Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Public Enemies & John Dillinger & Mann

From back in 2009, my look at a Michael Mann flop that wasn't BLACK HAT...

Hated it.

I'm a huge fan of Michael Mann, but thought MIAMI VICE was boring. I love THIEF, and MANHUNTER and HEAT and LAST OF THE MOHICANS... But I have no idea what is going on with Mann these days. It's as if shooting digital has destroyed his soul. His films have become bland and lifeless. Not about humans. PUBLIC ENEMIES was just as boring as MIAMI VICE. Here's why I didn't like it...

There's a title card that tells us it's the 4th year of the Great Depression... but not a single thing *on screen* that shows us this... and a city like Chicago is going to be crowded with homeless people and filled with closed businesses. The reason why Dillinger (and the other bank robbers) was a folk hero is because the banks foreclosed on people's homes, and bankers were getting rich, while a quarter of the country was jobless and starving. Dillinger was screwing The Man. And he was famous for never taking money from a *person* (gets a second in the film). You can't do any film about these bank robbers without the context of the Depression - that's what created them and made them folk heroes. You would think that *now*, with people losing their homes and jobs, would be a great time to focus on the Depression angle of the story. But instead it is completely ignored (except for that title card).

Next - what the hell is the story? Is it a love story? Is it a cop vs. criminal story? It just meanders all over the place without ever focusing on what the hell it is. Look, you have Dillinger - there have been at least a half dozen movies made about him, and some memorable ones. What is *this* story about Dillinger? Why are we telling his story again, and what will this movie cover that Johns Sayles and Millius didn't cover? What angle will this film take that wasn't used in the great Phil Yordan version or Dan Curtis' TV versions of the Purvis story (oddly, written by Millius)? What's the "take" in this version? Nothing! It ends up being about nothing, and bland.

You always have to decide what your story is, even if it is based on facts. Mann did a great cop vs. crook story with HEAT, and he could have done that here as well. He also did a great love story in MOHICANS, and he could have focused on the romantic relationship. Plus, there are dozens of other "takes" he could have done with the Dillinger story. Each of the past versions have taken the story from a different angle, and focused on some specific aspect of Dillinger's life. Or they've taken the Purvis side of the story - after Elliot Ness, Purvis is the most famous FBI Agent ever. Just as Ness took on organized crime and Capone, Purvis took on the bank robbers during the Depression. There were a bunch of them! And, the more the robbers trashed the banks and bankers and barons and millionaires who the public thought had caused the Depression - and probably even profited from it - the more famous they became. They were getting the revenge the public craved. They were rock stars. This was a big problem if you were the government. All of this great stuff... not in the movie.

Why I hate HD - I don't want to see Johnny Depp's old acne scars from when he was on 21 JUMP STREET and I want to maintain my fantasy that Lili Taylor isn't aging as fast as I am. I don't want to see the hot female lead's facial pores. The problem with HD is that it shows every single flaw! A movie is a dream, and the *overly* crisp, clear, shots turned this dream into too much reality. If I can see the make up, it takes me out of the story.

Oh, and what's with these odd shots where the guy doing that talking is completely out of focus and the guy in the background coming through a door is in focus - even though he's an unimportant character? Hey - that's a Zenith radio! And - no more shaky cam ever. That's *so* worn out its welcome. This movie made me vow to shoot my crappy little feature 100% on a dolly. No hand held shots at all. I want to see the movie I'm watching, not some shaky blur. There were shots in PUBLIC ENEMIES that were all blur - what the hell was that?

Okay - What's with Johnny Depp's mustache? Is he unable to grow one? Dillinger had a mustache. Depp spends most of the movie without one, and when he has one it looks like the one I tried to grow at 13. And it comes and goes - one scene he'll have the mustache, the next he won't... then it's back again! Least they could have done is given Johnny some hormone shots or something so that he could have a mustache throughout the film.

And Depp seems subdued. Look, Dillinger was a larger than life guy. He was a rock star in his time. He was famous. He was also an armed robber - not some quiet guy. Depp gives the guy almost no swagger. Look, if you are the one leading a bunch of other armed robbers, you are the Alpha Male in a group of Alpha Males.

Who are all of these guys? This film had the shallowest characters of any film I've seen this year (haven't seen Transformers 2 yet). I had no idea who any of the characters were... and didn't learn anything about who Dillinger was (or Purvis - and Purvis wrote his freakin' life story before he died and was interviewed by dozens of magazines and sold stories to Hollywood). But I went through the whole film not knowing which guy was Homer Van Meter. None of these characters had any character. It's like they ordered 2 dozen warm bodies in costume to wander around the scenes and occasionally fire guns.

This goes with the "take" problems - if you have a story with a famous FBI Agent and a famous Bank Robber, I need to know who is the lead character. Is this the story of the FBI Agent tracking the notorious bank robber? Or the notorious bank robber trying to evade the FBI Agent? Either way works, but both just confuses me.

And some stuff was just stupid - At the end of the movie, Purvis says when he lights his cigar, that's the signal to capture Dillinger... um, have we ever seen Purvis smoke a cigar up to this point? No! It's like, because that was the actual signal in real life, it's in the movie... but someone forgot to show Purvis smoking cigars before that (and it was a Purvis trademark - he had a box of Monte Cristos, and smoked one after capturing anyone on the Bureau's wanted list). (By the way, using the cigar as the signal was kind of ballsy - since Dillinger hadn't been captured, yet - so it showed overconfidence in Purvis. That might have been explored in the story, but instead it was ignore.) Who was Purvis in this film? Was he the do-gooder who learned that he had to do bad to catch Dillinger? The one good scene he has is completely undercut by the scene that immediately follows. By the way - if we are sticking with the facts - Purvis had a beautiful voice, and would sing if anyone asked. Strange detail that shades the character. But Purvis has no character and seems like a cardboard cut out, except for that one scene. None of the characters in this film have any character! They are chess pieces, moved around the story for no purpose.

I'm a big fan of Stephen Lang, a Mann stock company player, who played Winstead - the guy who actually shot Dillinger (I think along with Jelly Bryce), who was a no-nonsense shooter. A throwback to cowboy lawmen. Winstead and Bryce were kind of back sheep Bureau agents, brought into the organization to do wet work. Though there's a moment in the film where Lang gets in a great line about Dillinger not watching Shirley Temple movies, the whole concept of this character was lost in the film. The new suit & tie FBI were a bunch of college boys who had little ability to capture criminals. They had to recruit guys like Winstead and Bryce to do the dirty work. Mann could have used that as an angle - bad guys were *not* a bunch of suit & tie guys, so you needed gunslingers to go after them. Kind of a WILD BUNCH in reverse - where the world may have become more civilized, but the government still needed crazy violent gunslingers to go after these robbers. Cowboys in a modern world. And that's where these guys came from - the Texas office of the FBI. (Was Bryce even in this film? He was the other guy to shoot Dillinger - a gunslinger - and after Dillinger, was put in charge of teaching FBI college boys how to shoot guns.)

While watching the film I kept thinking about Mamet & DePalma's THE UNTOUCHABLES - a film filled with great scenes and great characters and great lines. Also about Chicago and FBI. How many great scenes can you remember from UNTOUCHABLES? How many lines of dialogue? How many characters? Let's just look at Charlie Martin Smith's character - don't you love it when he finally gets a gun and participates in the raid? Remember Andy Garcia? That was one of his first movies - and he stole the show. I mean, there are scenes with him and Costner and Connery where Garcia's Stone character is so fascinating you focus on him! Okay... remember how creepy Billy Drago was as Frank Nitti? In that white suit, snearing and making those quiet threats? Now, compare the Frank Nitti character in UNTOUCHABLES with Nitti in PUBLIC ENEMIES. Yeah, that guy with the moustache Johnny Depp should have had who is in a handful of scenes you don't remember... because the character had no character! No attitude, no distictive way of speaking, no dintictive way of dressing, no goals or motivations or anything. He's just a guy in some scenes. Again, Nitti was the head of the Chicago mob at the time - one of the most powerful men in the world. Capone's #2 guy who was running things while Capone was in the big house. So this is not some bland Italian guy, this is another Alpha Male. An interesting guy, because Frank Nitti was a trigger man - a violent brute - who now had to be the leader. Imagine if Sonny from THE GODFATHER ended up running the family instead of Micheal? That's who that character *should have been*. Instead, we get some Italian guy.

Mostly while watching PUBLIC ENEMIES I thought of DILLINGER (1973), the John Millius low budget film which was probably made to cash in on the success of BONNIE AND CLYDE, but ended up being one of those great films you might have seen at the drive in or on VHS. DILLINGER starred the amazing Warren Oates, who was a solid character actor and scene stealer you may remember from Peckinpah flicks. Oates had charisma to burn, but wasn't pretty enough to be the leading man, so he ended up the sidekick or the cowboy or the crazy Colonel in Speilberg's 1941 (written by Millius!). He was a character actor who was a character. DILLINGER had so many quotable lines and rich characters that my friends and I would often say, "Things just ain't workin' out for me today" or some other line from the film. The movie is filled with "bumper sticker dialogue". Now, I have to say after seeing maybe thousands of movies, I can not remember a single line of realistic dialogue... but I remember "Go ahead, make my day" and hundreds of other lines of *great* dialogue. And I remember the films those lines came from better than I remember some realistic drama. DILLINGER is filled with great lines, and lines that expose character, like Purvis telling another agent, "Shoot Dillinger and we'll figure out a way to make it legal."

By the way, that leads to a great little fact that didn't make it into PUBLIC ENEMIES but was part of the Millius film: When Dillinger was shot down by the FBI, the only crime they had him on was transporting a stolen vehicle across state lines. Would have been nice if that had been in the Mann version, since it's unusual to gun down an unarmed car thief (even if you suspect him of robbing a whole bunch of banks). And, though I'm fuzzy on which character was which, I think Stephen Dorf played Homer Van Meter, and was shot in the woods in PUBLIC ENEMIES... when in real life (and the Millius version) Van Meter was shot by a group of policemen and vigilantes (after the reward) who just blasted him to pieces. They blew his fingers off while he was still alive, then kept shooting at him until he was hamburger. This was a big scene in the Millius version - as a group of vigilantes surround Van Meter and just keep firing until the smoke from their guns fills the screen.

Millius loves to pair two strong characters on opposite sides of the story and have them battle each other... learning to respect each other along the way. As cheesy as RED DAWN is, there are great scenes with Ron O'Neal as the Cuban General as he grows to respect the Wolverines... and eventually allows Patrick Swayze to carry out his wounded brother. THE WIND AND THE LION is one of my favorite films - Teddy Roosevelt played by Brain Keith vs. Sean Connery's Raisuli. CONAN THE BARBARIAN - Conan vs. Thulsa Doom. The relationship between Purvis and Dillinger is the center of the Millius version, with each man coming to understand the other as the story goes on. In a way, Purvis has the character arc. He begins just wanting to gun down Dillinger, and eventually finds him a worthy opponent - not like some of the other bank robbers he's chased. Millius created a device to have these guys face off throughout the story (much like that great steps scene between Capone and Ness in UNTOUCHABLES or the coffee scene between DeNiro and Pacino in HEAT) where Dillinger would call Purvis from some pay phone to taunt him... and eventually just to talk to him. They were the only two people who understood this situation they were both in. Great scenes.

The best part of Millius' version is Warren Oates, who plays Dillinger as a charming good old boy with a crazy streak. Look, the guy was probably a sociopath, but aren't they charming? You understood how Dillinger could find regular people, poor people who had been screwed over by The Man, to hide him or help him. And, as a movie protagonist, you want to hang out for an hour and a half with a funny guy who always has a clever thing to say. Instead of the antiseptic banks from PUBLIC ENEMIES, we get lots of small town banks filled with poor people who are trying to keep their homes or farms, and Dillinger strolls in like a movie star and tells them all if they stay calm they'll be able to tell their grandchildren they once met John Dillinger. In the Millius version, the robberies are almost a party, where a bunch of poor folks get to watch rich bankers get humiliated. And that was part of the true story of John Dillinger - the public saw him as a Robin Hood character, who robbed from the evil bankers (and kept it). None of that in the Mann version... just a line about his press.

Oh, and Millius version does more than just have a passing line about the press, both characters court the press... With Purvis posing for photos while smoking a cigar over one of his "kills" from the Most wanted list.

And it's not just the brilliance of Oates that make the film, the rest of the cast is great. A bunch of fine character actors doing some amazing characters. Homer Van Meter is the guy with the worst luck in the world, played by... Harry Dean Stanton! Ben Johnson is one tough cookie as Purvis - he's smoking that cigar over one of the corpses of the bank robbers he's shot dead. Richard Dreyfus is Baby Face Nelson in a crazed performance. Youngblood, the big Black guy Dillinger escapes with is played by some big Black guy in PUBLIC ENEMIES - he looks out the back window of the car, and that's his character. In DILLINGER that role is played by Frank McRae (the chief of detectives in 48 HOURS and every other movie you've ever seen, who always rants to the point of explosion) and he's got a character and attitude and makes his scenes into *scenes* - and he becomes part of the mega-gang. Geoffrey Lewis plays Harry Pierpont as a dedicated husband who kisses his wife before blasting away at G-Men. Steve Kanaly is Pretty Boy Floyd (called "Chock" in this film - because in real life, that was his nickname, he hated being called "Pretty Boy") who has a great bit where the farmer who gives him sanctuary wants to give him a Bible, and Floyd says it's too late for that... too late for him. And Cloris Leachman is madame Anna Sage, who betrays Dillinger to avoid being deported (in the Millius version, she and Purvis eat popsicles while planning the ambush). Each of them had clearly defined characters and memorable dialogue and little bits of character based action.

It's like Millius - who is not in the same political party as I am - was trying to show *people* suffering during the Depression, and some of those people had turned to crime. But they were all humans. And even the FBI guy chasing them came to see them as humans. There's a great early scene (showing Van Meter's bad luck) where they go to rob a bank... and it's closed! Boarded up! Van Meter asks an old guy at a gas station why they closed the bank, "They ran out of money." When he pulls out a gun and orders the old guy to fill up their gas tank, the old guy tells him to fill it himself. The whole town has died from the Great Depression, and everyone left has lost hope. The old guy would just as soon get shot... and this gives us a look at the world this story takes place in. When entire towns can die.

The Sayles version is even more commie - it focuses on The Lady In Red and charts her struggles trying to find work during the Great Depression in a series of sweat shops, until she has no choice but to become a prostitute... and hooks up with Dillinger. Again - you can't escape the Great Depression when you do a movie about Dillinger - that's what created him. The Sayles movie is a strange female empowerment flick, with Pamela Sue Martin learning how to become a bank robber and carrying on after Dillinger is killed. Sayles does his usual ensemble thing in the background, and there are all kinds of great roles in the film (I think Christopher Lloyd is in there, but I haven't seen it in years). Telling the story from the female lead perspective was an interesting "take"...

The problem is - there are so many *better* versions of the Dillinger story out there, Mann needed to figure out what made this one different and then make sure all of the elements of the film were at least as good as the other films. And taken more time on the script - giving each of the characters some character. One of the problems with Michael Mann's scripts is that he has all of this stuff that does not show up on screen - he writes what characters are feeling, and that doesn't stick to the screen. You might read one of his scripts and think the characters are there, but it's all in cheat lines that are not actions or dialogue... and never make it to the screen. Time for him to quit cheating.

Michael Mann used to be one of my favorite directors - a thinking person's action guy. But he's been going downhill since COLLATERAL. He needs to dig deeper into the characters and show us the people... not just see the movie as some sort of chilly technical exercise... then bring in the composer to score the hell out of it trying to create some feelings where there aren't any. Movies are about people.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Unlikable Leads Who says your protagonist has to save a cat?.
Yesterday’s Dinner: More of a late lunch... then drinks with friends in Hollywood.
Bicycle: Short bike rides to and from subway station.


Mama's Boyfriend said...

I've heard a lot of praise for the Milius film over the years but this is the first thing that made me understand why I need to find and watch it right away.

Agreed the Mann film is a letdown. Forget how old Lily Taylor looks - and she's been a longtime crush - she's given nothing to do!

This seemed to me almost the anti-"Untouchables," where instead of a fantasy spectacle with crackerjack dialogue everything was to be made matter-of-fact and restrained. It just didn't work for me. When there were crackerjack dialogue scenes like you'd find in other movies, such as when Depp picks up his girlfriend at the coatcheck, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Incidentally, I have heard Depp say in interviews that he grows whispy goatees because he is incapable of a full beard or mustache, so the answer to your question is yeah, that's why he doesn't have a mustache.

Anonymous said...

maybe Mann should have kept his original idea for Public Enemies? I have a 1990 script he wrote with the same name, but it is all about the Barker gang

Emily Blake said...

I think the best example of proper minor character development is Die Hard. Johnson and Johnson have what - 3 scenes? Yet about a minute before they blow up in that helicopter they bicker about Vietnam so I actually feel a little attached to these guys right before they die. It would have been easy for them to be stock characters, but they were given a little personality instead, just like every character in that film.

And that's why Die Hard is awesome. Well, that and the explosions.

wcmartell said...

The problem with Ma Barker might have been a 1996 movie called PUBLIC ENEMIES about Ma Barker that a friend of mine wrote.

- Bill

Patrick Downey said...

Another problem, in addition to the ones you mentioned, was that Mann tried to cram to much actual dialogue into the film. I admire him for wanting authenticity but it didn't help the story at all. I think you nailed it with the comparison to the Untouchables. The only thing factual about that was that Al Capone ruled Chicago and Elliot Ness was a Prohibition agent. The rest was Hollywood and it was a great film. Make a great movie and if someone wants to know what really happened they can read some books.

How long do we have to wait until the next Dillinger movie?

Anonymous said...

thanks for linking that movie, I never saw it but the hunt is on now

wcmartell said...

I have also never seen it... but it's from the director of COMMANDO.

I dug out my copy of DILLINGER which I haven't seen in a couple of years and plan on watching it while on vacation. Might post about it.

- Bill

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