems like that particular problem is fairly widespread.

    My main objection to it was it seemed too bitty. There would be a bit of a love scene, a bit of a scuffle, a bit of a bank robbery, a bit of the FBI discussing Dillinger…none of the scenes seemed lengthy enough to actually communicate anything to the audience and they felt thrown together in a way that wasn’t totally cohesive.It’s called Public Enemies, plural, so I went in hoping for some good scene work with Dillinger’s gang, but nada. The film barely differentiated between the separate gang members and I was thinking ‘Wait, which one is Baby Face? Who’s that guy? Whaa?’. The hi-def look also bugged me in a period film, but I’ll accept that’s just a personal preference.

    Overall I was bored and I kept thinking ‘C’mon, go see Manhattan Melodrama soon, will ya?’. ”

    I’m sure part of my problem was I’m not as well versed in the Dillinger lore as you are.

  4. red says:

    Interesting! I felt what you say, too, the “bitty” feeling of the film – I guess I felt that that was part of its strength. The jumpcuts, and lack of segues, etc.

    I agree that his gang could DEFINITELY have been delineated more – you are totally right – I couldn’t tell them apart, and the guy who played Baby Faced Nelson looked very much like another character (whose name escapes me) – so I wasn’t quite sure who I was looking at (especially in those scenes at Little Bohemia Lodge). By the time I actually “located” Baby Faced Nelson it was kind of too late. There’s a moment where Christian Bale says, “All of Dillinger’s friends are now dead” – which is quite a thing, if you really think about it – and I felt that Depp definitely played that desolation (where was he to go now??) – but except for his main right-hand man the rest of the gang pretty much remained featureless to me.

    But I liked the fragmentary nature of the film-making – I guess it satisfied my undying need to have things not be explained TOO clearly. I can understand why that would frustrate others, however.

  5. red says:

    Not that you need things to be explained clearly … that’s not what I meant by my last comment. I guess what I’m saying is – the sort of collage effect of Mann’s film worked for me. It lacked subjectivity (in a very strange way – still thinking about it) – and that appealed to me somehow.

  6. Catherine says:

    Yeah, totally! I know my reaction was TOTALLY objective. Like, I don’t think it was a poorly made film or anything, just the methods used weren’t the type of methods I tend to respond well to. I tend to prefer long, uncut scenes rather than quick edits, I hate high-def, etc.

    Again, I’m thinking that it could be a culture gap. Maybe if I grew up hearing stories about John Dillinger and the Great Depression and was already familiar with the whole saga, I wouldn’t be so caught up on the filmmakers delineating everything so clearly.

  7. Catherine says:

    Objective = subjective, in my comment. Whoops. That’s the one vocabulary faux pas I always make!

  8. red says:

    That’s a very interesting point. Perhaps Mann felt he could afford to “sketch” this in because most Americans know this story – it’s part of our mythology. I hadn’t really thought of that.

    I liked the sketchy aspect – but now I wonder if it’s because I already know the whole damn thing, down to the lady in red not really wearing red. Ha!

  9. red says:

    Ha – strangely enough, I knew what you meant. I took that leap with you.

  10. Catherine says:

    Hahaha thank you! Let us make great bounding leaps over misused vocab together.

    Yeah, I dunno, I’m just speculating. I suspect I’d still be a downer on the sketchy aspect even if I was American, but just reading your first paragraph – of a great piece, btw, I forgot to mention before. Totally gives me a new perspective on a film I hadn’t felt that much about – with the list of famous things about Dillinger, virtually none of it was known to before I saw the film, all I knew was; he was a bank robber during the Depression (which, duh, everyone knows) and he was gunned down outside the Biograph after seeing Manhattan Melodrama (which I knew from reading film history books rather than anything else). Sin é, the extend of my Dillinger knowledge prior to seeing Public Enemies.

  11. red says:

    I wonder. Can you think of an Irish-themed film that has the same aspect? Something that is perhaps sketched in – made for irish audiences – and the rest of us just need to play catch up?

