Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1850s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1850s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1850s

1-Django Unchained

1. “Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this Oscar winning tale about a newly freed slave who searches for his still enslaved wife with the help of a German-born bounty hunter in Mississippi. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

 

2-The Charge of the Light Brigade

2. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1938) – Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland starred in this exciting adventure story set in both British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.

 

3-Race to Freedom The Underground Railroad

3. “Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad” (1994) – Courtney B. Vance and Janet Bailey starred in this television drama about the adventures of four slaves who escape from a North Carolina plantation, while being tracked by a pair of slave catchers. Don McBrearty directed.

 

4-Skin Game

4. “Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. starred in this dark comedy about a pair of con artists who clean up in a slave selling scheme in Missouri and Kansas, before their scam finally catches up with them. Paul Bogart directed.

 

5-Seven Brides For Seven Brothers

5. “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954) – Stanley Donen directed this famous 1954 musical about six backwoodsmen brothers When a backwoodsman in the Oregon Territory, who decides to marry after their oldest brother brings home a wife. Jane Powell, Howard Keel and Russ Tambyln starred.

 

6-The First Great Train Robbery

6. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crighton wrote and directed this adaptation of his novel about three Victorian criminals who plot to rob a shipment of gold for British troops serving during the Crimean War, from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.

 

7-Wuthering Heights

7. “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven starred.

 

8-Westward the Women

8. “Westward the Women” (1951) – William Wellman directed this excellent Western-adventure about a trail guide hired by a Californian rancher to escort a wagon train of women heading west to marry men who have settled in the rancher’s valley. Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel and John McIntire starred.

 

9-Mountains of the Moon

9. “Mountains of the Moon” (1990) Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen starred in this historical account of Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke’s expedition to find the source of the Nile River on behalf of the British Empire. Bob Rafelson directed.

 

10-Jezebel

10. “Jezebel” (1938) – William Wyler directed Oscar winners Bette Davis and Fay Bainter in this adaptation of Owen Davis Sr.’s 1933 play about a headstrong Southern woman, whose actions cost her the man she loves. Henry Fonda and George Brent co-starred.

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“DJANGO UNCHAINED” (2012) Review

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“DJANGO UNCHAINED” (2012) Review

Over three years following the release of his 2009 movie, “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”, Quentin Tarantino courted success and controversy with a new tale set the past. Called “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, this new movie combined the elements of the Old West and Old South and told the story about a recently freed slave-turned-bounty hunter in search of his still enslaved wife. 

The movie begins with a gang of male slaves being transported across Texas by a group of slavers called the Speck brothers. The group encounter Dr. King Schultz, a German-born dentist, who also happens to be a bounty hunter. Schultz offers to purchase Django, whom he believes can identify a trio of murderous siblings called the Brittle brothers, who had worked as overseers for Django’s previous owner. The Specks become hostile and Schultz kills one of the brothers. He then frees Django and leaves the wounded brother behind to be killed by the newly freed slaves. Django and Schultz come to an agreement in which the latter will give the former freedom, a horse and $75 for helping him identify the Brittle brothers. Once the pair achieve their goal at a Tennessee plantation owned by one Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett, Schultz takes on Django as his associate and over the winter, collect a number of bounties. In the following spring, Schultz offers to help Django track down the latter’s wife, Broomhilda von Shaft. They discover that she is owned by a brutal, yet charming Mississippi planter named Calvin Candie. The pair realize that in order to rescue Broomhilda, they would have to pose as potential buyers of a fighter slave in order to secure an invitation at Candie’s plantation called Candyland.

Even before its initial release in movie theaters in late December, “DJANGO UNCHAINED” managed to attract a good deal of controversy. Producer/director Spike Lee declared the movie as an insult to his ancestors in a magazine article and his refusal to see it. Others have criticized the film for its violence and its use of the word “nigger”. And some have criticized the movie for historical inaccuracy. They claimed that the practice of fighting Mandingo slaves never existed and that Tarantino depicted the Klu Klux Klan a decade before its actual existence. And Jeff Kuhner of The Washington Times complained that: “Anti-white bigotry has become embedded in our postmodern culture. Take Django Unchained. The movie boils down to one central theme: the white man as devil — a moral scourge who must be eradicated like a lethal virus.”

