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
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
"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
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.