    I lived in Chicago – and one rather drunken night a group of me and my friends re-enacted Dillinger’s death in the actual alley outside the actual Biograph, which still exists (I saw many a film there although not, alas, Manhattan Melodrama!) We took turns being Pervis and we took turns being Dillinger – doing raging swan-dives into that dark alley. Oh, and a couple of us would play bystanders – those folks who so famously crowded around the dead body, leering and cheering – a gross representation of the love affair with celebrity and fame. So fun – but just goes to show you how Americans just KNOW this story, and it has passed into mythology. Little boys playing cops and robbers are really just playing Pervis and Dillinger and they don’t even know it!

    But I’d be interested to hear of an Irish film that perhaps has the same short-cut quality – if you can think of one?

  12. Catherine says:

    Sheila, that is one of the best things I’ve ever heard!! That is GAS.

    Hmmm…good question. I’m racking my brains and coming up short. It seems like any Irish historical films are made by outsiders; Americans, English. Or, in the case of something like Michael Collins (such a horrible, horrible film), Neil Jordan is making that for a Hollywood audience. Like culchie Julia Roberts isn’t geared towards impressing and endearing Irish audiences , right? And it’s all really simplified and spelled out, here are the good Irish boyos, here’s the English, and here’s Alan Rickman playing De Valera with basically devil horns…

    I’m sure there ARE Irish-history themed films which assume a degree of common knowledge with an Irish audience, but most of the Irish made films geared towards Irish people I’ve watched tend to be domestic in their scope. OH! I’ve just thought of one. You know ‘Once’, the low-budget Dublin film with Glen thingy out of The Frames and that Polish girl? It was released around 2006 or 07, I think. I personally didn’t like it – jeesh, what is WITH me tonight? I seem to hate every film I bring up – but I think maybe a lot of the humor in that is very location specific. Like, if you don’t know Bewleys and if you don’t understand Dublin slang or the situation with Polish and other Eastern European immigrants is or if you don’t know what “Fair City” is…a lot of that film might go over your head. Not exactly what we were talking about re: Dillinger, but the best I can come up with.

  13. Catherine says:

    Rereading that comment, I don’t think I was too clear on my first point. To simplify, it seems to me that:

    Americans make American history films for Americans, while Irish/Americans/British make Irish history films for Americans.

    (Not anti-American in the slightest, in case it comes across like that.)

  14. red says:

    No, I know exactly what you meant. One of the reasons why I love getting the chance to see films from, say, Tajikstan – because they couldn’t GIVE a shit about appealing to American audiences if they tried. It’s amazing to see what filmmakers want to say when they are focused on only local issues -know what i mean?

    But yes – I can see how the pull towards acceptance in America can affect films from Ireland -it’s like this crazy awful magnet. You’ve always got your eye on that outside eye – the Irish-Americans who will be watching.

    “Once” is a good example, though. It felt VERY “local” to me. Very much of a time and of a specific place.

    What was the Irish feeling about Helen Mirren’s film about the hunger strike – Some Mother’s Son? Do you remember?

  15. red says:

    And another question: has there been, say, an Irish mini-series (for example) about Maud Gonne? Or Lady Gregory? Something made for television, understanding that pretty much only Irish people would see it?

    Now THAT is something I would love to see!!

  16. red says:

    (And if there hasn’t been an Irish mini-series about Maud Gonne, then there damn well should be!)

  17. Catherine says:

    I’d actually never heard of “Some Mother’s Son”, sorry. Just imdb’d it though, great cast list. Fionnula Flanagan? Legend!!

    And oh, wow, those mini-series ideas are fantastic. Something like HBO did with John Adams. The BBC are fantastic at those, actually. In the last few years they’ve had ones on Margaret Thatcher, Lord Longford, the first Queen Elizabeth, Henry VIII (NOT ‘The Tudors’!) etc. Really high-quality, great production value, spot-on historically, well acted, the whole shebang. Nothing equivalent for Ireland, I’m afaid. At least, not that I know of. RTE will occasionally have once-off specials on historical events, the Phoenix Park murders, for example, but they’re usually a blend of talking-heads and dodgy reenactment footage, but nothing like a dramatic mini-series. Budget problems, maybe? They think people wouldn’t be interested? Which is total bull. I’ve loads of history major friends who would be extremely interested in a series like that, as long as it was historically faithful, and they’d be invaluable for the classroom too.

