Mann’s characters inhabit a complete world…
Nearly one hundred reviews for this film on Amazon… and not one mentions what I wish to discuss. Not surprising, really. In fact, I missed it myself the first time I saw the film. I experienced PUBLIC ENEMIES in the theatre upon its release, and came in with high expectations. Michael Mann’s films are (for me) always an experience to be savored, and once again I was not disappointed. But I confess I missed it. And I have no idea why. Because it is so obvious. What I am referring to is what I will call Mann’s “off center” tendencies. Now, I am not referring to Mann’s political, moral or social views but more accurately, his penchant (at least in this film) for framing his actors dramatically to the left or right of the center of the screen. From the opening moments – when we see Johnny Depp’s John Dillinger (several months prior to achieving “Public Enemy #1” status) being ferried back to prison for what we will ultimately come to find out is a bloody prison break attempt – Mann sets his characters well off center. And leaves them there. Watching the film again last night, I saw this most clearly. In fact, if you pay close attention, you will discover that Mann uses this technique throughout the two hour and twenty minute drama. Shot after shot, frame after frame, we experience the rollicking, rumbling, scrambling, violent world that Dillinger and his crew inhabit as if we are sitting or standing right beside them. And as I watched the film for a second time, it became shockingly apparent to me why Mann chose to do this. He is showing us the entire world these men inhabit. A complete world.
Mann is known for his relentless pursuit of exacting detail, often going so far as to tell his actors what color and brand of socks their characters would choose to wear. And with ENEMIES, cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who Mann has thankfully returned to working with) goes to great lengths to display all of Mann’s eccentric efforts. Whether it is a shot of Dillinger and his girlfriend Billie Frechette (achingly played by Marion Cotillard) seated at a crowded restaurant, a glimpse of Dillinger – double barreled and growling orders with a weapon in each hand – holding at bay both bank employees and customers alike, or a frame of FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (a lock jawed and in control Christian Bale) straining to shut out the tortured screams of a captured member of Dillinger’s crew… Mann and Spinotti make certain to show viewers every inch of the world these loners drift in and out of. We see not only the two young lovers sharing fleeting moments together, but we are allowed to see the world closing in around them. We see not only Dillinger’s expertise in his craft, but the fear and slight respect in the bank customer’s eyes. And finally, we see not only Purvis’ angst and uncertainty surrounding the direction his job is taking him, but the gore and filth in which he is forced to produce results. And in doing so, Mann succeeds in two things: The aforementioned entrance into this other world, and the emphasis on the loneliness and despair that each character feels throughout the film. It is a remarkable achievement. And I submit to you that Mann keeps his characters off center for the entirety of the film, with the stark exception of two occasions:
One is when Dillinger – by now stripped of his one true love and oozing pain out of every pore – steels himself in a pronounced display of balls (there is no other word for it) and marches brazenly into the Chicago Police Department’s Dillinger Task Force squad room. From the second Dillinger steps into the elevator, Mann and Spinotti place him front and center in this moment. Watch as he sidles through the squad room unnoticed, glancing at painful images of his fallen crew, his bloody path of destruction, and finally, himself. In each shot, Mann plants Dillinger squarely in your face. Right up until he asks a group of lazy cops the score of the radio broadcast baseball game. Oh, and don’t think for a moment these flatfoots even notice who he is. And out the door he rolls… back into his off center world.
The second such time is the far more painful – and bloody – confrontation between Purvis’ team of hired hands and Dillinger himself in the ill-fated final moments of the film. Watch as Dillinger – smirking yet a bit spent – exits the soon-to-be famous Biograph Theatre and walks ever forward toward a fate we are led to believe he has already accepted… until he turns to face the men he senses behind him. At this moment Mann again thrusts Dillinger directly into your face. And what was to the left and to the right of the man become far less important, until the fatal shots ring out and Dillinger falls, mortally wounded, to the blood soaked sidewalk.
With the exception of these two instances, Mann’s shot selection reminds us of what lies just outside each character’s peripheral vision. And in doing so, perhaps Mann has succeeded in doing a third thing. Perhaps, just perhaps, Mann has succeeded in reminding each and every viewer that the world in which we all reside is just a bit larger than we realize. We all live in a complete world. And Mann is the master at showing it to us.