Opening 6 Aug 2009
Writing credits: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman, Bryan Burrough
Principal actors: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, David Wenham
Johnny (the cheekbones) Depp plays John Dillinger, a real-life American bank robber. Director Michael Mann recreates the true story of Dillinger’s last, action-filled 13 months leading up to his death on July 22, 1934. He begins with Dillinger breaking out of Indiana State Prison in 1933. On the run with friends he robs banks in the U.S. Midwest, much like a reincarnated Jesse James. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) has his hands full, not only with Dillinger, but with others such as the Ma Barker gang, Baby Face Nelson, Alvin Karpis and Pretty Boy Floyd. This is the era of Bonnie and Clyde and the Great Depression. Bank robbers were idolized by the general public; after all, the banks had already robbed them of their savings, why shouldn’t thieves return the favor? Hoover calls in specialist Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to head a team with the sole purpose to apprehend Dillinger, the original public enemy number one. The film follows their efforts as well as Dillinger’s renewed escapes, his love for French/Native-American Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), his robberies and gun fights.
Mann has taken great pains to recreate scenes of the thirties. He filmed on original sites such as Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana; the Little Bohemia Travel Lodge; and the Biograph Theater in Chicago where Dillinger met his death. There is the V8 Ford automobile – the fastest of its day and favorite of Dillinger for his getaways; it’s exciting to see men standing on the cars’ running boards to shoot at the police. The antique telephones, cameras, weapons, airplanes, trains, banks and fashions take you back almost 80 years. This was the era of change. Hoover had just started to form the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Until this point there was no central law enforcement body in the U.S., therefore, no laws about crossing state lines. Organized crime was on the rise and organized crime groups had little solidarity with charismatic lawless individuals. The legends produced cartoons such as Dick Tracy, for which Purvis was the model. People spoke of the Lady in Red years before Chris de Burgh wrote his song in 1986.
Perhaps the film is repetitious, but these lives were repetitious, too. It was all meet, discuss, rob, shoot, run and mourn the dead. Mann is a stickler for detail and close-ups, so that soon we have seen enough fingers on a triggers and eyes of men peering from behind trees. The music swells dramatically, heavy on the French horns. The actors seemed to mumble in regional U.S. accents so that often it is difficult even for native speakers to understand them. But those are only small complaints. There have been many films about this subject, at least six from 1945 to 1991, but this is the first real biopic of Dillinger and will definitely awaken your curiosity to know more about this man who died at age 31. (Becky Tan)