Mind you, I have my own complaints about “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Actually, I have three complaints. One, I found the movie’s chronological setting rather confusing. According to the movie’s opening, it began in “1858 – Two years before the Civil War”. Judging by the weather, Django’s first meeting with Schultz in Texas occurred in the fall. Which probably means that the movie began two-and-a-half years before the Civil War, not two years. Yes, I am being anal about this. However, Django and Schultz accompanied Candie to Candyland in early May 1858 . . . at least according to a scene that featured Candie’s head slave Stephen writing out a check for supplies. It is quite obvious that Tarantino got his time frame a little off. Was “DJANGO UNCHAINED” set between the fall of 1858 and the spring of 1859? Or was it set between the fall of 1857 and the spring of 1858? Only Tarantino can answer this. I also found the character of Broomhilda von Shaft slightly underdeveloped. Some have claimed that her character is passive. I would disagree, considering she was introduced being punished for attempting to run away from Candyland. But aside from a scene or two, I feel that Tarantino could have done a little more with her character. And three, I have mixed feelings about Tarantino’s use of flashbacks in this movie. Some of the flashbacks were well utilized – including those featuring Django’s memories of Broomhilda being whipped and branded as a runaway, Schultz’s trauma over witnessing the mutilation of a Candie slave named D’Artagnan, and Big Daddy organizing a group of night riders to attack Django and Schultz. But some of the flashbacks seemed to go by so fast that I found their addition to the film unnecessary.

As for the other complaints about the movie, I do have a response. Spike Lee is entitled to his decision not to see the movie. However, I do find his willingness to condemn the movie without seeing it rather strange. Criticism of Tarantino’s use of violence in his movies have become repetitive in my eyes. “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is a Quentin Tarantino movie. Can someone name one of his movies that did not feature any violence? Because I cannot. And his recent films do not strike me as violent as earlier films such as 1993’s “RESERVOIR DOGS”. Also, violence has played a part in many slave societies throughout history . . . including U.S. slavery. Yes, the Ku Klux Klan was first organized in the late 1860s, after the Civil War. But the Klan’s origins came from patrol riders, who were recruited by planters in many Southern states to maintain vigilance of both slaves and free black in local rural neighborhoods. So, the idea of “Big Daddy” Bennett organizing a group of local riders to attack Django and Schultz is not implausible.

In response to Jeff Kuhner’s accusation of anti-white bigotry, Tarantino not only created the German-born Schultz, who helped Django attain freedom and find Broomhilda; but also a Western sheriff portrayed by television veteran Lee Horsley (“MATT HOUSTON” anyone?), who seemed very friendly to both the German immigrant and the former slave. Tarantino also created Candyland’s head house slave, Stephen, who proved to be one of the film’s worst villains. So much for Kuhner’s accusation. A great deal of “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is set in the pre-Civil War South and its topic happens to be about American slavery. The use of “nigger” is historically accurate for the movie’s setting. And I am surprised that no one has complained about the slur being used in Steven Spielberg’s recent movie, “LINCOLN”. Hell, the word is used throughout productions such as the two “ROOTS”miniseries, the three “NORTH AND SOUTH” miniseries, “QUEEN”, the 1971 movie “SKIN GAME” and in a good number of other movie and television productions set in antebellum and Civil War America. Even the use of the slur in a production set in the 19th century North would be historically accurate. I also recall the use of racial slurs for whites in a few scenes. As for Tarantino’s use of Mandingo fighting slaves in the movie . . . I have no explanation for its presence in this film. There is no historical evidence of this particular sport. And I suspect that Tarantino was simply inspired by the 1975 movie, “MANDINGO” and Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel upon which the latter was based.

