Michael Mann has always been a pioneer who pushed the boundaries of new filmmaking techniques, especially when it came to film versus digital in terms of cinematography. Ever since Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006), the prominent filmmaker implemented digital filmmaking into his repertoire of films in order to capture a singular illustration for his movies. In Public Enemies, Michael Mann administered the combination of digital and film, resulting in a unique visual appeal. Every film director works adversely to one on another since there’s no bound and determined method to the process. What separates Michael Mann is that he is famously known for operating the camera during the making of his films, which is a rarity for directors. In essence, this creative decision alters the performance of the actor, as opposed to the director standing next to, or near the camera, or literally in a separate room, during principal photography.
The movie Public Enemies, released in 2009 by Universal Pictures, now on Netflix, was shot on two Arriflex film cameras and three expensive Sony digital cameras in conjunction with Fuji and Zeiss lenses used by the director of photography, Dante Spinotti (Heat, The Insider), a long-time collaborator with the film’s writer, producer and director, Michael Mann. The combination of these lenses and cameras allowed for more versality in capturing the depth of a character’s emotions in addition to the detail of their facial expressions. Public Enemies is shot in a lot of medium shots and over-the-shoulder angles cinematographing a depth of vision by placing subjects in the foreground by juxtaposing them with information in the background. The cameras are constantly moving throughout the picture. Whether it’s shooting a bank robbery, blazing gunfire shootouts, or intimate scenes in movie theatres or bedrooms, the camera is almost always flowing steadily or handheld, which give imminence to the action sequences and a voyeuristic proximity to private scenes.
Public Enemies wasn’t ahead of its time, but it stood the test of time, having revisited the film 11 years after its wide release in theaters. The year 2009 was amid the beginning stages of transitioning from film to digital in moviemaking in addition to other technologies and platforms gaining popularity; You Tube, Hulu, the Tesla Roadster and the Chevy Volt, GPS navigation devices, smart phones, Facebook, app mania, books going digital, this is to say the least. The technological advancements in the making of Public Enemies weren’t ahead of its time, they were the time and have stood the test of time in 2020. The techniques used by Michael Mann in 2009 are still fresh; the moving over-the-shoulder shot, the extreme close-up, techniques that were capable of being used because of the advancements the digital cameras allowed. The recreation of the 1930s era of The Great Depression, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation Agent Melvin Purvis took down the notorious American gangsters John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) during the infamous crime wave sparked by desperation in a period of destitution and starvation, giving truth to the idiom, ‘desperate times call for desperate measures.’
Public Enemies glamourizes crime similarly to Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece, Heat, and its depiction of law enforcement is partly disparaged in the same way. Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) wasn’t completely glorified in his character of a cocaine-addicted policeman on the verge of his third divorce in addition to having a suicidal step-daughter. In Enemies, the equivalent character in Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) a stiff-figured, stern mannered and mentally perturbed Federal Agent who committed suicide in 1960, decades after the takedown of John Dillinger, who’s equivalent in Heat was Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), a professional thief with a loving heart who takes scores and makes his own attempt to elope with his lover and soulmate, Eady (Amy Brenneman), who’s counterpart in Enemies was Billie (Marion Cotillard). The climax in Enemies consists of a remarkable sequence with John Dillinger (Depp) sitting in a movie theater watching David O. Selznick’s Manhattan Melodrama (1934) that has an extremely reflective relationship between Dillinger and the character he watches on the silver screen, Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable), as Gallagher is being convicted for crimes. Michael Mann, along with the film’s editors Jeffrey Ford (Crazy Heart) and Paul Rubell (Collateral) interchangeably cut close-ups of Dillinger and Gallagher both wearing pencil mustaches, sharing a spiritual union as the antiheroes of society. Johnny Depp’s performance in this scene is an impeccable demonstration of his bona fide rendering of John Dillinger, the infamous American gangster of The Great Depression.
Despite the dominance of earthly tones in color and high contrasts of light and dark illuminations, Michael Mann was still able to implement his trademark blue hue that has been his signature in almost every film he’s directed since his feature film debut, Thief (1981). In a scene of intimacy between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), the blue moonlight bathes its glow through the drapes onto the bed as he whispers in her ear his desire to take her with him on his journey of obtaining riches through blazing gunplay and countless bank robberies while being hunted down by Melvin Purvis and the feds.
Public Enemies grossed $214,104,620 worldwide in 2009.