    However, I’d place a bet on my old History/Drama teacher working on a script for a Countess Markievicz script, with herself in the lead role…

  18. red says:

    Catherine – seriously – Maud Gonne’s life is just as interesting as John Adams – she intersects with almost every important issue of the day – IT NEEDS TO BE DONE. I think you need to write it. Begin it immediately. Thank you. It could be a slam dunk. That’s the thing when people start feeling the magnet-pull of Hollywood – it’s almost like they feel the apathy of other audiences and think, “why would anyone care?” But they WOULD if it was done well!

    hahaha I love the image of your old History Drama teacher – I love the story you told me about her!!

    Some Mother’s Son isn’t available on DVD (last I checked) – which is a shame. It is rather simplistic – it shows two families in Northern Ireland whose sons are on hunger strike. One of the mothers (helen mirren) wants to sign the papers to take her son off the strike – the other mother (the marvelous Fionnula) is such a patriot that she is willing to let her son die for the cause and wouldn’t dream of signing the papers. Like I said – a bit simplistic – but the acting is quite good and John Lynch plays Bobby Sands (interesting because he played Cal so memorably back in the 80s – in that wonderful movie with Helen Mirren, based on the Bernard McLaverty novel) – I would be very interested to hear an Irish person’s take on the film (Some Mother’s Son, I mean).

  19. Catherine says:

    okay bye off to write my script…

    Hahaha. But seriously, yes, I would SO watch a Maud Gonne biopic. A thorough, serious Maud Gonne biopic, I mean. I don’t want to watch “Gone Mad: The Incredibly True Story of a Woman named Maud Gonne”.

    If I ever track down Some Mother’s Son, I’ll be sure to let you know what I think. It sounds like the type of thing that’s always repeated at like 3am on RTE, I’ll keep an eye out.

    Oh, totally unrelated, I bought “The Writing Class” by Jincy Willett yesterday and I’m already finished. THANK YOU FOR THE RECOMMENDATION!

  20. red says:

    Ahhhh! That book! Isn’t it so FUN and ridiculous??? I’m so psyched! I just love all the excerpts of the writings you get to read from the class. I love the surgeon who writes the thriller book – hahahaha he’s so stupid and so funny!

    Yes – and I believe that Susan Lynch should play Maud Gonne. I thought that the moment I saw her playing Nora Joyce in Ewan McGregor’s movie about James and Nora Joyce. She’s wonderful. A perfect Maud. Seriously, make some calls. Let’s get this thing going. it is long overdue!!

  21. red says:

    And yes, nobody wants to see: “The Woman in Black: The Incredibly Tragic Tale of Ireland’s Greatest Patriot.” No. Please no.

  22. Catherine says:

    I’m not familiar with Susan Lynch, but I’ll take your word for it! We’ve got our lead actress, we’re in business. If you make the phone calls, I’ll send along the first draft of the script. Who can play Yeats? The first guy that popped into my head is an Irish actor called Declan Conlon. He’s done some tv and film bits, not a whole lot, but I’ve seem him on stage a few times and he is phenom. He’s usually very commanding, but the last play I saw him in – Tom Murphy’s Last Days of A Reluctant Tyrant – he played this awful, snivelling toady character and he was creepy and brilliant. So he could totally pull off the fey, poetic, slightly deranged, seriousness of Yeats.

    “The Writing Class”. Here’s what happened: I bought the book in town and instantly went to a cafe to begin reading. I went to a little crepe place just across the street from the bookshop and because it was sunny, sat outside. Lemme set the scene; I’m sitting alone, except on one of the spare chairs at my table I have laid ‘Barbra Streisand; The Broadway Album’ which I had just bought on vinyl for six bucks. The shop didn’t have any bags big enough to fit the album in, so I just have to leave it on the chair, out in the open. No probs. I begin reading. It is hilarious! Especially that first chapter, where she’s calling the roll for the first time and there’s all these bizarre names and she’s messing them up…hysterical. “Tiny Arena”, etc. I can’t help myself, I actually begin to laugh out loud, but because I’m in a public place I try to hold it in, which makes it worse. I’m shuddering with repressed giggles and then I read the line about Dorothy telling the teacher she “uses dot” and the teacher hasn’t the foggiest what she means, and is just like “yeah okay whatever, I don’t give a shit”, and suddenly all my laughter comes out in one big mad snort. I see the people at the adjacent tables shift in their seats to investigate and they notice the way I’m sharing my table with La Streisand. So, anyway, undetered, I continue reading. Then, a Viking Splash tour rolls past – you know those tours, right? The city tours in the converted WWI land/sea vehicles which drive around Dublin, making the passengers do ‘viking roars’ at pedestrians and Gardaí etc – and all the pretend Vikings roar really loudly, which startles me so much that I actually say “OH!!!” really loudly and drop my fork. The people at the cafe are clearly thinking “Wait, who screamed? Oh yeah, her, OBVIOUSLY.”