So . . . how do I feel about “DJANGO UNCHAINED”? Frankly, I believe it is one of the best movies of 2012. And I also consider it to be another cinematic masterpiece by Quentin Tarantino. One of the aspects of “DJANGO UNCHAINED” was Tarantino’s ability to take a rather dark topic like slavery and fashioned it into a explosive mixture of action, drama, suspense and some comedy. Many have complained that the movie should have been a straight drama, considering its topic. But I disagree. Yes, “DJANGO UNCHAINED” could have been an effective straight drama. But Tarantino decided to take a rare and unique route in unfolding his tale. And in doing so, he managed to fashioned a fascinating story that allowed me to experience an array of emotions that left me more than satisfied by the movie’s last scene.

“DJANGO UNCHAINED” was not the first time comedy was used to reveal one of the darkest episodes in this country’s history. This has been done in “SKIN GAME” and in television shows such as “BEWITCHED” and the comedy sketch series, “KEY & PEELE”. Tarantino used the same mixture of pathos, horror, drama and comedy for many of his past movies – especially in“INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”. I found this use of humor especially effective in scenes that included the surviving Speck brother’s attempt to convince the slaves freed by Schultz not to kill him. I never knew that James Russo, who portrayed the surviving Speck brother, could be so funny. Django and Schultz’s little exchange regarding the former’s identification of the Sprittle brothers struck me as funny. I could say the same about Stephen’s reaction to Candie’s treatment of Django as a house guest and Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly’s (Candie’s sister) futile attempts to attract Schultz’s attention. But the funniest sequence has to be the flashback featuring “Big Daddy” Bennett’s recruitment of night riders for an attack on Django and Schultz. In fact, that particular scene practically had me rolling with laughter.

Some people have complained that “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is basically a revenge tale for African-Americans. I find this accusation rather odd, considering that Django’s main objective was to find Broomhilda and get her out slavery by any means possible. And despite the movie’s prevalent humor, Tarantino did not hold back in presenting not only the horrors and emotional traumas of slavery, but also racism. This was especially true in a handful of scenes in the movie. The opening scene featured an emotionally shell shocked Django being transported across Texas as part of a slave coffle. Other traumatic scenes include Candie’s little speech on the inferiority of blacks, the erruption of violence at Candyland that resulted in Django hanging from a barn’s roof, naked and bound and Stephen’s maleovelent revelation of Django’s fate as a slave for a Mississippi mining company. One horrifying scene that I found particularly brutal was a flashback featuring Broomhilda’s brutal whipping at the hands of the Brittle brothers, while Django desperately tries to convince one of the brothers to spare her.

I really do not know what to say about the performances featured in the movie. I realize there are no Academy Award nominations for ensemble casts. If there were, I would nominate the cast of “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. One, Tarantino cast old movie and television veterans in cameo roles. I have already mentioned Lee Horsley and James Russo. I also spotted the likes of Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Don Stroud, Tom Wopat, Cooper Huckabee, Robert Carradine, Michael Parks and a humorus special guest appearance by Franco Nero. Both Bruce Dern and M.C. Gainey (of “LOST”) were especially scary in their brief appearances as Old Man Carrucan (Django and Broomhilda’s former owner) and Big John Brittle. Both Dana Michelle Gourrier and Nichole Galicia gave solid performances as Cora and Sheba, Candie’s housekeeper and concubine respectively. And Dennis Christopher’s performance as Calvin Candie’s obsequious attorney, Leonide Moguy, struck me as spot-on.

Don Johnson provided a skillful combination of charm, menace and humor in his role as Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett, the Tennessee planter who served as the Brittle brothers’ current employer. Jonah Hill had a funny cameo as one of his night riders. I could say the same about Miriam F. Glover, who gave one of the movie’s funniest lines, while portraying one of Big Daddy’s house slaves. Ato Essandoh of A&E’s “COPPER” was very effective as D’Artagnan, the frightened fighting slave whose runaway attempt led to his brutal death. Laura Cayouette’s performance as Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, Candie’s widowed sister, struck me as effective. On one hand, I found her attempts to seduce Schultz rather funny. On the other hand, her outrage over Candie’s attempt to display a naked Broomhilda during supper provided a great deal of tension in the scene. Walton Goggins gave a memorable and scary performance as one of Candie’s henchmen, Billy Crash. James Remar got to portray two intimidating characters – Ace Speck and Candie’s main henchman, Butch Pooch. And he did a damn good job with both roles.

