Michael Mann Retrospective – Public Enemies (2009)

Public Enemies, 2009.

Directed by Michael Mann.
Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Cudrup, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Lang, Stephen Graham, Carey Mulligan, Giovanni Ribisi and Channing Tatum.


Infamous American gangsters John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd are targeted in a “war on crime” campaign by the fledgling FBI during the 1930s.

“I became fascinated with [John] Dillinger because of certain mysteries in his life,” explained filmmaker Michael Mann when talking about the central character in his period crime drama. “He was very bright, and great at doing what he did. He was regarded as one of the best bank robbers in American history.” The Indiana born gangster achieved folklore status during 1930s. “Dillinger at one point was the second most popular man in America after President Roosevelt; he was a national hero for a good reason. He was robbing the very institutions, the banks, which had afflicted the people for four years.” Mann was impressed by Dillinger’s “live for today” attitude. “He doesn’t just get released from prison; he explodes out of the landscape, wanting everything he hasn’t had for 10 years with all the power and force of his personality and his skill-sets.”

Oddly, enough the penal institution which was meant to reform John Dillinger was where he furthered his criminal education. “Dillinger went to ‘graduate school’ in the Indiana State Penitentiary, rehearsing, mentally planning and being mentored by Walter Dietrich,” revealed Michael Mann. “Walter Dietrich was mentored by a man named Herbert K. Lamb, from whence the expression ‘on the lamb’ came to us. Herbert K. Lamb had been in the Prussian military, came back to the United States, and designed bank robbery as a small-unit military combat. He did research. He did tactics. He had logistics. You had cache, three escape routes – not one – but two or three. He had caches of gasoline and medical kits with quarter-and-half-grain vials of morphine in it. Everything was planned. You knew who had the key. You did surveillance. Everybody had to have their job.” Dillinger put his knowledge to good use. “Makley stripped the cash from the tellers because he knew Dillinger was getting all the money in the vault. Pete Pierpont secured the lobby, and Homer kept the outside secure.”

“I hope I don’t have a slavish adherence to actuality,” stated Michael Mann. “It’s only when it’s magical, or when it means something, that you go there. The magic of being able to shoot in the real Little Bohemia in Manitowish, Wisconsin, for example, was superb. Johnny [Depp] got to be in the same bed as John Dillinger and to be shocked awake by gunfire. To see the ceiling that Dillinger saw, and to look out the window and try to find where the attack is coming from was phenomenal.” Depp (Finding Neverland) was inspired by the historical locations. “To literally be able to walk in the same steps he took was magical. Not to be spooky, but there were moments when I felt his presence.” Liberties were taken with the story. “Dillinger didn’t go into the Detective Bureau the day of the Biograph, he went into it three days ahead,” remarked Mann. “I might conflate characters – Makley is really two characters who did the same job, Charles Makley and Russell Clark. The key thing for me is authenticity. How they thought, Why they thought the way they did. On that we did a lot of work in period psychology. How they’d have thought of themselves? How to come on to a woman? How did Dillinger know how to approach a woman? He went to movies to try to find out.”

To play Melvin Purvis, the FBI Agent assigned with the task of capturing John Dillinger, the native of Chicago recruited an Oscar-winning Welsh actor. “Christian Bale [The Fighter] has a completely different way of working [than Johnny Depp]; he dives into the deep end of the pool.” Bale observed, “Purvis was somebody who was unique; he did not fit the mold of the majority of the FBI agents of the day. He was incredibly dapper and elegant. He liked the ballet and the opera. He was equally incredibly capable with weapons; he’d grown up in the country hunting. He was an extraordinary man who was brought low by his success.” Mann added, “Purvis is a man who’s put himself in a state of contradiction internally, because he’s doing stuff that goes against his native values.” Commenting on his cinematic adversary, Bale stated, “Dillinger seemed to live as though he knew his life was going to be cut short.” Despite the wealth of information on the Depression Era outlaw, Johnny Depp discovered “a great gap in regards to who he was.” To fill in the gap, the Academy-Award nominee turned to his family heritage. “He was from Mooresville, Indiana which is about two hours from where I was born and raised. It was at that point I thought, ‘Now I know him. I know what he sounds like. He was my grandfather who drove a bus in the day and ran moonshine at night. He was my stepfather who did time at Statesville Penitentiary.’”

“I wanted to make the audience feel like they were in 1933,” stated Michael Mann. “Hence I used hi-def, and that determined the range of choices on the surfaces of everything: set decoration, wallpaper, fabrics, [and] clothes.” The technology proved to be a great cinematic asset. “Digital makes things feel more real, like you could reach out and touch them. You can see every pore on Depp’s face. You get great depth-of-field; we got very close with the lenses, and you don’t have that fuzzy lack of focus at night.” A great deal work went into the production design. “We filmed in the real Biograph. They took down the authentic marquee about a year before we got there, which was a great tragedy; we had to put that back. We had to change the ground level and put facades on all the buildings, cobblestones down, and trolley tracks in the middle.” Made on a budget of $100 million, Public Enemies earned $214 million worldwide and was nominated for the Excellence in Production Design Award – Period Films by the Art Directors Guild; it contended for Best Thriller at the Empire Awards, and competed for Best Actor in Motion Picture – Drama (Johnny Depp), Best Art Direction & Production Design, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score at the Satellite Awards. The picture released in 2009 competed for Outstanding Performance of a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards; while the Teen Choice Awards lauded it nominations for Choice Summer Movie Star – Male (Johnny Depp) and Choice Summer Movie – Drama.

Public Enemies trailer:

Mann Handled: A Michael Mann Profile

A Michael Mann Retrospective

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.