    Great book. My sister is being MADE read it. My favourite detail was the woman who, after every single reading, praises “the author’s use of metaphor”. Ha! I KNOW that woman.

  23. red says:

    DYING!!!!! La streisand! Vikings! Can’t stop laughing!!!! JIncy Willett needs to hear this story – I am snorting all by myself in my apartment!

    yes – that “love the use of metaphor” lady – argh – she’s the one who always wants every discussion to be nice, right?? everything always has to be positive!

    How about the feminist who is basically offended by everything – but then there’s that one moment where the feminist says, in regards to the surgeon’s book – ‘I can’t stand it when any author uses the word ‘bed’ as a verb” – and the teacher suddenly thinks, “Good for you.”

    And man I agree. Please don’t ever use “bed” as a verb, unless you’re being ironic or purposefully trying to be a douche.

    Like: you think you’re just going to LAUGH at one particular character, but then you can’t help it – you see that they’re right about something.

    SUCH a fun book!!!

  24. red says:

    And I will take your word for it about this Declan guy, in regards to yeats. I love the “slightly deranged seriousness” bit of your casting call.

    The casting of Yeats is crucial!

    Susan Lynch is actually John Lynch’s sister – have you seen Nora (ewan mcgregor’s movie about the Joyce marriage?) she’s positively wonderful in it – fierce and funny and sexy. I love her to death!

  25. Catherine says:

    Seriously, I must have looked like such a lunatic. And it’s totally baffling, in the summer months those Viking tours go by all the time. I never even notice them roaring anymore, it’s just another sound in the city. I’ve even been on the bloody tour three times myself, why did I suddenly become terrified of it all of a sudden?!? Hahahaha. Sitting there, alone (well, apart from my bff Barbra of course), screaming, snorting, laughing, dribbling food down myself…

    And yeah, totally. That ‘to bed’ as a verb part really stuck out for me as well. Because for ages it was just shrill feminist, shrill feminist, shrill feminist…BAM, a moment where the teacher – and by extension us, the reader – lets herself see past the stereotype to the real person, who has valuable things to say. And you become so fond of the douchebag doctor and the jock and Carla (that’s her name, right? the one who has taken the class a gazillion times), the desparate loser with no real friends (hey, maybe I should ask her to join my table at the cafe…). You see past the simplistic surfaces. But at the same time, it’s not all nicey-nicey, everyone deep down is good, kind of thing. When you find out who the killer is (I won’t spoil it for anyone else who reads this comment) but ARGH! I was shocked. Great reading material, and also great advice to would-be writers on the importance of in depth characterisation and the avoidance of lazy clichés.

  26. red says:

    Totally! I love the chick who took the class a million times and yes, I love the surgeon too!

    One of the coolest things is that even though the teacher is obviously a WRECK in her personal life – she is clearly one of “those” teachers – a teacher you would only be so lucky to have once in a lifetime. I love how much of a mess she is, how lonely and awful and frightened and effed up – yet when she gets in front of those students – forgetaboutit – she is at the top of her game.

    I need to read it again!

    And yes – hahahaha – being terrified of a Viking tour that you have ALREADY BEEN ON. As Babs smiles benignly on. hahahaha

  27. Catherine says:

    DEFINITELY. She seems like such a fantastic teacher. On so many occasions, the text would say something like “At that point, Amy launched into her speech on narrative…” and I’d be thinking “Oh, let me hear the whole speech!” hahaha.

    Oh, gosh, it’s so late. Nearly 2:30. I should so be asleep right now. I think we had a fun conversation!

    Buh bye, I’m off to dream about Vikings!

  28. Scotter says:

    I respected the movie, but Depp’s performance left me….I guess the word would be “messy”. He was the charming boyish rogue, he was an Errol Flynn. In fact, he was Errol Flynn. And Depp is turning into Errol Flynn. And I’m afraid audiences won’t let him do anything else.

