Public Enemies at 15: Michael Mann’s End to the Wild West

Movies Features Michael Mann
Public Enemies at 15: Michael Mann’s End to the Wild West

Michael Mann is going through a moment of critical and cultural reassessment, at least within the increasingly niche world of cinephilia. Heat, his crime-thriller epic and definitive masterpiece, made it onto the 2022 Sight & Sound “Greatest Films of All Time” poll in a 15-way tie in the mid-100s alongside works by such arthouse darlings at Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Rivette, Robert Bresson, and Alain Resnais. In the early 2010s, Mann was the butt of a recurring joke in The Trip series, where Steve Coogan wanted to be taken seriously as an actor working with auteurs, and Rob Brydon asked him if he would ever work with a more Hollywood director like Michael Mann. Now in 2024, Mann has become a figure to the extremely online and plugged in world of Film Twitter what Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford were to the Cahiers du Cinéma critics were in the 1950s: a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker who is not taken seriously enough as a towering artist because of his genre status. This renewed reverence has bled out from the online world, too, where a Twitter user named Michael Mann Facts has had the opportunity to program celebrations of Mann’s works at the Roxy Cinema in New York City for two years now. But it would be an understatement to say interest in Mann’s work is reserved for the hyper-online—just this year, the seminal study of Mann’s oeuvre by one of the leading French critics on American cinema, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, had his Michael Mann: A Contemporary Retrospective translated into English. Heat has had a much earned moment, and the maligned-at-release Miami Vice has had its poetics finally appreciated—even the shoddy (and clearly not Mann-penned) Blackhat has gained new life with a long-awaited Director’s Cut. And yet, Thoret points to what I would consider to be Mann’s most underappreciated and monumental masterpiece, Public Enemies, as being an essential point in Mann’s examination of his own cinema.

Turning 15 today, Public Enemies follows famed bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), and the struggle by Bureau of Investigation (the primordial version of the FBI) detective Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to hunt down public enemy number one. Thoret argues that “by focusing his story on the passage from 1933 to the summer of 1934, Mann had sought to explore the archaeology of the world in which Frank (Thief), Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna (Heat), Ricardo and Sonny (Miami Vice) and Vincent (Collateral) would one day evolve.” 

At the base of this story is an ur-crime film, one of Mann’s most mythic and romantic portrayals of cops and robbers. Depp’s Dillinger has an unbridled swagger, to the point where, in his capture, the press can’t help but find him as charismatic as his girl, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), does when Dillinger convinces her to quit her day job and run off with him. “I don’t know anything about you,” Frechette says against Dillinger’s advances. “I was raised on a farm in Mooresville, Indiana. My mama died when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me ‘cause he didn’t know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you… what else you need to know?” Dillinger’s swagger is such that, when they take a young woman hostage during a bank robbery early in the movie, she seems to start to like him while they’re running to ditch her in the woods. 

Dillinger is Mann’s ultimate cool-guy robber, similar to how Purvis is Mann’s ultimate cool-headed cop: a no bullshit, thorough, boots-on-the-ground investigator who is willing to get his hands dirty when he needs to, but never at the cost of what he perceives as moral compromise. These two idealized figures are contrasted not as much by each other, but by the institutions that they are the groundwork for. 

In Purvis’ case, it is the newly forming federal police force going after cross-state crime, the Bureau of Investigation led by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), and for Dillinger it is the Syndicate, fronted by Frank Nitti (Bill Camp). Both institutions are seeking to build national networks, one of coast-to-coast bookie operations, and the other of elite national police units. Thoret is quick to point out that Hoover and Nitti are similarly meek bureaucrats who are impotent on the frontline, but all-powerful as administrators. They are two sides of the same coin, a symbiotic self-reinforcing system, not unlike how Hunter S. Thompson writes about the Hell’s Angels’ simulated war with the state of California, or Christopher Nolan frames the battle between vigilantism and terrorism in his Patriot Act era The Dark Knight (2008). The Bureau of Investigation are more than just symbolic foils, but technologic accomplices. Thoret writes that, “we are dealing with two objective allies, two faces of a single oppressive system which then seek to modernize themselves.” Indeed, the control room of switchboard wire taps and the office full of betting odds and constantly phoning accountants are mirrors of each other, trying to transform the wild world of Depression-era America into a clean collection of consolidated systems of power.

It is not as if the robbers reject the modernity of technology that the cops also use—Thompson submachine guns and wicked-fast automobiles are just as useful for robbing banks as they are for catching criminals. Instead, what Dillinger and his ilk reject, knowingly or not, is modernity itself. Under modernity, these tools start to fuse with their users the same way bureaucratic society affects every way in which one interacts with the world, and the weapons they wield to try and feel the rush of liberation are ultimately the forces of a death drive. Mann represents this poetically. He ends the opening prison break battle with a man dying as the Earth is literally pulled away under his feet by an escaping car. When “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham) is gunned down by detectives, his Thompson’s fire mimics his own scream of death, the gun left smoking as his dying breath leaves his body into the cold night. These sequences, along with the innumerable ear-splitting and highly textured gun fights, are intensely immediate. Mann has talked about how they did camera tests for Public Enemies on both digital and celluloid, and while the filmic images lent a grandiosity and classicism to the visual sensibility of the film, the digital added an irreplaceable sense of immediacy, as if what we were seeing was present-tense, not historic. 

