Mann on the Run

Johnny Depp is superb as John Dillinger in the fast and furious Public Enemies.

Johnny Depp is superb as Dillinger.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Johnny Depp is superb as Dillinger.


Rated R.

Fittingly, those two obsessions — filmmaking and lawbreaking — converge in Dillinger's storied last stand at Chicago's Biograph Theater. Dillinger was reportedly an avid film buff, who executed his robberies with an acrobatic flair derived from watching Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers. But on screen at the Biograph that fateful night was Manhattan Melodrama, a surprisingly unsentimental, proto-Mann 1934 crime drama starring Clark Gable and William Powell as childhood friends who grow up on opposite sides of the law — one a small-time hood, the other a D.A. — and compete for the affections of the same woman (Myrna Loy). What Mann and Depp do in that scene, as Dillinger watches this parallel version of his own life, ranks among the cinema's most eloquent depictions of the way the spectator identifies with the moving image. "Die the way you lived. Don't drag it out," says Gable shortly before being escorted to the electric chair — words that cut to the essence of Dillinger himself, as well as Mann's career-long interest in men who live by their own codes, outside the strictures of normal society. Seeing Dillinger's face in the reflected light of the screen, it's as if he sensed, even then, that while his own mortality lay in wait, his legend would long continue to flicker.

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