    I just didn’t feel any hint of hardness behind the eyes, the kind I’ve seen in the sociopaths I’ve known. Or maybe Dillinger wasn’t a sociopath at all in real life, but the movie didn’t get me to believe that. His performance just didn’t put me there, in that time, in that place. Bale’s performance – almost. The guys who played the Texas Rangers brought in for the manhunt – NAILED IT.

    Anyway, yes, a messy reaction to Depp. Sorry to hijack the thread – I know I should be talking about Vikings! and stuff.

  29. Jeff says:

    I liked the film and Depp’s performance a lot, but for me the most transcendent moment in it belonged to Bale – when he (as Purvis) rescued Billie from the goon interrogating her, and carried her out of the room to safety.

  30. red says:

    Jeff – yes, that was a great moment. I also loved the secretary who says to him, as they walk across the office, “I don’t like this Mr. Pervis … I dont like that a woman is being treated like this …” or whatever her line is. She has one line and I just loved how she played it. She HAD to say something. She knew it was not her place but she said it anyway.

  31. red says:

    Scotter – Oh man, yes, those Texas rangers were awesome. I believed every second, believed who they were totally.

    I suppose for me it was that lack of hardness in Depp that made the performance compelling, and not like every other gangster performance I’ve seen. It had something else going on – I believed he was an efficient leader – there’s the moment in the car when his right-hand man is dying and the guy says something like, “You always do what you say you’re gonna do – you never let anyone down …” or something like that. Now this is a criminal saying this – but in THAT world he was a stand-up guy.

    I do think the gang itself could have been better delineated (that was Stephen Dorff in that gang! It took me a while to place him – “I know that guy!!”) – but for me Depp was cold, efficient, and pretty much calm. Like his heart never seemed to race. There was a sadness there, too – or, no, not sadness – but a lack of normal human emotions, like joy or pleasure. To me, that was the key.

  32. Brian Turner says:

    Nobody does gun porn better than Michel Mann. When Melvin Purvis is introduced, the camera lingers over a beautiful Mauser rifle. Not a typical depression era G-Man firearm but the quintessential hunter’s rifle. Mann takes care to note the rifle’s smooth butterknife bolt handle and dual set triggers.

    From Thief through Heat to Public Enemies Mann, pays visual homage to violent men and the tools of their trade. You didn’t hear Neil McCauley deliver a Callahanesque soliloquy about his Sig P220 but Mann but Mann’s cameras sure did.

  33. red says:

    Agreed wholeheartedly. This goes along with Mann seeming to be more interested in what a man does than trying to explain who he is. A man IS what he does. I am also thinking of the scary golf scene in The Insider. Golf is how the whistleblower unwinds, it is his place where he can just BE. The way it is filmed – and lingered on – golf porn if you will – tells me everything I need to know, about his mood, yes, and the feeling that events are conspiring against him – but also his loneliness and isolation. All without a bit of language.

    I love Mann, obviously – he’s one of my favorites working today.

  34. Dave E. says:

    Wow, great essay. Calling it a review doesn’t do it justice. I had to absorb it in two sessions, haha. I love your insights and will have to watch this again sometime with those in mind.

  35. red says:

    Dave – what did you think of the movie? I’d love to hear.

    Thanks for the nice words.

  36. red says:

    Speaking of the Texas rangers, one of the best lines in the film is when the G-men are all having a pow-wow about the final ambush – Dillinger will either be at the Marlborough Theatre or the Biograph.

    Texas ranger, lighting a cigarette, says laconically, “What’s playing at the Marlborough?”

    A couple of the G-men are taken aback, like – what the hell does that have to do with anything? They act as though he is asking out of innocent interest, as though he wants to go see a movie and wonders what’s playing.

    Texas dude says, “What’s playing at the Marlborough and whats playing at the Biograph?”

    Some guy grabs a newspaper – “A Shirley Temple movie is playing at the Marlborough and the Clark Gable movie Manhattan Melodrama is playing at the Biograph.

    Long pause and Texas ranger, smoking his cig says, “Dillinger’s not going to a Shirley Temple movie.”

