x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Parting shots

Public Enemies, out now in the UAE, follows a long tradition of gangster movies that blur the line between fact and fiction.

Johnny Depp as the notorious American bank robber John Dillinger in Michael Mann's Public Enemies.
Johnny Depp as the notorious American bank robber John Dillinger in Michael Mann's Public Enemies.

After a strange and unwieldy 130 minutes of sporadic action, muted -performance and cockeyed romance, the writer-director Michael Mann's film Public Enemies suddenly springs to life. In its last moments, the 1930s-set account of the criminal exploits of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) finally discovers something worth saying about its protagonist. Before that, the film offers a strangely static odyssey through Dillinger's American bank robberies. Secondary characters and bullet--ridden incidents are lifted with due reverence but little dramatic flare from Bryan Burrough's monolithic social history Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934. Stylistically, too, the film has been surprisingly flat and ugly to this point, shot conspicuously with digital cameras in an attempt, according to its director, to a achieve a "reach out and touch it" immediacy. -Ultimately, though, it boasts the gaudy -pixelated texture of a student film or wedding video, not a multimillion-dollar -studio project. In the end, however, Public -Enemies boldly follows Dillinger into the -Biograph Theater in -Chicago's -Lincoln Park neighbourhood in order to recreate his last act before he dies at the hands of three trigger-happy FBI agents: watching a Clark Gable gangster movie called Manhattan Melodrama. In a rare cinematic hall-of-mirrors moment, Depp's Dillinger, already sensing his doom, watches wide-eyed as -Gable's mobster, Blackie Gallagher (a character modelled on the "real" Dillinger), utters some rakish lines to his straight-arrow best friend, Jim Wade (William Powell), about his willingness to face death. "Hey, look, Jim, if I can't live the way I want, at least let me die the way I want," he says. Gable is gorgeous on the monochrome screen in a sharp suit and slicked-back hair, while Dillinger, his inspiration, is awestruck. Mann is of course aware of the -emotional charge in this scene, and has enthusiastically spoken of its power. "Imagine being John Dillinger, sitting there in the movie house," he said. "All your friends are dead. Your woman, the true love of your life, is gone. There are fewer and fewer people like you anymore. The end is near. You're not a sentimentalist about it - you don't think you're going to live forever -anyway. And Clark Gable delivers these words to you while, unbeknownst to you, less than 75 feet away there are 30 FBI agents out there planning to kill you." There is more to the scene than Mann will admit. More, at least, than he might seem comfortable acknowledging. For despite the film's obvious claims of -authenticity - from Burrough's book as source material to the digital camerawork - this scene is also one colossal -moment of fakery. The scene is actually about Depp watching Gable, about the fictitious interplay of two ersatz John Dillingers and, ultimately, about Hollywood admiring its own handiwork. It is, ironically, a celebration of the absence of the "real" John Dillinger, and it gives the film a wild semantic jolt. "You are like Dillinger," it says, "sitting in a cinema watching a copy of a copy of a copy." It audaciously points out that the original Dillinger has not just vanished but was perhaps never there in the first place. Dillinger, an avid movie fan, went to films such as Manhattan Melodrama and moulded his persona on actorly turns that were already moulded on him. As you look at Public Enemies and this brief knockout scene, you realise that Dillinger is not a man but a performance, that the movie revolves around a phantasm and that, in the words of Gertrude Stein, "there is no there there". Of course, in Dillinger's era, these issues of representation were far less fraught than they seem today. Hollywood was in the midst of a straight-faced gangster movie boom that began with the hard-knock -triumvirate of Edward G Robinson's Little Caesar (1930), James Cagney's The Public Enemy (1931) and Paul Muni's Scarface (1932). There were gangster movies before this, such as the 1927 silent movie Underworld, but the genre didn't truly ignite -until Americans, battered by the Great Depression, started flocking to theatres to witness the rebellious and often anarchic antics of their -tommy-gun-wielding, bank--robbing anti-heroes. These Hollywood gangsters "-reflected the cynical state of mind of many Americans at this time, and their belief in the power of force over ideals", says John Ellis in The Social History of the Machine Gun. "At their core was still a belief in the possibility and the desirability of individual advancement. But there was a new callousness about the means of obtaining it. Thus if the system could not provide it, one was justified in going out and grabbing it for oneself." Thus, while the likes of the "real" Dillinger, the Barker Gang, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis were out ransacking "real" banks, actors such as Humphrey Bogart were playing fast-talking bank robbers in movies such as The Petrified Forest (1936) and High Sierra (1941). In these cases - especially in The Petrified Forest, where