Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #37--Public Enemies (2009)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

From now on, when the American public thinks of John Dillinger, they'll think of Johnny Depp. Whoever Dillinger was in real life is going to be subsumed by the Johnny Depp version--which, in a way, is the best thing that could have happened to John Dillinger.
-- Paul Maccabee, author of John Dillinger Slept Here

Meet Public Enemy #1.

It's 1933. After nearly 10 years in Indiana State Prison for a $50 robbery of a local grocery store, John Dillinger helps his friends break out of jail in the first scene of Public Enemies. From that point on, you're on the run with Dillinger, the first U.S. Public Enemy #1, as he robs banks and lives the high life as fast as he can, always a step ahead of those hunting him down. Based on Brian Burroughs's book, Public Enemies shows how Dillinger lived his short life in the moment for the moment until star FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) catches up with him.

Can we put this guy in jail instead?
Even though gangster movies are not my favorite, I couldn't wait to see Public Enemies, probably because Johnny looked so dapper in the previews. Weeks before its release, I got an email from Fandango that opened with this photo:

It actually took me a few seconds to realize who that movie star was. You've got to love it when Johnny cleans himself up and puts on a nice suit. Thanks for the awesome costumes, Colleen Atwood!

Against my better judgment, I went to the theater on a Saturday night the weekend that Public Enemies opened. It was July 4th and I thought everyone else would be outside watching fireworks, but apparently everybody in my neighborhood opted for gun fire. The theater was packed and, as excited as I was, I knew immediately this was a mistake.

I got there early enough to find a good spot, but just when I thought I was in the clear, a huge guy came in, fumbled in the dark during the last preview, and decided to sit next to me. Because I didn't want to be rude, I didn't move over to the empty seat next to me, and instead I suffered.

This guy bought a $10 movie ticket and at least $30 worth of greasy, smelly food, of which he only ate a few bites before falling asleep 30 seconds later and snoring! While he slept, his cellphone rang at full blast multiple times for multiple calls to no avail. Maybe gangster life was rubbing off on me as I tried to watch Public Enemies, but I really wanted to punch this guy awake. Instead, he woke up on his own in the middle of the movie and left!

The best part of this experience was getting this free Public Enemies lobby poster (left) from a pile outside the theater. It's too bad Johnny's holding a machine gun, but I took it anyway after what I'd just been through.

How can anyone sleep through this?
I was a complete ball of stress through this entire movie. Aside from the expected bloody gangster-related activities--the chasing, the shooting--and the guaranteed unhappy ending, it doesn't help that everyone close to Dillinger calls him Johnny throughout the film. Because Director Michael Mann used so much hand-held camera, the action is in your face, giving the movie a documentary feel. It's as if you're in the bank getting robbed or running with the gang, trying not to get killed. This flick is fast-paced, nonstop, exciting, and tense!

Gunshots aside, this great story is rich with history. Johnny, Michael Mann, and Christian Bale worked hard to make everything on film as accurate as possible. Filming took place in several locations where Dillinger actually was. They restored and filmed in Indiana's Crown Point jail, from which he once escaped using a wooden model of a gun. When Dillinger was arrested and transferred from Ohio back to Indiana State Prison, the media swarmed for an impromptu press conference. That scene in Public Enemies is filmed in the same room, which looks unchanged from Dillinger's original photographs. Similarly, Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, where Purvis nearly catches Dillinger, still stands and has much of the same furnishings. Michael Mann filmed Johnny's scenes in the same room that Dillinger used. At the end of the movie, he even dies in the same spot on the street in Chicago. (I'm not giving anything away here.) I love these kinds of details in movies!

It's in the stars!
What really makes this movie great for me is the performances by its stars: Christian Bale, Johnny, and Marion Cotillard. The entire cast is great and full of surprises: you'll even find Channing Tatum and Carey Mulligan in there for a bit. But these three main characters, with their different dynamic personalities, keep me captivated.