Although I had been critical of Tarantino’s creation of the Broomhilda von Shaft, I must admit that Kerry Washington still managed to wring out a first-rate performance from the role. I especially impressed with her in scenes that featured Broomhilda’s tense encounters with Stephen; and her subtle, yet pleased reaction to Schultz’s purchase of her from Candie and her painful whipping by the Brittle brothers in one of the flashback. And I must admit that I found that last shot of her removing a shotgun from her saddle rather interesting. Perhaps after all that Broomhilda had endured, she was not taking any chances. I believe that the year 2012 will prove to be one of Samuel L. Jackson’s best years professionally. Aside from portraying Nick Fury in the year’s biggest hit, “THE AVENGERS”; he got to portray one of the most complex and villainous roles in “DJANGO UNCHAINED” as Candie’s trusted and malevolent head house slave, Stephen. Watching the movie, I was struck at how much Stephen reminded me of the Mr. Carson character from the British television series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”. Both characters possessed the same blinding loyalty, snobbery, jealousy over his position within the slave hierarchy, and anger toward anyone from their background who managed to rise higher than they (for example: Django). Jackson did a superb job in not only conveying Stephen’s penchant for utilizing the old “Puttin’ on Old Massa” routine publicly, but also his intelligence while in the private company of Django, Broomhilda or Candie. And by the way, the man has a nice singing voice. Many people have expressed surprise at Leonardo Di Caprio’s portryal of the villanous, yet charsmatic Calvin Candie. I was not that surprised, considering I have seen him portray a villain before – as the cold-blooded Louis XIV in 1998’s “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK”. But I do believe that Candie not only proved to be a more memorable villain, but also one of the actor’s best roles ever. He was fantastic as the charming, yet brutal Candie . . . and at the same time rather contradictory. It was obvious that Di Caprio’s Candie fervently believed in the superiority of whites; yet at the same time, he had no problems with allowing Stephen to handle the plantation’s finances or accepting the elderly slave’s intelligence and sharp observations about Django, Schultz and Broomhilda with very little reluctance.

Instead of portraying a villain, Christoph Waltz portrayed Django’s friendly, yet ruthless mentor and partner; the German-born dentist-turned-bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz. And he was fantastic. Waltz effectively portrayed Schultz’s cold-blooded pursuit of wanted criminals for profit, yet at the same time; conveyed the character’s disgust over the institution of slavery and open-mindedness toward Django, Broomhilda and other slaves. Waltz’s best moments proved to be Schultz’s encounter with the Speck brothers and Django in Texas, his taking down of the wanted Sheriff Bill Sharp (portrayed by Don Stroud), his reaction to D’Artagnan’s mauling and the revelation of his disgust toward Candie. And Waltz proved to have great screen chemistry with Jamie Foxx. I believe that the latter’s portrayal of the title character has proven to be vastly underrated by the majority of film critics and some moviegoers. I am a little disappointed, but not surprised. Django turned out to be a somewhat introverted character that was not inclined to speak very much . . . whether as a slave or a free man. Critics and filmgoers are not inclined to pay much attention to non-showy characters. Since Django proved to be a quiet character, Foxx resorted to good old-fashioned screen acting to convey most of the character’s non-speaking moments. And he did a superb job in portraying Django’s array of emotions – especially in the opening scene featuring the slave coffle in Texas, Schultz’s killing of the criminal, his first view of Broomhilda at Candyland, and the confrontation with Candie during the latter’s supper party. Ironically, another one of Foxx’s best moments proved to be quite verbal in which he attempts to con a group of slavers for a mining company to take him back to Candyland in order to collect on a fake bounty. In the end, Foxx did a superb job in developing Django from a slave in shock over the traumatized separation from his wife to the soft-spoken, yet self-assured man who could be very ruthless when the situation demanded it.