Bogart's dangerous Duke Mantee would have been -familiar to audiences as a Dillinger type - the task for the filmmaker was one of fictionalised biography. Bank robberies were an irresistible yarn, while the bank robbers made for attractive, individualistic protagonists in a country beaten down by banking institutions and governmental inadequacies. Aware of this devilish allure, however, Hollywood's internal moral barometer, The Motion Picture Production Code (which ran from 1930-1968), pressured studios and moviemakers to focus increasingly on the law makers rather than the lawbreakers. Films such as -William Keighley's G-Men (1935) came to symbolise the mainstream -approach to the crime movie, in which FBI hotshots such as James Cagney's "Brick" Davis were depicted as two-fisted opponents of gangsterism. They spawned imitation movies such as Public Hero Number One (1935) and the FBI murder -drama Let 'em Have It (1935). There were momentary exceptions, of course, to the near blanket ban on attractive bank robbers. In 1959, Steve McQueen starred as a washed-up former football hero who becomes a Dillinger wannabe in The Great St Louis Bank Robbery. But even here, McQueen's George is cruelly punished for his transgression of the law. Horrified at the beast he has become (a woman hostage calls him "vicious"), he gives himself up and is last seen staring out from behind the protective bars of a police car. It wasn't really until 1967, with Arthur Penn's epic crime movie Bonnie and Clyde, that the concept of the bank robber became glamorous again. Reaching back to the Dillinger era for character types and set-ups, Penn created a handsome, fiery Clyde Barrow (Warren -Beatty) who flirts with Bonnie Parker, shoots a bank manager in the face and dies a cathartic hero's death in a hail of bullets. The film unapologetically celebrated its protagonists and, as with the heroes of the 1930s, seemed to speak to a growing section of the populace, in this case the Youth Movement, which was increasingly disenchanted with the mainstream. Nonetheless, Burrough, in his Public Enemies tome, is irked by the discrepancy between fact and fiction. "The film has taken a shark-eyed multiple murderer and his deluded girlfriend and transformed them into sympathetic characters," he writes. "They are imbued with a cuddly likeability they did not possess and a cultural significance they did not deserve." Bank robbery continued to be an action-packed screen profession in sections of The Wild Bunch (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and even John Milius's -violent B-movie Dillinger (1973). But it wasn't until Sidney Lumet's searing Dog Day Afternoon (1975) that the glamour, political clout and symbolic status of the bank robber was definitively imploded. Based on a real 1972 Brooklyn hostage -incident, the movie follows the classically botched attempt of Al Pacino's Sonny Wortzik, a Vietnam veteran and novice criminal, to rob a neighbourhood bank. The film, effortlessly realised and delicately played, moves through various phases like the history of the bank robber movie writ large. In the pre-robbery build-up, Sonny and his right-hand man Sal (John Cazale) are the gun-toting professionals, the Bogart and the Beatty of their day. Then, during the failed robbery and subsequent hostage crisis, Sal becomes a political figure and symbol of youth rebellion as he nips in and out of the bank inspiring the gathered crowds and taunting the long lines of police with the cries of "Attica! Attica!" (a reference to a then recent massacre of inmates at Attica prison in New York state). Finally, Sonny becomes a tragic figure of fun for the fickle crowd, teased by the people, humiliated by the media and eventually shot in a fake getaway car by an unforgiving police force. In this one character, Pacino and Lumet seemed to finally collapse the magnetic myth of the superman bank robber and replace it instead with the myriad complexities of real life. Most iconic bank robber movies since then have retreated into wild fantasy. Point Break featured surfing bank robbers; Sexy Beast featured -mockney London scuba diving bank robbers, and Inside Man featured bank robbers of such improbable genius, ability and expertise (they build a fake storeroom in the middle of the heist) that they underlined only the fantastical nature of the entire project. There have been some notable exceptions. Mann's Heat, with its high-tension third act bank robbery and subsequently epic downtown gun battle, seemed so real that it inspired a copycat robbery at the Bank of America in North Hollywood in 1997. It was a serious and thoughtful movie filled with complex -human performances (Neil McCauley is one of Robert De Niro's strongest contemporary roles) and propulsive action that managed to re-imagine a genre that had become mired in childish fantasy and cinematic ritual. And this is perhaps why the same director's Public Enemies is such a disappointment. Now, in the midst of an economic crisis, seems like the perfect time for Mann to push the bank robber genre even further than before and to speak, as the original gangster movies of the 1930s did, to a widespread bank-bashing cultural climate. Instead, perhaps crumbling under the weight of cinematic tradition, Mann simply pointed his lens on Hollywood and gave us, like those brief shots of Gable on screen in the Chicago theatre, a portrait of a -movie-made myth rather than a man on the make.