  37. red says:

    And Marion Cotillard has an uncanny resemblance to the young Myrna Loy, which I have to believe was deliberate. She was right for the part – her darkness, her French-ness – but those last lingering shots of Loy at the door in Manhattan Melodrama – I realized how alike the two are. A nice understated detail.

  38. Lizzie says:

    Oooh, Susan Lynch! That name sounded familiar, and it was- she was in the recent London revival of Dancing at Lughnasa, as Agnes. What I remember most form her performance was her longing for that ne’er-do-well dude, Patrick’s father- so palpable. The one moment when he danced with her, you could see in her face and the way she held herself it was simultaneously the highlight and scariest experience of her life.

  39. red says:

    Lizzie – wow wow. So envious that you got to see that – what a beautiful and specific recollection you just shared. She really is fantastic. I’d love to see her live.

  40. Jeff says:

    Golf porn…I’m still coming to grips with that one!

    The performance of Stephen Lang as one of the Texas Rangers is the kind of performance that I wish would get recognized with an Oscar nomination. I spent the whole movie trying to figure out who it was – almost settled on Thomas Haden Church, even as I was thinking to myself that I knew he wasn’t in the movie. When I saw in the credits that it was Lang, I thought “holy sh*t! THAT was Stephen Lang? Granted it was a long time ago, but go back to Mann’s “Manhunter” and the role Lang played in that movie, and you’ll be amazed that it was the same person.

  41. Dave E. says:

    I liked it once I got into the pace. Depp was completely believable to me. Actually, the whole cast was. You know, I rarely watch movies with the same critical eye that you do. Maybe if I’m watching one a second or third time. That’s what I like about your movie posts; they give me a whole new level of appreciation.

  42. MrG says:

    Great post and comments Sheila! Dillinger was captured the first time around here in Tucson at what is now one of our “historic” hotels – Hotel Congress. Once a year now they host “Dillinger Days.” A friend of mine portrays Dillinger and does a pretty darn good job too. Besides having the look and the charm and all he is a stuntman and so the show is filled with gun twirling and stunts which if not factual make it exciting. I don’t know if this re-enactment rivals your re-enactment outside the Biograph but its all part of that fascination with the man.

  43. red says:

    Dillinger Day sounds like a total blast! What fun!!

  44. red says:

    Jeff – God, yes, Stephen Lang. What a wonderful actor.

  45. Brian Turner says:

    Remember Stephen Lange worked with Mann in Crime Story on TV. His character was soooooo good. And how about Giovanni Ribisi? My wife nudged me in the theater and said “who is that guy? He steals every scene he’s in”

    I love your writing Sheila.

  46. Rochelle K says:

    I just had to comment. I loved your insight to the movie. Just wonderful. You put into words exactly what I thought but couldn’t articulate. I agree with everything….except maybe the part that listening to Johnny was a total snoozefest. He could read the phonebook to me and I’d be enthralled. :-)
    Awesome job!

  47. red says:

    Brian – yeah, Ribisi was awesome. I loved all those crime syndicate guys – and Peter Gerety as the lawyer (that was Gerety right?)

  48. red says:

    Rochelle – thanks so much!

  49. red says:

    Yup- just looked it up – Peter Gerety. He’s very well-known to Rhode Island audiences because of his long association with Trinity Rep (Richard Jenkins is another one) – and I thought he was great here, too. Just had that one courtroom scene, but he nailed it.

  50. Lou says:

    Hate being the voice of dissent but . . .

    The movie was quite a disappointment to me. Sure the acting was good (I especially liked how Depp played a regular human being rather than take a part to show how “quirky” he is) and some of the stylistic choices were good, but I felt it was all pretty hollow.

    I guess I’ve always felt a connection to Dillinger because he was gunned down (maybe) on my birthday (July 22, and would you be surprised to know that’s the day I saw the movie?), so I know a good deal about the legend. TOO many liberties were taken for my taste: for example, the sequence in which the top “public enemies” went down (for the audience at home, it was Dillinger first, then Pretty Boy, then Baby Face), and though I like Christian Bale (rants and all) all the accounts I’ve read about Melvin Purvis portray him as a sniveling little bordering on incompetent weasel who would have ORDERED Billie to be slapped around like that instead of stopping it. But at least he wasn’t the “supercop” as portrayed in Warren Oates’ “Dillinger”. THAT was out and out laughable.