I also have to say a word about the movie’s behind-the-scene production. I was impressed by Sharen Davis’ costume designs. She did a solid job in re-creating the fashions of the late antebellum period. However, I noticed a few oddball designs for Candie’s slave mistress Sheba and a maid at a social club in Greenville, Mississippi; reflecting the planter’s penchant for anything French. I suspect this was a visual joke on Tarantino’s part. I was also impressed by J. Michael Riva’s production designs and Leslie A. Pope’s set decorations in the sequences for the Texas town featured in the movie’s first 10 to 20 minutes, Candie’s Napoleon Club in Greenville and especially the interiors for Candyland’s mansion. Robert Richardson did an excellent in capturing the beauty of California, Louisiana and especially Wyoming with his photography. As he had done for “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”, Tarantino used already recorded music to serve as the score for his movie. I did notice that a few songs – especially one for the opening title sequence – seemed to have been written specifically for the movie. However, I do not know who may have written them.

It occurred to me that “DJANGO UNCHAINED” was Tarantino’s second period piece in a row. And I found myself wondering if he planned to write and direct a third period movie as part of some kind of semi-historical trilogy. Whether he does or not, I must say that I was impressed with “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. More than impressed. I believe it is one of the best movies I have seen released in 2012. And I feel that it is one of the writer-director’s more original works, due to superb writing, direction and an excellent cast led by Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz.

P.S. Check out this photo:

Jamie+Foxx+Don+Johnson+CbSnoKvfAsGm

Ohmigod! It’s Crockett and Tubbs!

“PUBLIC ENEMIES” (2009) Review

Below is my review of “PUBLIC ENEMIES”, a recent movie on the last year of Dillinger’s life: 

”PUBLIC ENEMIES” (2009) Review

I must admit that when I first heard about Michael Mann’s plans to film a movie about Depression-era bank robber, John Dillinger, I became excited. It was not the subject that roused my interest. But I found the idea of Mann shooting a movie set during the height of the Great Depression – 1933 to 1934 – rather interesting. It has become a period in U.S. history that has caught my interest in the past five years. And the fact that Johnny Depp and Christian Bale had been cast in the leads as Dillinger and his nemesis, FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, merely increased my interest.

At first, I had assumed that I would love ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”. I assumed that Mann could do no wrong. Then to my surprise, I discovered that the film had received mixed reviews from film critics. From that moment on, I began to harbor doubts about the film’s quality. I never learn. Never. I had forgotten my most important rule about approaching a movie – the only opinion that should count for me is my own. And when I finally saw ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I realized that I had to learn that particular lesson all over again.

I want to point out that ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” is not perfect. This does not bother me one bit. Perfect movies are extremely rare. And I suspect . . . not know, but suspect I may have seen one or two in my lifetime. However, ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”is not one of those rare examples of cinematic perfection. First of all, the movie – especially its first hour – seemed to be marred by an uncomfortable number of close-ups by cinematographer Dante Spinotti. This discomfort was especially apparent in action scenes like the prison escape from the Indiana State Prison featured in the film’s opening scene , “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s death at the hands of FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, and John Dillinger’s first bank robbery featured in the film. These close-ups brought back memories of the ones featured in Disney’s ”PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”.

But at the least the close-ups in the 2003 film were not further marred by quick editing done by Paul Rubell and Jeffrey Ford for this film. Watching their zip fast editing reminded me of those featured in movies like the last two ”BOURNE”films, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, both ”TRANSFORMERS” movies, ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” and ”STAR TREK”. I suspect that this new editing style is fast becoming the new thing in the film industry. Personally, I hate it. I find it cheap and confusing.

I have one last complaint about the film and it has to do with David Wenham’s appearance in the film. The Australian actor portrayed Harry Pierpont, one of Dillinger’s closest friends and a mentor. Yet, he barely spoke a few words in the movie. In fact, he seemed more like a background character than a supporting one. Giovanni Ribisi had more lines in the film and his character, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, had no real close ties with Dillinger. Why did Mann and the two other screenwriters, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, bothered to include the Pierpont character in the first place? Instead of at least a minor exploration of the Dillinger-Pierpont relationship, the screenwriters reduced Pierpont – Dillinger’s mentor – to a minor character with a few lines.

Now that I have put all of that negativity behind me, it is time to discuss why I had enjoyed ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” so much. Perhaps I am being a bit too subtle. I did not merely enjoy ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I loved it. It has easily become my favorite movie this summer. So far. Fast editing and close-ups aside, I must admit that I admire how director Michael Mann handled the movie’s pacing. I was surprised to learn about the criticisms leveled at the movie’s running time (two hours and nineteen minutes) and especially its alleged running time. Personally, I was impressed by Mann’s steady pace. Expecting the movie to be over two hours long, I was surprised to discover that amount of time had passed when the end credits finally began to roll. Perhaps I had been so caught up in the story that I failed to notice the time. Which is a compliment to Mann’s direction . . . at least from me.

Many scenes directed by Man left me spellbound. They include Baby Face Nelson’s murder of a FBI Agent at a hotel ambush set up by Purvis; Dillinger’s press conference inside the warden’s office at the Crown Point Prison in Indiana; his escape from said prison; the FBI ‘s capture of Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frichette; Frichette’s interrogation and beating at the hands of a FBI agent; and Purvis’ conversation with prostitute and brothel madam, Anna Sage.

But there were four scenes . . . actually, two scenes and two sequences that truly impressed me. The first one featured Purvis’ telephone conversation with his boss, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In it, Purvis tries to convince the irate Hoover that many of their agents are not experienced enough to hunt down the likes of Dillinger and Nelson and that they need to recruit more experienced men . . . like Texas Rangers. Despite the fact that the two actors portraying Purvis and Hoover do not share the screen, the emotion between their characters crackled like flames, thanks to their performances and Mann’s direction. The other scene featured Dillinger’s arrival in Indiana by plane, after being arrested by Federal agents in Tucson, Arizona. Although brief, it struck a surreal note within me, thanks to Spinott’s photography. The cinematographer shot the entire scene with colors that projected a soft iron, mingled with a reddish-orange tint from the sun. Very beautiful.

Although I found the scenes mentioned above very memorable, I was rendered speechless by the following sequences. The first centered around the violent shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin in April 1934. I am certain that many critics and moviegoers had ended up comparing this sequence with the famous Downtown Los Angeles shootout in Mann’s 1995 movie, ”HEAT”. Granted, the latter turned out longer and was filmed in the daytime, but this Little Bohemia shootout turned out to be just as effective and exciting, despite being filmed at night. But if there is one sequence that filled me with great satisfaction, it was the one that featured the last night of Dillinger’s life. Mann, along with Spinotti, production designer Nathan Crowley, Rosemary Brandenburg’s set designs, Patrick Lumb, William Ladd Skinner’s art direction, the screenwriters and the cast did a superb job in conveying the director’s own detailed account of that hot, July night in 1934. I, for one, was glad that Mann took his time in leading to that moment when Texas Ranger Charles Winstead shot Dillinger dead. The director gave movie audiences a glimpse of street life in Depression-era Chicago during the summertime. He also allowed the audience to experience Dillinger’s pleasure in viewing Clark Gable’s spunk and Myrna Loy’s beauty in the 1934 MGM movie, ”MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”. With the camera, the audience waited nervously along with Purvis, Winstead and the other lawmen who waited outside the Biograph Theater for Dillinger. This is one of the most detailed and marvelously shot sequences I have ever seen on film in the past decade or two.

Another aspect of ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” that struck me as unique was its style. Past movies about Depression-era criminals from the Midwest and the South like (1967) “BONNIE AND CLYDE”(1974) “MELVIN PURVIS, G-MAN”, and (1975) “THE KANSAS CITY MASSACRE” tend to have this rural or “good ‘ole boy” style, similar to movies and television shows like (1977) “SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT” and (1979-85) “THE DUKES OF HAZZARD”. These films were usually filled with a great deal of wild car chases, over-the-top acting and a Country-Western tune emphasizing the action. ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” seemed to go against this rural style. Instead, most of Mann’s Midwestern criminals are not some wild, country boys that went on a crime spree as some reaction against the Depression’s economic woes. His criminals – especially Dillinger – are professional criminals, whose experiences go back long before the first impact of the Depression. Nor is Mann’s Melvin Purvis is some long experienced “good ‘ole boy” lawman with a Mississippi Valley or Southwestern accent like Ben Johnson in (1973) “DILLINGER” or Dale Robertson in his two TV movies about the FBI agent. His Purvis is a lot closer to the real one, a South Carolinian gentleman in his early thirties, who happened to be a trained lawyer and an excellent shot. Both Dillinger and Purvis come off as more sophisticated than their portrayals featured in earlier movies. And the characters’ sophistication certainly reflected the movie’s more serious tone. Something I certainly had no problems with.

John Dillinger may turn out to be one of my favorite characters portrayed by Johnny Depp. Much has been made of Dillinger’s charm and joie de vivre . . . and Depp certainly did not hesitate to replicate it in front of the camera. One prime example of this charm was featured in Dillinger’s press conference inside the warden’s office at the Crown Point Prison in Indiana. I have seen the original 1934 newsreel featuring the famous press conference and I must say that Depp did a beautiful job of recapturing Dillinger’s actions – from the bank robber’s attitude, right down to his body language.

But there were other aspects of Dillinger’s personality that Depp did not hesitate to portray – his romantic charm that won Billie Frichette’s heart and cynical sense of humor. Most importantly, Depp’s performance reminded the audience that Dillinger had been capable of being a cold-blooded criminal. After all, he had drifted into crime long before the economic upheaval of the Depression. And Depp’s performance made that clear, whether his Dillinger was expressing fury at one colleague, whose beating of a prison guard led to the death of an old friend in the film’s opening prison break; his lack of remorse toward his many crimes, his connection to the Chicago mob; and his willingness to murder anyone who got in his way. Depp not only perfectly portrayed Dillinger as a charming and extroverted rogue, but also as a tender lover, a hardened criminal unwilling to give up his profession and if need be, a killer.

I have noticed that in the past two or three years, Christian Bale has found himself in the thankless task of portraying characters less flamboyant than his co-stars. This certainly seemed to be the case in the 2006 Victorian melodrama ”THE PRESTIGE” with the more outgoing Hugh Jackman; in the 2008 Batman sequel, ”THE DARK KNIGHT”, in which his performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman contrasted sharply with Heath Ledger’s wildly chaotic Joker; and in the recent”TERMINATOR SALVATION”, in which he seemed to be overshadowed in the eyes of many by the more overtly masculine Sam Worthington. Mind you, Bale gave superb performances in all of these films. Yet, his co-stars seemed to be grabbing most of the glory. This also seemed to be the case in ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, in which he portrays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent assigned to capture Dillinger, one way or the other. Whereas Depp’s Dillinger is all charm and flash, Bale’s Purvis is a resolute and educated South Carolina gentleman, who also happened to be a somewhat competent lawman determined to hunt down the bank robber by any means possible. And that included following Director Hoover’s insistence on ”taking the white gloves off” or insisting that the FBI recruit experienced Texas Rangers for the manhunt. Bale not only did an excellent job in conveying Purvis’ quiet determination in hunting down Dillinger, but the agent’s anxious fear that he may never capture the bank robber on a permanent basis. Bale also effectively portrayed Purvis’ ruthlessness in dealing with those who stood between him and Dillinger. Melvin Purvis is not a splashy role for Bale, but the latter certainly did an excellent job of portraying the lawman’s many personality facets.

