Say what you want about Michael Mann‘s Public Enemies, but the finale — the one-on-one between Marion Cotillard‘s Billie Frechette and Stephen Lang‘s Charles Winstead, a brief jailhouse conversation that ended with the words “Bye-bye, Blackbird” — was the most penetrating of 2009. The best, the most memorable, the most oddly affecting.

Stephen Lang as Charles Winstead in Michael Mann‘s Public Enemies.

Marion Cotillard’s final moment as Billie Frechette

It was a kind of neat bulls-eye Hollywood moment, and I can’t think of any other ’09 finish that felt quite so “right” and fulfilling. Great endings are half the game in my book, and this one played a big part in the my Public Enemies rave.

“Bye-bye blackbird” were the final words spoken by Johnny Depp‘s John Dillinger as he lay dying on the sidewalk outside Chicago’s Biograph theatre. Winstead is the one who leans close enough to hear them. But when Christian Bale‘s Melvin Purvis asks what he heard, Winstead says “nothin'” or “couldn’t hear” or words to this effect. He lies to his superior.

But in the final scene he leans forward and tells Frechette, and when she hears them she melts and melts some more as the music swells up and over, and we start to feel it too. The irony is that I hadn’t really accepted or invested in the Dillinger-Frechette love story current until that moment, but I suddenly did when this moment happened. An amazing thing, now that I think back.

And I couldn’t even find a still from this scene, much less a YouTube capture. I guess it’ll start turning up when the Public Enemies Blu-ray comes out on 12.8.

I went apeshit for this film but not very many joined me, and I eventually lost the spirit and the will to fight.

I called it “the most captivating, beautifully composed and freshly conceived gangster movie since Bonnie and Clyde. It’s an art film first, a Mann head-and-heart trip second, a classic machine-gun action pulverizer third, and a conventional popcorn movie fourth. [But] the schmucks will go ‘meh.'” And they did do that.

And a lot of HE commenters fell under the impression that I had said it was the best gangster film since Bonnie and Clyde, and that I should have stayed the course and fought it out like Dillinger. But I didn’t say that — I said it was the “most freshly conceived.” Little bit of a difference there.