    There’s more, but I don’t want to take up too much space. : )

  51. red says:

    Lou – plenty of people have expressed dissatisfaction with elements of the film throughout this thread. As a matter of fact, the beginning of this entire conversation in the thread was a comment from Catherine involving her problems in the film, and our lengthy back and forth. You’re not the lone “voice of dissent” – far from it. Good conversation going on here, all around.

    • Jackeline says:

      He doesn’t mumble, hovewer, the sound levels for dialogue were kind of crap at our theater. You could *feel* the gunshots almost, but then there would be bits of dialogue that sounded like they came through oatmeal.

  52. red says:

    Purvis has been a bit of a cipher in other incarnations – this was definitely a “take” on the man, and I thought Bale did a great job. He was hard enough to be willing to play dirty and go against his boss, but then had integrity enough to “rescue” Billie. This is the kind of dramatic license I am comfortable with – especially when we are dealing with a popular almost mythological character such as Purvis.

    I was VERY pleased, though, that the “here’s what happened to these people after” screens at the end of the film did not leave out the fact that Purvis eventually committed suicide.

    Life is more complex than good guy/bad guy – and you may win some battles, but you eventually lose the war – I was sitting in my seat waiting to see what they would say about Melvin Purvis’ future, and felt a small relief that they hadn’t left that out. It honored the reality of the man, I thought.

  53. Lou says:

    Well, good to know I’m not the lone voice in the wilderness! LOL

    Sheila and Catherine, have either of you read a fairly recent book called “Young J. Edgar”, by Kenneth Ackerman? It’s about the “Red Scare” in the late teens-early 20s, and shows how calling Hoover a weasel would be insulting, as weasels are warm-blooded animals, unlike Hoover.

  54. red says:

    I have a couple other books on Hoover, but not that one. I loved Ackerman’s book on Boss Tweed. I will definitely check out his Hoover book.

    I love that whole period in American history (or, hell, world history). Say, 1915 to 1940. I’ve been obsessed with it since I was a small child (uhm, Blowsy and Cherrie and Sadie the Polish immigrant?).

  55. Lou says:


    I NEVER would have guessed! = O

    ; )

  56. john says:

    Hey! What’s going on here!? I hereby offer some friendly chiding: You of all people, preoccupied with the idea of personal narrative, you’re now trying to convince me this movie is great because it’s opaque? Not buying. I contend good movies *always* tell a story and always involve choices the characters must make. We want to know why the characters are the way they are. We may not always approve the story the director chooses to tell (re: your reservations about A Beautiful Mind)or may feel the story is inadequately told. But we expect there will be an *attempt* at storytelling. You think the “just the facts” approach in Public Enemies is its virtue? Just the opposite – it’s why this movie falls flat. Why not just admit the real reason – you’re in love with Johhny Depp.

  57. red says:

    John –

    As I stated, I do feel that the opacity in the performance of Depp was one of its greatest strengths, adding to the mystique of the character, and I went into it in detail in the post. You may not agree, that’s fine – a lot of people don’t – but I felt that it was perfect for this particular character.

    I’m not “in love with Johnny Depp”. What an insulting thing to say – to assume that my thoughts are not a well-thought-out and considered response – but from some fangirl raving. I’ve never written about Johnny Depp on my site before – not at length. I admire much of his work, and I very much liked him here – but your last comment is quite rude.

    Additionally, one of my pet peeves is expecting consistency in another person, regardless of the context. “Hey, you said this in THIS post and then in THIS post – which has a totally different topic – you say something ELSE.” I explained why I thought the opacity worked here, and why it was good for this particular story.

    I also make the point in the post that I am perfectly comfortable fluctuating between theories and I actually prefer the pendulum in most cases. You’re saying, “How come you can say THIS about narrative in one place and THIS about narrative in another?”

    The narrative that works in a book like Blood Meridian would not work well in something like Anne of Green Gables. The storytelling method in Ulysses would not work in an Agatha Christie book.

    That actually is PART of my fascination about narrative. The differing styles (in fiction, as well as real life) – and the various ‘spins’ we can take on other people’s stories as well as our own.

    In contemplating and thinking about my OWN feelings of narrative in terms of my own life – which you obviously are referring to, my thoughts as a writer, a woman, a person, about narrative – in no way suggests that I am uncomfortable with multiple modes, different manners and contexts. Your “chiding” is strange, like you’re trying to play “gotcha” in what is a movie review.

