The James Clayton Column: make it real, Mann-style

James celebrates the might of Michael Mann's Public Enemies, with one or two spoilers if you've not seen the film...

Unsurprising considering it’s packed full of G-men, rat-ta-tat-tat machine guns and prison break-outs, Public Enemies has me enthusiastically recalling the glorious gangster flicks of old. Going right back to the 1930s and ‘40s, seeing Johnny Depp as notorious hoodlum John Dillinger has sent my movie memory on a nostalgic meander through the back catalogue of Warner Bros. genre pics that first set the charismatic criminal up as an effective screen anti-hero.

For this regression into retrospective, I thank Public Enemies. Classic James Cagney movies like Angels With Dirty Faces and White Heat still stand as overwhelming masterpieces that not only blaze out great hardboiled stories but bring incredibly powerful, even touching, moments.

If we’re going to get all categorical, it’s arguable that the gangster genre has been the most potent and prestigious through film history. The lure of crime flicks centred around lawbreakers has lasted long after those early releases, The Godfather is often cited as the ‘Greatest Movie of All Time’ and the pop cultural influence and capturing of popular imagination just carries on. We still love a good outlaw, ready to rebel against the establishment in style, rip off ‘The Man’ and raise hell with little regard for sucking up to the law.

As it follows the rise-and-fall trajectory of Depp’s charismatic Dillinger through the high-crime hotspot of 1930s Chicago, Public Enemies paces the same sort of turf taken by its American gangster forebears. Furthermore, Michael Mann’s new release has the genre trappings on display – diligently stubborn lawmen (including Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis), a glamorous moll (Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette) and car chases, bank hold-ups and suited, mean macho-types a-plenty.

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Yet despite the similar subject matter and setting, Mann’s gangster movie is a very different animal in that its digitally captured cinematography takes the audience through a completely radical crime experience. Public Enemies looks and feels like a Mann film, which is pretty odd and unnerving considering it’s a historical drama. In style, this Dillinger biopic is just like Collateral or Miami Vice with its grittiness, hand-held camera action and documentary ambience, yet it’s set in the 1930s. The effect is that watching Public Enemies is pretty much like being on the scene, bustling about in Depression-era Midwest America.

This is unusual and unique in contrast to the organised crime experience audiences have had before at the cinema. Goodfellas may be the true story of wiseguy Henry Hill, but it’s also a stylised Scorsese piece with a hip soundtrack and high-energy editing. Likewise, Scarface begins with some contextual preamble about Cuba flushing its toilet and sending prisoners en masse as immigrants to Florida. Despite this, as it effervescently blazes out as a bombastic explosion of 80s fashion, expletives and pyrotechnics, the film is first and foremost about razzmatazz.

The early gangster films sought to reflect societal concerns about real world crime but similarly sent out their message through high melodrama and even The Godfather as a gangster saga tells its story dramatically through sepia tones and cinematic style. Whereas others have used artistic flourishes to furnish the frames and augment the plot, however, with Public Enemies Mann has held back. In fact, he’s done the direct opposite by making his Dillinger biopic ultra-stark, opting for bare, in-your-face imminence and docu-realism to bring us a different breed of gangster flick.

As they take in the HD-captured footage, viewers find themselves dropped into the violent world of Dillinger; sutured into the environment with no option but to accept it as real. Completely free from staginess and sheen, the rough realist style of Public Enemies feels quotidian – more documentary chronicle than dazzling Hollywood fantasy. Dramatically detached, dressed in accurate period detail and packed with pasty-faced ugly mugs, Mann’s movie is a compelling, convincing and cathartic biopic with a difference.

As a violent historical blockbuster, it’s the antithesis of Zack Snyder’s adaptation of 300. Public Enemies ain’t no pulp non-fiction with a stress on the “fiction” – it is history. The loosest anachronism is the offing of Baby Face Nelson before the death of Dillinger. Suffice to say, it doesn’t come courtesy of a giant monster with blades for arms.

Public Enemies, then, is a tremendous, truthful trip back in time rather than an embellished exercise in mythmaking, and perhaps such an approach should be adopted by more filmmakers as they set out to make their glittering eulogies and blockbuster biopics. There are more than enough overblown motion pictures out there, so how about taking a stab at history with half-a-mind on docu-style and asceticism?

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If they’re not going to go for the full cinema vérité technique, then maybe to make sure that the spectator can fully submerge themselves in the movie, the example of those great early gangster films should be looked to. Films like The Public Enemy presented themselves as a reflection of real society by featuring warning titles that prefaced the movie, claiming their accuracy and cautioning the audience against the underworld elements that were genuinely out there.

The scene in Public Enemies where Dillinger and company hide out in a theatre and see a newsreel urging vigilance against the wanted gang provides a case in point. As the audience are told that Dillinger could be amongst their number by a hysterical announcer (“Look left! Look right!”), I couldn’t help but wish that more films reached beyond the fourth wall or strove beyond the standard to make it feel all the more real.

I want to feel that rush of actuality coursing through my arteries when I go to the cinema. In order to become fully immersed in the on-screen narrative, we either need to feel realism in the manner of Mann’s movies or be made to believe that it’s totally real with the nudge of a titlecard. Despite its claim that “This is a true story”, the Coen Brothers classic Fargo is, actually, not. That’s the spirit – who cares if it’s not true? I’m at the cinema to access and experience an alternate-reality as configured by filmmakers, so make me believe and allow me to become one with the film. When presented with Public Enemies in an auditorium for 140 minutes, reality becomes 1930s Midwest America.

James’ previous column can be found here.