Melvin Purvis
Working for Herbert Hoover, Melvin Purvis rose from the ranks after some success in capturing popular gangsters of the day. "When he went up against Pretty Boy Floyd, he was very successful," Michael Man explains. "When he had to go up against John Dillinger, he was getting in the ring with Mohammad Ali." Purvis was energetic and focused on his work. Unlike Hoover, who relied on torture and intimidation to get information from and about criminals, Purvis was interested in new techniques in law enforcement that relied more on research. He was among the first to intercept phone calls, and when Dillinger left his coat behind after a bank robbery, he used a national network of Bureau contacts to track down where he bought it. "By the time they got Dillinger, he had to compromise himself and his own values so much by that point that he was questioning who is the real loser here," Christian Bale says.

Christian Bale researched his role with typical precision--reading, watching footage, and even asking the Purvis family endless questions. Purvis is portrayed as a methodical man of few words, who was ahead of his time. In this movie, he's like a quiet terminator on a mission, like the tortoise after the hare.

Funnily, because Purvis is always a step behind Dillinger throughout this movie, Christian Bale and Johnny were only in two scenes together. These two great actors met during a script reading but barely saw or spoke to each other while filming.

John Dillinger
John Dillinger was born into a lower middle class family in Mooresville, Indiana. In his youth, he got drunk, robbed a grocery store, and served nearly 10 years for it. "Dillinger's prison years was really a graduate school in bank robbery," Michael Mann says. "Dillinger, in a way, became a poster boy for the notion that criminals are made, not born, that criminality may have to do with personal characteristics but also with circumstances, with environment, with things that happen to you in your life."

Unlike Purvis, Dillinger was a charismatic people person. He understood how to work the press, which at the time glorified outlaws and their seemingly glamorous lifestyle. "He exploited the good press he got and knew how to manipulate the media to continue to get good press," Michael Mann says. "That was a great defense that meant that even though there might be a reward for him, people really kind of liked him and would think twice about betraying him. Dillinger was a folk hero to the majority of Americans."

During the Depression, most people blamed the banks for their financial woes and felt that Dillinger was acting out on their behalf. Everyone was also angry with the government for not coming to the aid of areas ravaged by dust storms and drought, fixing the financial crisis, and taking care of the homeless. They appreciated Dillinger's talent for making fools of those in charge. "He built himself into a legend," Johnny says. "I think Dillinger had some idea of what he was doing. I really believe he was at peace with the fact that it wasn't probably going to be a very long ride, but it was going to be a significant ride."

Jail time back then meant being completely cut off from the outside world. There were no TVs, radios, or other forms of contact to keep prisoners up to date. So, when Dillinger got out of jail, it was sensory overload just to be sitting in a modern car. What he knew about life on the outside came from watching movies. And, by that time, Dillinger was so popular that his lifestyle had become a theme in gangster movies. He was killed outside Chicago's Biograph theater, where he had just watched Manhattan Melodrama, a gangster film starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Clark Gable. Apparently, Clark Gable's gangster character is loosely based on Dillinger.

Johnny's performance in Public Enemies is fantastic! Being a performer who acts and improvises in the moment and always puts his own creative stamp on his characters, it must have been difficult for Johnny to work with a director like Michael Mann, who has an exact vision of what he wants to see in his film. "They should invent a word to describe it," Johnny says of Michael Mann's attention to detail. "Because it's not just details, it teeters on microscopic obsession with every molecule of the moment. You've got to salute that." The intensity on the set probably added to the great performance Johnny gives. You may not notice them amid all the stress and chasing and gunfire involved in Public Enemies, but Johnny's subtle moments and quiet scenes are my favorite. Michael Mann first noticed this quality when he saw Johnny on 21 Jump Street. (Yeah, 21 Jump Street!) "What was inherent in him were these deep currents of meaning, a sense of the unseen that's not necessarily demonstrative, but you sense darker currents," he says. "You sense the layered awareness behind his eyes."

