Note: This review is not of the shooting script for Public Enemies. It is of a screenplay, dated January 16, 1990, for Public Enemy by Michael Mann.
What went wrong with Michael Mann’s 2009 John Dillinger biopic Public Enemies boils down to a single, small moment. Shortly before his death outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre, Dillinger (played in the film by Johnny Depp) gazes wistfully at a photo in a locket. The photo is of Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who at the time of Dillinger’s death was rotting in a federal prison in order to protect him. The whole of Public Enemies is little more than their pitifully unconvincing love story, and it downplays Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski)—the famous “lady in red,” who accompanied Dillinger to the movies that night—as a distant cousin of the Barkers (as in Freddie and “Ma”), who were nice enough to let him hide out. What makes the locket moment so problematic is that, in fact, the woman in the photo in the locket at the time of Dillinger’s death…was Polly Hamilton.
I have no problem with a film that plays loose with history for dramatic purposes. For instance, in this very same film, I had no issue with them moving up the death of George “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham). In reality, he died several months after Dillinger. Nelson’s death is important to the film for a number of reasons, but it makes no dramatic or structural sense for a film about Dillinger to keep going past its subject’s death in order to encompass Nelson’s death. The problem I have with Public Enemies and its Dillinger-Frechette love story is that Mann (along with cowriters Ann Biderman and Ronan Bennett) played loose with history, and it still doesn’t work dramatically.
Despite casting solid actors in the roles, the script fails to make the love story convincing or compelling for even a second of the film’s running time. The film wants us to believe that this is a relationship based on pure, unbridled passion, but neither Depp nor Cotillard play it that way, and frankly, they’re taking cues from a script that implies that a few scenes of Dillinger displaying macho swagger suddenly puts them under the thrall of the deepest, truest love any couple has ever experienced. The fact that Dillinger carried on numerous relationships with women during his time with Frechette makes him flawed and complicated.
Because the film concentrates so much of its time on an epic love story that wasn’t, it fails to capture the crime story that was. Details of the timeline grow murky. Characters start to make stupid, movie-cliché mistakes that allow the FBI to inch closer to capturing Dillinger. The film tries so hard to humanize Dillinger with the love story, it fails to humanize him by giving us an understanding of who he really is as a person—what he sought to accomplish with his criminal enterprises, why he carried on with such bravado even after he found himself living in attics and barns to avoid the G-men, and whether or not he really believed he could elude authorities forever or was just putting on a show. So many facets of Dillinger make him a compelling protagonist; even some sort of history-distorting love story could have worked if anyone had bothered to make it interesting.
The thing that makes Public Enemies‘ creative failure such a travesty is that the Midwest gangsters of the 1930s have been on Mann’s mind for at least twenty years. On January 16, 1990, he submitted a revised draft of a screenplay called Public Enemy. This script draws from history, combining real historical figures with a fictitious composite for a protagonist. Among other things, this allows Mann to play even looser with historical reality, since he doesn’t have to commit to any by-the-numbers recreations of famous moments anyone with a passing interest in crime history already knows.
The script focuses on Harry Campbell (named for an actual gangster who ran with the Barkers, but actually a fictional character with aspects of Dillinger, Nelson, Alvin Karpis, and other, less notorious “independent” criminals), who survives the FBI’s massacre of the Barker Family and suddenly finds himself the FBI’s Public Enemy #1, since this massacre came on the heels of the deaths of Nelson and Dillinger, leaving nobody else to fill their top slot. Feeling confident after taking down so many notorious criminals, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover doesn’t think he’ll have much of a problem with a second-tier bank robber like Harry Campbell. He is not correct.
Much more focused than Public Enemies, the screenplay combines Campbell’s recuperation from the massacre (during which he was non-fatally wounded) with both a cynical romance—refreshingly unlike anything in the soap-operatic film—and nonstop planning of a train heist (modeled after the real-life heist mentioned late in the film, when Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) recruits Dillinger). From there, Mann divides the script into three big, distinct set-pieces: a bank robbery that will finance the train heist (the FBI took all the money that didn’t get burned at the Barker place), the planning and execution of the train heist itself, and the pursuit of Campbell and his newly assembled gang.
Campbell experiences setback after setback. In the first place, the only guy they can get as the third man on their bank heist is an unreliable dope fiend. Will he get picked up and turn them in to the Feds? Campbell forms an uneasy partnership with Eddie Day, another Barker survivor who fled with Campbell. He has Mob connections, but they dry up as soon as they try to launder money through the big syndicate. As a low-level enforcer explains, the various crime families have begun to merge into a national organization he compares to Standard Oil. They don’t need to associate with dangerous independents who leave a trail of bodies after every crime.
