"I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you": cinematic love in Public Enemies
I may be biased, given my preference for gangster films, but I liked most everything about Public Enemies (except for the over-exposed and ever-grim Christian Bale). I especially enjoyed the way Michael Mann played with metacinematic moments in the movie. In an interview for About.com, Mann said this about it:
"I elected to tell a story that is about what starts with what's Dillinger thinking in the Biograph [Theater] moments before he's going to walk out and get killed. When he’s seeing, you know, Clark Gable as Blackie in [Manhattan Melodrama] really pose questions to him and almost send him messages. And Gable's character, Blackie, is derived partially from Hollywood's take on John Dillinger because he was the most famous American, second only to the President of the United States at that time."
The scene reminded me a lot of another metacinematic moment early in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Soon after Clyde shoots and kills a man after a robbery, the scene abruptly cuts to the 3-person gang in the theater watching the "We're in the money" sequence in Gold Diggers of 1933.
As Clyde cusses out C. W. Moss for stupidly causing the murder, Bonnie shushes them for interfering with her pleasure in the song and dance. In one sense Bonnie and Clyde are in the money, but they are also now wanted for murder, so their success has a bittersweet tinge that colors so much else in the film. The scene also shows how Depression-era fantasy sequences in movies contribute to their dreams of wealth that lead them to this impasse.
In Public Enemies, this communication between film dream and reality is even more pronounced. Dillinger and his gang are ever conscious of their lifestyles being like a "ride" with movie-like carpe diem intensity. After kidnapping a female teller, one of Dillinger's gangster pals tells her that he's also a "scout for the movies." Dillinger's values seem shaped by the cinema. His pick-up line for Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) has a Bond-like directness in which he promises action movie excitement in exchange for her life in which, as she admits, nothing exciting has ever happened. He says: "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whisky . . . and you. What else you need to know?" Dillinger's and Billie's odd love affair gives the film much of its narrative drive, especially as he tries to live up to the successful future that he paints for her when he's not evading the Feds.
Dillinger also enjoys sitting in the theater as the public service announcement tells the crowd members to look to the left and the right to see if they can spot him. He's both famous and delightfully anonymous, sneaking a visit to the office of the Chicago criminal investigator who's specializing in his case just as the real Dillinger would brazenly go watch a Cubs baseball game. Bryan Burrough points out Dillinger's celebrity in his article about the historical accuracy of Public Enemies: in the 1930s, a "poll of moviegoers found Dillinger was drawing the most applause of any major American shown in newsreels, rivaling President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh." Dillinger is the gangster as star, so Public Enemies keeps switching between treating him as hunted prey and as a celebrity, even as the Robin Hood quality of the first feeds the second. He's no sooner handcuffed in the back of a car, sandwiched between two policemen, than the masses of adoring crowds lining the streets oblige him to wave.
His press conference in the Indiana jail takes on a the flair of a Beatles interview when he jokingly answers about the length of his bank robberies "One minute and 40 seconds. Flat."
So what does happen as Dillinger watches Manhattan Melodrama in the Biograph theater? Mann sets up a poignant three way identification between the viewer, Johnny Depp, and the scenes in the movie within the movie. We watch Dillinger identify with Clark Gable as he decides to "Die the way you live, real sudden. Don't drag it out" on his way to the electric chair, a summary of Dillinger's seize-the-day ethos he has lived by. We watch Dillinger gaze upon Myrna Loy at length as if she were the cinematic equivalent of his beloved Billie. The transposition is remarkably effective, in part because Loy carries her own associations with films like The Thin Man, but also because we know that Dillinger will never see Billie again. We can see the movie speaking to him because it reflects the way Public Enemies has spoken to us all along--through images not only of gangsters, but also of a love refined by distance and the brevity brought on by constantly impending violence.