    Life is big and complex, with many different aspects. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

    Talk about the merits of the film, and what worked for you and didn’t. Accept that others will disagree, and try to engage them on the points they bring up – or bring up your own points – without that strange level of “Hey, what is going on here??” that you’ve got going on in your comment.

    You seem taken aback or something.

    And I reiterate: your last comment is insulting.

  58. Lou says:

    Ladies and Gentlemen . . .I give you . . . THE TROLL!!!

    Well said, Sheila.

  59. red says:

    I am not in love with Johnny Depp.

    Everyone knows that my heart belongs to Lance Kerwin.

    That comment is just a really rude dismissal of me, and the possibility that my words might have come out of, oh, analysis and thought, rather than a movie-star crush.

    I’m a huge Michael Mann fan, have been for years, and I can certainly see fault in the film – but that’s not what I chose to wrote about. My “way in” was to write about the quality of opaqueness and how it served Depp here in his creation of this well-known American criminal. And how the lack of explanation in the film (as in flashbacks, or insistent thematic elements) worked for it. Again, my opinion – but duh, this is my site, who else’s opinion would i be sharing?

    I don’t expect everyone to agree with me – and I have loved this conversation, hearing everyone else’s thoughts about the movie. I wouldn’t call the movie polarizing to any extent, but I can definitely see the response is “mixed” – which I think is quite interesting.

    Moving on!

  60. SteveHL says:

    I know this is almost totally off topic but since you mentioned a possible film about Alexander Hamilton, I thought you should know that George Arliss starred in “Alexander Hamilton” back in 1931. I’ve never seen it but the idea of the 60+ year old Arliss playing Hamilton should keep anyone from worrying about any straying from absolute historical fact in “Public Enemies”.

  61. red says:

    Steve – HAHA!!! I haven’t seen that – I love George Arliss but the thought of this is absurd and now I MUST see it!

  62. Therese says:

    I realize I came to the Maud Gonne mini-series conversation a tad late, but Sheila, if you and Catherine are still looking for someone to play W.B. Yeats…

    :rustles in closet for cape and pince nez:

    Er, that said, what about Johnny Depp?

  63. john says:

    Oh Boy! Believe me, it was not my intention to attack your intellectual integrity. I admire your work here very much and am very distressed I gave you reason to think otherwise. I did not mean my Johnny Depp comment to be taken seriously, but I can now see how it could be. I hope you return to this thread to read this so I can hope you’ll let me back in your good graces.

  64. red says:

    John – no worries. Just a misunderstanding then. Thanks for the apology.

    That being said – want to talk about your issues about the flatness of the film (without the tone of your first comment)? I actually am interested in having conversations about this movie – and if you can describe what didn’t work for you, and why – well, that’s the kind of conversation I live for.

    So we disagree – so? Might make for a good conversation!

  65. red says:

    Therese – The man just said his dream role was to play Carol Channing. hahahaha I think he could probably play Yeats as well!

  66. I’d give anything to have heard that Viking roar–or, for that matter, to participate in a splash tour. Just dropped in to say that the exchange about my book was to me enormously gratifying. It’s got me thinking about the enormous, instructive difference between getting a good review and overhearing an honest reader response. The latter is so much more significant. This is exactly why we write–to communicate. Thanks so much for making my day. This is a terrific blog, by the way. I’ll be back, often.

  67. Shelly says:

    Yay! – another person who gets Depp’s performance! Sorry he wasn’t more exciting in person at your school, but he’s always been very shy (early in his career, this was interpreted as his being stuck-up). In his younger, wilder days, he was very open, only to learn the hard lesson that when you’re a celebrity even the simplest statements will be twisted and misinterpreted and that there are very few people you can trust.

  68. alli says:

    Late to the party as always (I’m always last to see a movie!) but I had to come back to this now that I’ve finally seen it.

    I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was that I enjoyed so much about the movie (aside from the fact that much of it was set in my backyard… in fact i visited my brother at the state prison in michigan city a year ago). Dillinger always fascinated me, but this movie with the snippets felt so believable. Like flipping through an old scrapbook with minimal captions. Just the images.

    Thanks for putting into words what I was thinking and trying to explain to a friend after watching. :-)

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