Mann’s 1990 script is a phenomenal tour de force, exploring every facet of the 1930s criminal underworld without ever making it look glamorous or rewarding. He can do this because he doesn’t have to live up to Dillinger’s reputation as a big spender who could do whatever he wanted in Chicago until Hoover started to turn up the heat. The implication in the film is that if the big bad government hadn’t started toying with a regular guy trying to stick it to The Man, Dillinger could have lived a peaceful life of love and happiness. As opposed to the bleaker but infinitely less rose-colored view of Campbell, who doesn’t enjoy any of the theoretical pleasures of a criminal life. He cowers in fear in attics and flophouses, trying to pull off this train heist so he can hightail it to Montevideo and live off his share of the supposed $860,000 score for the rest of his life. He manipulates women to find places to stay, wanders through foreclosed farmland in search of gun caches buried years earlier, and—something that’s totally absent in the lily-white film—has to put aside the national zeitgeist of racism and fraternize with blacks and Injuns. This is what Campbell’s life has become, and the only thing that makes him or anyone around him happy is the notion that they’ve gotten away with something. It’s a hollow happiness.
Rather than making it the main focal point of the story, Mann wisely downplays the difficult relationship between Campbell and Carole Slayman, an American Indian who has stood by him for untold years. She pretends she’s happy just calling herself his best friend, but her love for him (and his apathy and occasional lust for her) is palpable. Over the course of the story, Campbell starts to realize that he feels comfortable enough with Carole to take her to Montevideo. She’s earned his trust and respect, and maybe that’s enough.
In his capacity as a director, Mann’s action sequences have always impressed me. Whereas other directors revel in bombast, Mann slows things down to a realtime pace. He builds tension instead of chaos, relishing unexpected details that—when he’s firing on all cylinders—make his sequences both more viscerally rewarding and more memorable than a stunt sequence that blows half the budget on a three-second shot. In the finished film, the only set-piece that really stands out is Dillinger’s escape from the jail in Crown Point, Indiana. Like a superb short film within a vaster but more mediocre film, the sequence quickly establishes characters (most of whom only appear in this handful of scenes) and stakes before getting into the details of Dillinger’s daring daytime flight.
In the 1990 script, Mann writes every action sequence with a surprising breathlessness. If he planned to shoot them the way he wrote them, it’d be a dramatic change of pace for him, but I happen to think it’s just a writing trick. The scenes unfold rapidly (so rapidly that I finished reading the script almost in record time) and are as thrilling as anything in the Tony Scott or John McTiernan canons. Whether he shot them at the same brisk pace or slowed things down as he traditionally does, the action in this script combines visceral violence and off-kilter twists that feel like the stuff of truth, being that it’s notoriously stranger than fiction. He also lets loose with wild prose like, “Married together like two frogs, the cars ricochet off of and scrape against the steel sides of the metal bridge, shooting gouts of sparks everywhere.”
But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Mann’s script is nearly perfect, but he blows it at the very end, literally on the last page. After writing the grimmest, grittiest crime epic since The Godfather, he allows Campbell an unearned happy ending. After the train heist, Campbell flees to New Orleans, the last American stopping point before his trip to Montevideo by way of Cuba. Resigned to a life with Carole, he intends to meet her there—but she’s betrayed him to the Feds. It’s not a simple betrayal, either. They beat and threaten to kill her dopey brother if she doesn’t give up Campbell. She’d die for him, but she won’t sacrifice her brother. G-men swarm Campbell’s hotel. It seems like he’s done for—
—but Mann delivers a frustrating double-cross that lets Hoover think he finally got his man when, in fact, he got a traffic cop with a sock stuffed in his mouth. Campbell manages to get to Montevideo.
I’ll tell you what bugged me about this ending. The Depression bred a seemingly unending wave of criminal activity. At a time when hardworking Americans were losing jobs, homes, and farms, those robbing banks—government institutions that held all the money and, in the eyes of the people, caused all their problems—became folk heroes. Dillinger’s story isn’t remembered because he was a great guy caught up in bad times. These were violent, awful people who ended up dead or imprisoned. Karpis wasn’t an exception. He didn’t get away in New Orleans. The G-men caught him, and he spent thirty-three years in prison, allegedly serving the longest sentence in the history of Alcatraz (and even then, he spent another seven years at McNeil Island when Alcatraz closed).
Maybe it’s as trite to suggest crime doesn’t pay as it is to think Campbell could escape justice and spend the rest of his life relaxing on a South American beach. Then again, maybe Mann’s ending isn’t that happy. Campbell gets his money and makes his escape, but what did it cost him? Everyone he knew either got killed or wrote him off. So he lives alone, in a foreign country, isolated by the language barrier, loneliness cushioned by money. Is that a happy ending?
This sounds like a different script for a different story, but the 2009 film contains a handful of scenes virtually identical to those found in this script. Hoover inviting children to become the G-men of tomorrow, Campbell and Eddie Day sitting dumbly in a movie house while a MovieTone newsreel flashes their mugshots and tells theatre patrons to look around to see if they spot the latest public enemies, Campbell losing his Mob ties—even the scene where he lays out the train robbery is eerily similar to Karpis explaining the plan to Dillinger in the film. Maybe Mann cannibalized his old script, or maybe it just went through decades of agonizing development before anyone would finance it.
Whatever the case, it saddens me that this terrific script remains unproduced. Public Enemies is a pale shadow of its predecessor, a disappointment in almost every conceivable way. Reading a vastly superior interpretation of the same subject matter only makes it more disappointing.