People often forget that the genre as it exists in cinema was solidified by Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, a movie not about a mythic past, but the present. Although, this still worked with a romanticized frontier past that was also part of the genre form, and which dated back in American literature even before Manifest Destiny, like with James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (as rendered on screen by Mann himself in The Last of the Mohicans). This is all to say that the place where silent crime and Western films diverge might have less to do with historical perspective and more to do with the local. Crime films take place in large, predominantly East Coast cities; Westerns take place on the frontiers or frontier towns. Eventually, Los Angeles and Chicago cease being frontier outposts and instead become “civilization” in the way the East has been. For Dillinger and the public enemies, it was a Golden Age of bank robbing, but also the last time such freewheeling criminals could be as successful as they were. It was certainly the end of an on-the-ground technical parity between cops and criminals, with legislation like the National Firearms Act of 1934 seeking to throttle criminals’ ability to get automatic weapons, and tech capabilities on the crime-end going more towards subversive tools to evade detection and capture, or towards behind-the-scenes operations like Nitti’s bookie operations. This was the real end to the Wild West.

“We are in the modern age, we are making history,” Hoover tells Purvis. “Take direct, expedient action. As they say in Italy these days, ‘Take off the white gloves.’” This off-handed line, spoken in hushed tones before Hoover goes to meet the media, is the most explicit insinuation (if it wasn’t already clear) about how fascist American society was becoming. The hints are everywhere—from the film’s opening where Dillinger busts his friends out of a brutally modern concrete castle of a prison, to the way Hoover’s G-men start working with questionable judiciality. By the end of the film, they’re even ripping Billie off the street and torturing her for information like a band of Blackshirts. This all subverts the romanticism: while early heists are like if they got away with the “big one” in Heat, the way Hoover’s cops breach a door by blowing its hinges off with a shotgun foreshadows the same tactic used 60 years later when the LAPD is trying to track down Neil McCauley, that paralleling of the past revealing a fascist specter hiding in the present. 

Following the moment when Hoover tells Purvis to “take off the white gloves,” Hoover goes up to an awaiting crowd of cameramen who watch him award a group of children “junior G-men” status, building his own Hoover Youth. The sequence becomes a newsreel that Dillinger is watching in a theater, which proceeds a public notice to be on the lookout for him—public enemy number one could be anywhere, even in that very theater. “Look to your left,” the narrator tells the audience, and they turn. “Look to your right.” Dillinger stands out in a crowd of obeying faces. This bulletin is followed by a newsreel about Ethiopia (presumably, Fascist Italy’s invasion), and then a Looney Tunes. For the average theatergoer, it is all just background noise. For Dillinger, it would seem that his world has become cinema as much as it has become real life. Never is this more present than in his final hours, at a showing of the Clark Gable pre-Code crime film Manhattan Melodrama, where we slowly start to see the movie from Dillinger’s perspective, with the non-diegetic and haunting score overtaking Manhattan Melodrama’s soundtrack and the aspect ratio bending from a theatrical projection to widescreen, consuming the frame of Public Enemies

Dillinger is a completely self-aware figure, a perfect protagonist for a story examining its own demise. “Who cares what the public thinks?” Dillinger is asked early in the movie. “I do,” he responds. He’s a folk hero and enemy of the state, all at once, with all the contradictions that entails. Near the end, in Public Enemies’ most surreal sequence, Dillinger walks right into the FBI office that has been hunting him down, bathed in orange light of a setting sun. He wanders around the near-empty office, seeing boards with photos of himself and all of his associates who’ve been long-since gunned down. He knows the end is near: both the criminal Syndicate and the FBI have little use left for him. 

Public Enemies stands as one of Mann’s great works, but there are two obvious reasons it hasn’t been reclaimed in the 15 years since its release. First, the digital immediacy of Public Enemies, while an effect that is now embraced for its beauty in films like Collateral and Miami Vice, creates an insurmountable dissonance for some viewers because of the historic setting. But this also creates a truly unique filmic experience not replicated elsewhere to such a stunning effect (not even in Mann’s Ferrari, since digital itself has now reached a film-emulating fidelity). Second is Depp, whose utter monstrosity in his personal life has been very publicly litigated in the subsequent years. It creates a troubling tension for the modern viewer (not unlike watching, say Clark Gable), where we are all too aware of how horrible the man’s behavior is off-screen, and have to reckon with how he is still oddly, uncomfortably charismatic on-screen. But this again speaks to the power of the immediacy of the film (and I’ll be the first to admit, this may say something about me as a viewer): When I watch it, everything else in the world falls away, as if the only thing that exists are the images in front of me, like John Dillinger sitting in a movie theater where, suddenly, the movie becomes life itself.

Alex Lei is writer and filmmaker currently based in Baltimore. He can usually be found on Twitter.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin