Myrna Loy, Clark Gable and William Powell appearing on the big screen in my local theatre… gosh, this is the stuff of dreams. Something I never, ever imagined would actually happen to me. So, when I was seated in said theatre next to my brother and surrounded by a typical modern matinee audience, I nearly jumped out of my seat with the thrill of seeing Myrna, Clark and Bill flashing onscreen before me. The sight of the trio was well worth the six and half dollar admission price alone.
Now, our three old friends don’t appear until Public Enemies (2009) is nearly over, so I had better discuss the rest of the film, too. My expectations were probably outrageously high for Public Enemies. Aside from the presence of Christian Bale (an eternal favorite of mine!), Public Enemies is set in the early 1930’s, with the promise of all the accompanying fabulous music, clothes and cars. This is a time period I am well acquainted with and can usually spot holes when modern filmmakers try to recreate it. Overall, I was quite impressed with the treatment of one of my beloved historical haunts.
Such lovely clothes! Lots of sweaters and long skirts for the ladies, all of which I’d happily wear myself. I saw some terrific hats, too. The men’s suits are spot on – form fitting and impeccably cut. Christian Bale’s were especially good. Johnny Depp‘s clothes were more casual, but still wonderful. He wore some amazing Harold Lloyd style sunglasses that were very becoming.
Speaking of Mr. Depp, I’ve got a slight admission about him: I’ve never been able to stand him. The Pirates of the Caribbean films, while truly entertaining, did nothing to increase his appeal in my estimation. Actually, he rather creeped me out. I just found it impossible to appreciate his efforts as an actor. In light of these feelings, I was genuinely surprised how much I liked his character in Public Enemies. It’s a crazy admission because Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger, the notorious Public Enemy #1.
Public Enemies begins with John Dillinger breaking out of prison and follows him through his short-lived career, ending when he is gunned down by FBI agents outside the theatre where he had just seen Manhattan Melodrama (1934). Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the capable special agent assigned to catch Dillinger by J. Edgar Hoover. Christian plays the character with a Texan accent (I think, don’t quote me) which is charming and remarkably good, especially considering he hails from Wales. My one objection about him: he wasn’t onscreen nearly enough! The role of Melvin Purvis is actually a supporting part. It should have been beefed up for him, in my humble opinion.
Marion Cotillard plays Billie Frenchette, the honest hat check girl who falls in love with Dillinger. The love affair between Dillinger and Billie is based in mutual affection and consequently makes for a highly believable on-screen teaming. It reminds me of the tender love stories portrayed in the classic films we all adore. This romance makes the impending doom of John Dillinger even harder to take as the film goes on. It becomes quite sad because as a viewer, you actually identify with John Dillinger and want to see him living happily-ever-after when the end credits roll.
I’ve got two beefs with the film overall. First, the directing style. The camera moves in short jerky spasms throughout the entire film. I think it is supposed to give the audience the sense of participating in each of the scenes, instead of only watching, but it fails miserably. It’s hard to visually focus on the actors because the camera moves so fast. The identification shots of some of the supporting characters are ridiculously short and make it hard to follow the sub plots.
My other beef with Public Enemies was the gore level. Yeah, I know this is a modern film, and it’s competing with all the dreadful blood fests that pass for movies nowadays. I understand that. I still think the gore level was too high. Every time someone was shot (which was often) the camera caught the impact and logical aftermath. Of course, it’s true that when people are shot they bleed. But must we be forced to see it every single time? Call me sheltered, but the gun battles of the Warner Brother’s gangster films from the 30’s are quite enough for me. I found the lingering shots of battle wounds ironic and puzzling, considering the director did not provide similarly timed shots of the actors themselves for the sake of story development.
Final thoughts? All in all, I enjoyed Public Enemies. I watch films for the costumes and scenery as much as the story, so I found plenty to be interested in here. The story is a good one, too – engaging and interesting in spite of the fact we all know how it turns out in the end. As for the gore, I close my eyes tight for all such scenes. It’s a wonderful method I’ve used for years to get me through the skin-crawly parts of popular films. I highly recommend it. :)
If you’re a fan of the 30’s, I think you’ll like Public Enemies. The scenery and cars are beautiful. The 1930’s are brought to vivid life right before your eyes. And, hey – how can anyone pass up the chance to see Christian Bale in a fedora? ;)