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by Mark Jenkins,
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JULY 6, 2009

Bullet Ballet

Michael Mann's Public Enemies brings John Dillinger back to life, but without vitality; Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Gone to Earth is an accidental Welsh Folklife Festival all by itself.

By Mark Jenkins

IT'S DIFFICULT TO WRITE ABOUT PUBLIC ENEMIES without making it sound like something it isn't: interesting. Flashy in the chilliest possible way, Michael Mann's John Dillinger saga is above all an exercise in style — a period version of his beautifully blank 1981 Thief, with Billie Holiday in place of Tangerine Dream. There are several ideas underneath the sleek surface of this gangster elegy, but that surface is what matters.

Shot in high-def digital, Public Enemies is a color movie that aspires to black-and-white. But not the sort of black-and-white picture they use to make. Observing the final months of the legendary bankrobber's life, the film inevitably climaxes at Chicago's Biograph Theater, where Dillinger (Johnny Depp) was shot to death in 1934. Before Dillinger struts outside to meet his fate, he and two women take in Manhattan Melodrama, with Clark Gable. The movie they see — which really was the thief's last flick — is nothing like the one we've almost finished watching.

The Manhattan Melodrama scene that Mann interjects is typical of '30s Hollywood cinema: stagy, formal, brightly and evenly lighted. Public Enemies is none of those things. Shot on location in Illinois and Indiana, and using actual historical sites when possible, the film is shadowy, clipped, and jumbled. The images are hand-held, and frequently in close-up, without the establishing shots that no golden-age Hollywood filmmaker would have skipped. Dillinger was a well-dressed man, and the suits, spats, and Fedoras evoke the epoch. But Mann's sense of style is utterly contemporary, and far from tidy.

The hand-held flurries shake the viewer out of history, as do the soundtrack's forays into electric blues — very Chicago, but not '30s at all. When an electric guitar enters as Dillinger drives away from the movie's first sequence, a daring yet not very exciting prison break, it's the first audio cue that Public Enemies is not really about Dillinger's era.

So what's it about? Well, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, maybe, but that's not an allegory Mann (who co-scripted with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman) pursues with much enthusiasm. The brazen robberies, state-line getaways, and popular allure of Dillinger and his contemporaries — the supporting characters include Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson — helped forge the FBI. And Mann's J. Edgar Hoover (a thick-necked Billy Crudup) is clearly a precursor to Dick Cheney: mean, weak, and petty. He authorizes torture, although his hand-picked Chicago field commander, Melvin Purvis (a frozen-upright Christian Bale), disapproves. Even Purvis eventually get impatient, summoning a bunch of killers from Texas because his own underlings aren't brutal enough. The new guys are the Blackwater operatives of their era, and soon the scenery is spattered with gore — much of it from innocents.

Some of that blood spurts from Dillinger's new girlfriend Billie Frechette (La Vie in Rose Oscar winner Marion Cotillard), who's captivated by the suave robber and then captured by FBI agents. As part of the interrogation, a hulking blond brute slaps and punches her, eliciting only taunts. This Bagram-style abuse provides the hottest sequence in an icy movie, but it doesn't turn Frechette's boyfriend into a matinee swashbuckler. Dillinger watches her get busted, and then drives away, crying.

Of course, the movie is less about the relationship between Dillinger and Frechette than the one between him and Purvis. Their pas a deux recalls Mann's Heat, in which Robert De Niro and Al Pacino played mirror-image antagonists. But this Nietzschean conceit is barely developed, just like the film's other idle notions. Mann blandly suggests that Dillinger was an antiestablishment hero, robbing big banks while professing to leave the little guys alone. And the movie has some fun with the thief's enjoyment of moving unrecognized through perilous situations. But Depp's performance is so subdued, and the script so diffident, that a characterization never emerges. Dillinger is simply a guy who shoots and is shot at.

The director doesn't do anything with Dillinger's reputation as a sexual superman, with a penis so big that some people think it ended up in a Washington museum. (It didn't.) Some of this myth emerged after his death, when the fictionalized Dillinger was the star of pornographic comics printed in Mexico. But it's true that the bankrobber knew a lot of women, which undermines Mann's halfhearted effort to make a love story. Depp and Cotillard are the two most charismatic players on screen — though both have been more compelling elsewhere — and the characters they play remain linked in their hearts till the bloody end. In real life, however, Dillinger and Frechette weren't an couple for long.