When preparing for any role, Johnny always finds music that helps him connect to his characters. While working on Public Enemies, he constantly played "Nightmare" by Artie Shaw to stay in the mood. When I heard it, it seemed to be a  perfect match to the feel of the movie. What do you think?

Like Christian Bale, Johnny always researches his roles incessantly, especially when he's portraying a real person. For this one, he visited Dillinger's childhood home, a farmhouse in Mooresville, Indiana. When the movie came out, most of the media talked about how similar Johnny's background and physique were like Dillinger's. No, not the criminal part exactly, but Mooresville is about an hour away from Owensboro, Kentucky, where Johnny was born, so he already felt a familiarity. Because no audio recording of Dillinger's voice exists, the closest Johnny could get was to listen to Dillinger's dad. That voice sounded just like Johnny's own grandfather, so it wasn't hard to find that Southern drawl he uses for this role.

Johnny also went to The John Dillinger Museum, where he read Dillinger's letters and discovered that he fit into his own clothes. Dillinger is also one of those people that Johnny was fascinated with as a kid, so he already knew a lot about him. "Some people might disagree, but I think he was a real-life Robin Hood," Johnny says. "I mean, the guy wasn't completely altruistic, but he went out of his way not to kill anybody. He definitely gave a lot of that money away. I got a sneaking suspicion that he was probably a very lovable character. His choice of occupations was potentially questionable, although during that period, he was a man of the people."

Billie Frechette
Some of my favorite scenes in Public Enemies are those Johnny shares with Marion Cotillard. Billie Frechette was Dillinger's girlfriend for about six months before she was arrested for harboring her criminal boyfriend and sentenced to two years. Dillinger was killed while she was in jail. She was a waitress and singer since an early age. Of Native American and French descent, most of society looked down on her because of her Native American roots. But Dillinger saw what he liked and took it: As Michael Mann says, "Dillinger had no thoughts about the future until he meets Billie."

Although they are only in a few scenes together, I love the history and attitude that Marion Cotillard brought to her character. This role in Public Enemies is her first since her Oscar-winning performance in La Vie en Rose. The pressure was on, but Johnny put her at ease, and they got along great. "Marion really worked hard on that accent, and I think the way she speaks in the film adds so much to the personality of the character she plays," he says. "You can see why Dillinger fell in love with her so easily." Casting directors, I am waiting for Marion Cotillard and Johnny to work together again!

Hot off the presses: Dillinger is caught!
What surprises me about the '30s is how glamorized gangsters are, but I can see why, given the hard times everyone was experiencing. Dillinger was the leader and most liked among them all. Even Will Rogers joked about how Dillinger kept a step ahead of the FBI. When Dillinger is arrested, the media swoops in to capture his arrival for more jail time in Indiana.

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #37--Public Enemies (2009) [July 10, 2013]

Here, he addresses the press before heading to his cell. Reporters hang on every word he says, and the policemen seem just as pleased to host their new guest. (You'll find Norman, B.J., Simon, and Comet among them.) Sheriff Holley (Lili Taylor/Ashes), however, is having none of it. In the movie, she never actually makes the face that Ashes is making in this drawing, but I'm sure she's thinking it. Now, that's good acting!

Let's lighten things up a bit.
Aside from being a gangster, that same year, Johnny lent his voice to an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants called, "SpongeBob SquarePants vs. The Big One." At the time, Johnny and his son Jack were huge fans of the cartoon. (Maybe they still are.) In this episode, SpongeBob and his friends are swept out to sea by a tidal wave and left stranded on a tropical island. To get back home, they  need to learn how to surf. Their teacher, surfing guru Jack Kahuna Laguna, comes to the rescue! He is too cool for school and pretty hilarious. Remember, "Just breeeeaaatheee...."

What's next?
Johnny makes time to pay tribute to a dear friend in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Image/music credits: Public Enemies images © Universal Pictures, John Dillinger's Wanted poster © unknown; "Nightmare" © Artie Shaw; SpongeBob SquarePants image © Nickelodeon, Melissa's Kitties iillustration © Melissa Connolly

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