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Hollywood loves its gangsters
'Public Enemies' latest film to feature underworld

By STEVEN SNYDER - TimeOut Film Critic

June 26, 2009

 

Johnny Depp plays the role of John Dillinger in "Public Enemies," which premieres Wednesday.


What is it about the gangster that has always captivated our public imagination?

In America, since the very first black- and-white silent films, weíve been mesmerized by the fedoras, the guns, the women and the nightlife. These were the men who broke all the rules - when they werenít writing their own rules - and lived the good life as a result.

In this way, they arenít just criminals but also a certain special sort of capitalist. Take away the nasty, back-alley murders and they are living the American dream: building up mini corporate empires and reaping the profits.

Weíre less than a week away from the next gangster movie epic: "Public Enemies," which opens in theaters Wednesday. Attracting the talents of such considerable film artists as director Michael Mann and actors Johnny Depp and Christian Bale itís clear that gangsters remain as fascinating a force today as they were for the authors and filmmakers of a century ago.

Whatís different this time around, however, is that "Public Enemies" focuses on not just one, but two emerging power structures. Less a claustrophobic view of the mafia power structure ("The Godfather"), "Public Enemies" is about a clash of two titans in the public sphere: bank robber John Dillinger (Depp) who wanted to be the renegade celebrity of his time, and J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who brought all his forces to bear in his hunt for Dillinger because he was convinced that this was the case that could legitimize and nationalize the FBI.

Itís a face-off of epic proportions, but hardly the first. Hereís a quick look back at the evolution of the movie gangster:

"Scarface" (1932)

More people are familiar with the 1983 remake starring Al Pacino, but the very first "Scarface," released in 1928, was a bleak affair. So, too, was the Howard Hawks remake in 1932, which viewed the gangster life as an apocalyptic one - a sure-fire path to the grave. Made back in the day when gangs and mafia kingpins really did rule with an iron fist, this was a movie that reflected its era.

"The Public Enemy" (1931)

Itís truly shocking to go back and rent "The Public Enemy" some 77 years after it was first released. This is an intense, vicious, fierce movie - and it comes as a surprise how very little about this old-time movie seems soft or dated. It stars James Cagney as an up-and-comer in Chicago, working his way through the ranks of gangsters even as a murder threatens to unleash havoc amid those in the underground community. Cagney is cool and calculating, and downright nefarious when he needs to be. We can smell the smoke, and feel the ferocity of the time period.

"Kiss Me Deadly" (1955)

One of my personal favorites, "Kiss Me Deadly" brought gangsters and the film noir genre into the nuclear age. Mike Hammer was a firebrand of a private eye, quick to fire off the first punch or the first bullet. And in "Kiss Me Deadly," a mysterious hitchhiker draws him into a web of violence and mystery, as everyone seems determined to take possession of a mysterious suitcase that glows whenever you open it (it was the inspiration behind the golden glowing suitcase in Quentin Tarantinoís "Pulp Fiction.")

 

"The Godfather: Part II" (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola was brilliant in the way he structured this sequel to "The Godfather," paralleling a modern-day story starring Al Pacino with a turn-of-the-century subplot involving Robert De Niro (playing Pacinoís father when still a young man). Establishing friendships with local businessmen, stocking up favors and slowly starting to exert his influence among the establishment, we come to see the way that thughood can be a grass-roots affair. Forget tyrant, De Niro is almost a populist in the way he helps the community and earns their undying allegiance in the process.

"Road to Perdition" (2002)

A modern and moody spin on the standard gangster thriller, "Road to Perdition" went beyond the blood and the testosterone to offer us a wave of sincere emotion beneath the surface. Paul Newman plays the Chicago mob boss in 1931, and Tom Hanks works for him directly. Hanksí world is flipped upside down when his son follows him one night and witnesses what daddy does for a living. More than just about a gangster ruling with an iron fist, "Road to Perdition" poses the question of whether violence is truly manly, or if itís a weak manís attempt to provide for a family. And as Hanks shares his trade with his son, we see the way that bad traditions are passed down through the generations, a cycle of dark despair.

"Heat" (1995)

Itís also worth taking a moment to acknowledge the last gangster movie that was made by "Public Enemies" director Michael Mann. "Heat" viewed the gangster and the cop as equals, with Al Pacino in the part of the detective and Robert De Niro in the part of the master criminal. Sitting down to coffee as they try to intimidate - and relate to - one another, "Heat" is less about good and evil, crime and justice, than about seeing the men of the law and the men of the shadows as two personas cut from the same cloth. Both are obsessed, vigilant, and cut-throat; "Heat" is truly one of the great thrillers.

E-mail: SnyderReviews@hotmail.com