In response to my calling Public Enemies “the most captivating, beautifully composed and freshly conceived gangster movie since Bonnie and Clyde,” an HE reader has written that this sounds like a “transparent attempt to get in some advertising blurb.” No, it isn’t that. Another reader has expressed doubt if it’s “more captivating, beautifully composed and freshly conceived than Goodfellas.” Yes, it is that.
Let me explain.
Gangster-movie-wise, Bonnie and Clyde introduced some major new concepts in 1967. It simultaneously delivered a mid ’60s youth-culture, up-the-establishment attitude while using quaint 1930s period trappings and details (with the exception of Warren Beatty‘s modified Rodeo Drive haircut) and occasional art-movie flourishes. It brought the French New Wave, in a sense, to Depression-era Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, etc.
Public Enemies is similarly out there with a radical use of razor-sharp, high-def digital widescreen photography (this is going to be one hell of a Bluray) that totally says “not the early 1930s!” and “55-inch LCD screens at Best Buy!” and at the same time says “actually, this is the real early 1930s without the rat-a-tat-tat Pennies From Heaven squawkbox atmosphere and embroidery and Jimmy Cagney-Paul Muni personalities that you’ve been conditioned to expect.”
Add to this the use of shadowy and sometimes just plain dark and inky Gordon Willis-y compositions from cinematographer Dante Spinotti and deliberately muttered dialogue (half of which I personally couldn’t hear, which was totally cool because I was so taken in by the “all” of it).
The combined effect allows audiences to see and experience the early 1930s in a way that is simultaneously “right now” and “back then.”
It’s simultaneously an art-movie that says “fuck the rubes if they can’t take a joke,” a shoot-em-up bank robbery gutpuncher and hell-raiser, a moving and deliciously off-the-ground romantic love story between Johnny Depp‘s John Dillinger and Marion Cotillard‘s Billie Frechette as well as a heavy bromance between Mann and Dillinger.
It really is a fresh package-and-a-half. Plus it’s so “elevated” and so unconcerned with dumb-shit Transformer taste buds that it’s some kind of bold and beautiful.
Due respect to Martin Scorsese but Goodfellas wasn’t as fresh and “whoa” as this. It more or less just spritzed up and recycled the ethnically authentic Mean Streets goombah neighborhood culture and applied it to a rise-and-fall of northeastern mob culture arc from the ’50s to the ’80s with a lot of cinematic pizazz and that great narration from Ray Liotta and all those great performances from Pesci, Sorvino and that Harry Nillson music and so on.
Goodfellas, to sum up, was very cool and electric but Public Enemies is more exciting in a Bonnie and Clyde sense. That’s what I was trying to say, and have now said.