Derived from Bryan Burrough's book, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, Mann's movie is historically obsessive — except when it isn't. The filmmakers don't seem to have any particular reason for sticking to some facts and shrugging off others. Ultimately, they neither rescue Dillinger from legend nor offer an alternate one. They present only shadow and motion, swagger and bursts of machine-gun fire — a spectacle that refuses to be spectacular, and a parable that declines a moral. If John Dillinger is pertinent to the post-Lehman-Bros. U.S.A., the movie says, it's only for the way he dressed, and moved, and died. He had style, but no significance, just like Public Enemies.

PUBLIC ENEMIES — 2009, 140 min; at the Avalon Theater and various multiplexes.

COMPLEMENTING THE CYMRU/WALES PORTION of the recently concluded 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a poorly publicized showcase of recent Welsh films was presented in the Goethe-Institut's theater. I saw only one of the entries, I Know You Know, the second feature from Justin Kerrigan, whose rave-culture comedy Human Traffic is a rare example of a Welsh movie that got a commercial U.S. release. An autobiographical coming-of-age tale, I Know You Know deserves an American distributor, and might actually get one. (It's even in English.) So I'll say nothing more for now.

But, by coincidence, another Welsh film also screened in Washington during the festival, as part of the National Gallery's "A Short History of Color series. Technically, Gone to Earth is not a Welsh film; it makes no reference to the country, its language, or its culture. Indeed, the 1950 movie — a flop at the time — is the work of writer-producer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose movies include such monuments to "Englishness" as A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Despite having a Welsh surname, Powell hailed from southeast England, and centered his life on London.

An outrageously cliched but elegantly structured melodrama, Gone to Earth was derived from the 1917 bodice-ripper by Mary Webb, who's best known for Precious Bane (and whose novels were parodied by Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm). It's the story of Hazel Woodus (Jennifer Jones), a virginal but slightly feral beauty who lives in Shropshire, near the Welsh border, in the late 19th century. She's introduced as she races into the rolling landscape, alarmed by the sounds of an imminent fox hunt, that brutal diversion of the upper-class English. She finds a fox, grabs it, and takes it to the safety of her home, which is full of animals. The fox, it turns out, is her pet, raised from an orphaned kit. But the scene establishes Hazel's connection to the land and its creatures, and her opposition to the destructiveness of English "civilization."

Oddly unnoticed by men before the story begins, Hazel suddenly finds herself courted by two men: first a virile but cruel squire, and then the mild-mannered new parson. The latter wins the somewhat reluctant Hazel, and they marry. The minister attempts to prove his nobility by giving his new wife her own bedroom, and promising not to bother her until she chooses to come to him. This confuses Hazel, and she's drawn back to the squire, who proves to be even more of a cad the second time around. Ultimately, Hazel realizes she's just another helpless bit of prey, hunted for amusement by men who don't understand or appreciate the land that hosts them.

This is more of a feminist moral than an animal-rights one, but the film's implications bothered hunters even before shooting concluded. Word circulated that Gone to Earth would oppose blood sports, and Powell and Pressburger had difficulty borrowing hounds for the fox-hunt scenes. (Ultimately, they crossed the border and got dogs from a Welsh farmer.)

Latter-day admirers praise Gone to Earth for its cinematography and mood, both of which are impressive. But it's also notable for its sympathy for animals, and its tacit acknowledgement of the Celts, who worshipped nature and its cycles before the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans (and so on) took control. Officially, Hazel's strangeness is explained by the fact that her mother, who vanished long ago, was a "gypsy." But the young woman's nature-oriented lifestyle, and her home near the line where stolid England becomes mystical Wales, is suggestive.

In a sense, the movie is prescient, and not just in its environmental consciousness. Fox hunting was banned in Britain in 2004, and recent DNA studies have revealed that the "English" are actually as Celtic as the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish — the other is even closer than across the border. Gone to Earth's landscapes show the lush freedom of hill and dale, but the film is really about the wildness within.

GONE TO EARTH — 1950, 110 min; not available on video in the U.S., although some savvy rental shops may have a copy of the British edition.