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Cinema Signal: Go! Strong appeal for wide audiences

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"Dillinger"
(1973)

. "Public Enemies"

As John Millius's cinematographer for his directorial debut film, "Dillinger," in 1973 (starring Warren Oates), I watched this new version of the gangster and his like-minded mob of venal cohorts with more than usual interest. My immediate impression was to be reminded of what a rich vein of drama still lies in the romance and mythology this iconic crime figure inspires.

However pecuniary and anti-social the motives of the real man were, no one can deny the creative daring that made him the great anti-hero of a very troubled time and a lead-lined icon of defiance. He didn't just deserve his headlines -- he created them! And the popular reaction to what he came to represent in depression-era America made it almost criminal to call him one.

Now, 36 years later, my personal involvement with the story makes it almost odd to see a remake of the phenomenon but, at the same time, gratifying that it's been done so well -- particularly in the portrayal of the central character by one of the great actors of our time. Johnny Depp uses the dynamism of the mythical John Dillinger to affirm his own genius and charismatic screen magnetism. He resurrects the brooding confidence of his subject while unmasking his moody nature and underlying simplicity. The bank robber is, once again, served well.

In this retelling, I was as gripped by the choices director/co-writer Michael Mann and writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman made as by what effect an $80,000,000 budget would have on the story's impact as compared, say, to the one Roger Corman provided his producers Sam Arkoff and Larry Gordon in 1973.

Relative to costs and production values, Kirk Honeycutt, reviewing for The Hollywood Reporter, said, "John Milius accomplished as much if not more with 1973's "Dillinger" at the cost of probably two scenes from "Public Enemies."

Be that as it may, the question for me was how differently the story would be told. Starting with the proposition that Mann would want to differentiate his Dillinger from previous versions, perhaps through the discovery of new historical material or elements that Milius didn't use, the main departure that I found is in the balance of emphasis, particularly in the main characters.

In large part, Milius's approach to the individuality of each outlaw who, at one time or another joined forces with the most famous of them, hooks you with the personality distinctions (based on research, with dramatic license) and dares you to admire or enjoy them by ignoring how seriously challenged they were morally, the better to experience loss as they're drilled off the map and out of the picture.

I found strong parallels between the two version in the use of humor, action and tragedy; with the brazen audacity of the "gangster's gangster," the ironies, the escapes, the cat and mouse games, and the morbid date with his final destiny. Mann tells the story from a greater personal distance, content to present people with no more dimension than comic strip characters who we accept as functional to the biographic outline. For all except the main man, he could care less about defining the historical figures in terms of individual specialty or style.

Of course, intrinsic to the developing legend was Dillinger's sworn nemesis, Melvin Purvis (typically all-business Christian Bale) of the FBI during the institution's early years. By not delineating Dillinger's men, Mann finds screen time for greater detailing of the agency's formation, showing us J. Edgar Hoover (meaty Billy Crudup) raging about the folk hero not only robbing banks more or less at will, but robbing him and his agency of justice, headlines and time in the newsreels. He's seeing the media create public sympathy for the man who takes money from those with bank accounts, a class the majority of the population could envy but not aspire to. The man who jumped over bank counters when he could have walked around them touched a nerve in need of satisfaction, gave the starving public politick a laugh when it counted, a flash of joy at the man who exceeded Douglas Fairbanks in popularity and got more press than president Franklin D. Roosevelt, for a time.

The Director's fury is directed, as well, at his G-man (short for "Government" man), Purvis, for wrapping a curtain of ineptness around his agency for his many failures to capture the most wanted man in America and securing Dillinger in the cloak of criminal legend. Kids no longer want to be lawmen when they grow up. They want to be like their hero... outlaws.

It didn't hurt the Dillinger mythology when, after finally being captured, he found a way to escape--in the warden's car! Purvis might have started thinking of his Public Enemy as some kind of spook with the substantiality of a wind storm.

But, finally, at Hoover's instigation, Congress saw fit to combat these attacks on the financial stability of the country by removing the state jurisdiction barrier that the robbers depended on for refuge between operations. The new law disquiets the bank robbers. You might even lament for them. It was the beginning of their end, and of an era.

Comparisons in casting is hardly more pronounced than in the portrayal of Purvis. Bale's age and natural tendency of stoicism might seem a good fit for the young Purvis of reality. But there's a lot to be said for Milius' representing him as a much more mature, bigger-than-life, cigar-smoking, silver 45-shooting veteran. Ben Johnson brought color and great gravitas to the role. In that version, Hoover is only referred to, while here Crudup bring him on stage and does him justice by delivering the right shading to the powerful and obstreperous Director.

Anyone who has seen Milius's "Dillinger" may join me in missing the likes of Harry Dean Stanton as Homer Van Meter whose "Things ain't workin' out for me today!" prescience as he faces his end is a rich note of death and justice satire; Geoffrey Lewis as Harry Pierpont; the hot actor-on-the-rise Richard Dreyfus as Baby Face Nelson, unlike his ring-leader, a stone killer; gentle Frank McRae as the black prisoner Reed Youngblood who chose to join his jailhouse liberator and put his life on the line; and Cloris Leachman as Anna Sage, the madame who bartered her immigration status for Dillinger's life, here played by Branka Katic.

Then there's Dillinger's main squeeze, Billie Frechette. As one of the great beauties of the seventies, singer/actress Michelle Phillips (One of the mamas of the "Mama & Papas" rock group) came to "Dillinger" (her 2nd film) with her exquisite allure and sensual excitement as the half-Indian girl Dillinger saved from the life of a coat and hat-check girl and whom he pretty much lived for, thereafter.

Which is not to say that Marion Cottilard (Best Actress 2007 for "La Vie en Rose") in that role here is dry tea leaves. The French actress's eyes, perfect complexion and presence gives this story of crime as much heat as the Tommy Guns and BARs (Browning Automatics). As for her chemistry with Depp, it's not that she's outclassed. More like the classes that each represents don't quite combine into one of the more memorable emotional explosions.

Own it today! (Click on item link)
The Soundtrack
Billie Holiday, Diana Krall, Blind Willie Johnson & more.

There is much more to discuss here, like Leelee Sobieski as the "Lady in Red," one of Sage's girls. Like the fact that John Dillinger was only 31 when he died and how Milius dramatized the line that was crossed when Dillinger killed someone for the first and only time. But, suffice it to say that this is a slightly too long (at 140 minutes), very handsomely mounted gangster movie with brilliantly staged action and tense moments that will keep many folks in rapt admiration and on the edge of their seats.

Meanwhile, I'll make book on Depp for a 2008 Best Actor nominee. He shows that he can drop the eccentrics like "Sweeney Todd," Willy Wonka of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," his fictive author in "Finding Neverland" and, even, his swishy swashbuckler Jack Sparrow of "Pirates of the Caribbean" to great advantage for our complete involvement and his gifts in depth of interpretation.

Ultimately, as a comparison to the work in which I was involved, this Dillinger is badass, but it doesn't take John Milius' "Dillinger" down. That's my take, but I'd expect you to consider the source.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Johnny Depp as Dillinger
Public Enemy No. 1

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