I liked how the film has no opening credits. I believe Mann did that in “Collateral”, too. (It’s something you don’t realize until you are well into the film.) The opening credits don’t provide any value and disrupt the flow of the movie. Back when films ran continuously, opening credits made sense to tell people that a new film was starting. But nowadays, there are so many things telling you that the film is starting, you don’t need it. I like this: I hope more directors will do this.
Mann is always experimenting with cinematography, and he does this in “Public Enemies” too. I’d be interested in what people who really know film thought of this. Sometimes it is really striking in this film, but I couldn’t get a strong sense what he was thinking by doing this. It didn’t appear symbolic, and it also didn’t appear to be a signifier of something (e.g. a flashback to an earlier era). I also didn’t see any reviewers explain this. (Most of the reviews were synopses with an overall rating.).
In “Public Enemies”, like “Heat” and“Collateral”, Mann pits good against evil and embodies that in the major characters, with the evil character being free while the good character is constrained. The antagonists in Mann’s films tend to be larger than life, while the protagonists often seem diminished, limited. I came away thinking that Mann believes it is important that the good and the good guy succeed, but I feel he is rooting for the bad guy.
In “Public Enemies”, “Heat” and “Collateral”, time is a major factor. Mann uses it to drive the narrative and to build up suspense. This is not surprising in some ways, but Mann really stresses it. In “Collateral”, there is a lot of discussion of how long it takes to get from point A to B. And in “Public Enemies”, there is discussion around the time it takes to rob a bank. I’d like to go back and look for other termporal references. I think they are also there in “Miami Vice”.
Stylized violence is big in “Public Enemies”, just like it is in “Heat”, “Collateral” and “Miami Vice”. Violence is very dramatic. Likewise, the bad guys are very dramatic. They are villains with a capital V. I thought of that because I am a big fan of “Unforgiven” and “Gran Torino”, and in those films, Eastwood appears to be eschewing violence. While he uses it, he reflects on the damage it does to his characters. I don’t get that in Mann.
I rented “Collateral” after seeing “Public Enemies”. What struck me was how similar the recent remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” was with “Collateral”. In both films you have a white antagonist who is supremely confident in conflict with a black protagonist who is downtrodden. In both films the two men form a bond, and the antagonist helps the protagonist with his internal conflict, until ultimately, the protagonist overcomes his internal conflict by killing the antagonist. This also allows the antagonist to relinquish his evilness too: there is almost a relief in both Travolta’s character and Cruise’s character when they are finally dying.
When I watched “Collateral”, “Miama Vice” and “Heat”, what impresses me is how Mann thoroughly incorporates the city into his film. It’s not background: it’s the stage his film is played out on, and he emphasizes the stage. He makes the stage/the city beautiful. I didn’t get that as much in “Public Enemies”. Then again, it is a period fllm, and it is harder to do with those.
One thing I loved about “Public Enemies” is the changing nature of crime and law. The arc in the film is not just of Dillinger and the other Public Enemies, but is also the arc of crime and how crime is pursued. After Dillinger and his kind are arrested or killed, they will be replaced, not just be other bank robbers, but by syndicates and the Mafia. Likewise, the state law enforcement is being superceded by the FBI. Mann does a good job of showing that playing out.
Mann has lots of great detail in the film. One review said there isn’t enough in the film on why Dillinger was popular, but I thought Mann did that subtly, like the time when Dillinger refuses to rob a bank customer, or when the radio is playing in the background, discussing the role of the government at the time. There are other nice details too, like the time when Johnny Depp leaps over a counter in the bank (Dillinger was known to do things like this).
I don’t know if it is intentional, but Mann seems to borrow from the classic film “M”. As in “M”, organized crime turns on the individual outlaws because as individuals, they are threatening the syndicates and the mobs with their actions. Likewise, Mann is saying that the mob also had a hand in doing in Dillinger, since they were bad for business.