The most immediate, instinctive reaction to watching Mann’s 2009 crime biopic is the image. We are graced–or should we say shunned away–by the decidedly digital look of the film. We audiences, especially cinephiles, have a certain set of expectations for a gangster film set in the old days–from Cagney films to even the recent films like Hillcoat’s Lawless–because the Hollywood, like Western, has extensively used the films as a way for creating a myth within the history. We expect these films to be films because we really can’t imagine any other way.
Mann’s extensive use of digital imagery here–and I don’t mean CGI, but the feel of the image itself–confuses the audience; so much to the point that I kept forgetting that the story itself is an average one, like many of Mann’s other action films. This conflict is such a strong one that it distracts the viewers from actually focusing on the film.
I believe such love-hate style was intentional. Mann has always been into realism at a formal level–his firefight sequences especially in Heat is legendary for providing an unparalleled sense of realism. When other Hollywood movies would tone down the echoes and other noise that interfere with clear sound, Heat left them all in. Here, Mann does the similar thing with digital imagery–all the documentary-like lagging images are left behind, creating a strangely indie-like 30fps feel, instead of the academy standard 24fps.
If the film just used that for the ungraspably vague concept of realism, it would have worked against the film’s initial intentions. But Mann plays arond with the concept of supposed realism and filmic expectations. A film set in the thirties, one can safely assume that cinematographers and lighting directors would do their best to highlight the richness of the era embodied in the mise-en-scene, but Public Enemies clearly ignores that. It does not glamourize the era, and instead, with cinematography that focuses on constant movement rather than carefully orchestrated placements, the film intertextually denies the public imagination.
But Mann does not stop there. He brings what every director brings in when making a joke about filmic images. There are two scenes in movie theatres here, and the first one shows an interesting disjoint between the two method of public image processes. The scene starts as Hoover congratulates young crime stoppers in a public commendation ceremony; it soon turns into a film image within the film, and the strangely smooth 30fps moving images soon slows down to the more recognizable sub-24fps, and zooms out to show the audience’s eyes fixated on the screen. That’s us–the captives of public images–and we comply to its directions, turning our heads right and left. Only John Dillinger disobeys, smiling back at the screen.
But he’s cannot run from it forever. The climactic theatre scene is where the interaction between the real and the imagined real crosses more explicitly than before. Depp’s character, sporting Gable’s signature mustache style, watches Gable’s gangster picture. He smiles, empathising with Gable’s character, that he will have a heroic last stand. Mann foreshadows otherwise–Gable’s world is set in the perfect, imagined diegesis, whereas the decidedly non-filmic images of Depp denies he will have such perfect ending.
There is no dramatic last stand here. He is shot in the back, his last words are just bunch of mumbles that his enemies have to salvage. The subsequent shots are documentary-like: the cameras gather around the dead person, even a bird-eye shot from a helicopter (despite the fact that such transport did not exist at the time), and quick cuts on the ground with people shouting. The conflict of imaginary images and real images create a juxtaposition where the two harbour stark differences. Whereas Mann’s older films are much more melodramatic, Public Enemies has less of that–it’s not to say the film is devoid of any melodrama, but there is certainly lack of glamourization. He achieves this through not by narration (which attempts to sway towards that end of the scale at the end), but through the image itself.
If the constant conflict of images makes it hard to concentrate on the film’s content, the criticims against it is a fair point. However I believe the experiment here is worth noting. The content and the form are in constant conflict, and that lays bare the imagined sealed diegesis into something that exists in an unstable plane of uncertain images. It exposes the falsehood behind the public imagination of gangster genre films. And considering the film is about an anti-hero who was wrongly idolised for his actions, it is rather a precise argument on Mann’s part.