Before I saw ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I had feared that the addition of Billie Frichette (Dillinger’s girlfriend) into the story would make her presence irrelevant and threaten to drag the film. Fortunately, Mann and the other two screenwriters – Bennett and Biderman – along with Oscar winner Marion Cotillard did justice to the Frichette character. Cotillard gave an excellent performance as a hatcheck woman who captured Dillinger’s heart. She portrayed Frichette as a slightly melancholy woman who not only resented society’s bigotry against her ancestry (her mother was half French, half –Menominee), but also feared that her relationship with Dillinger may not last very long. One of Cotillard’s best moments featured the hatcheck woman being interrogated and beaten by one of Purvis’ agents, who is determined to learn Dillinger’s whereabouts. And despite being French-born and raised, Cotillard proved that she could use a Midwestern accent circa 1933, just as well as an American actress.

”PUBLIC ENEMIES” seemed to be filled with some memorable supporting roles. And a handful of performances stood out for me. I enjoyed Jason Clarke’s quiet and subtle performance as Dillinger’s close friend and colleague, the dependable John “Red” Hamilton, who seemed convinced that he and the bank robber were doomed to live short lives. Clarke especially shone in an emotional scene in which a badly wounded Hamilton tried to convince Dillinger to stop clinging fervently to all people and things that mattered too much to him. And there was Billy Crudup (a face I have been seeing with great frequency over the past few years), who gave an entertaining and sharp performance as FBI Director and publicity hound, J. Edgar Hoover. Crudup managed to capture a great deal of the legendary director’s personality as much as possible – especially Hoover’s staccato-style speech pattern. And his scenes with Bale brimmed with a layer of emotion that made their on-screen relationship one of the more interesting ones in the movie.

Another performance that caught my attention belonged to Stephen Graham as the trigger-happy Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis. I have to give Graham kudos for effectively projecting a certain facet of Nelson’s persona from both Dillinger and Purvis’ points-of-view. In Dillinger’s eyes, Graham portrayed Nelson as a trigger happy clown and bad Cagney impersonator, whose criminal skills seemed to belong to an amateur. In his major scene with Purvis, Graham portrayed Nelson as a dangerous criminal, quite capable of efficiently killing Federal agents in cold blood. And it was a pleasant surprise to see the always competent Stephen Lang as Charles Winstead, one of the Texas Rangers recruited by Purvis to assist in the FBI manhunt for Dillinger. Lang first worked for Mann in 1986’s ”MANHUNTER” and the television series, ”CRIME STORY”. Since then, he has portrayed a vast array of memorable characters over the years. In”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, he gave another excellent performance as the stoic and intimidating Winstead, whose vast experience with criminal manhunts allowed him to act as a de facto mentor for the less experienced Purvis. One last performance that caught my attention belonged to Branka Katić’s portrayal of Anna Sage, the so-called ”Woman in Red”who had betrayed Dillinger to the FBI in Chicago. Actually, Sage never wore red on the night she led the FBI to the Biograph Theater and Dillinger. But that is beside the point. Katić gave an intelligent performance as the world-weary, Romanian-born madam that found herself forced to help the FBI ambush the bank robber.

Every now and then, I eventually come across some comparisons between ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” and ”HEAT” in some of the articles I have read about the former. And the comparison usually ends in the 1995 movie’s favor. Do I agree with this assessment? Honestly, I have no answer. Both movies are superb crime dramas with a few flaws. Whereas ”HEAT”managed to capture the miasma of late 20th century Los Angeles, ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” reeked with the slightly gray aura of the Depression-era Midwest . . . especially Chicago. And whereas the pacing for ”HEAT” threatened to drag in its last hour, the quick editing and constant close-ups nearly marred the first hour of ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”. But you know what? I love both movies. And ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” proved to be another example of why Michael Mann continues to be one of my favorite movie directors.