So, last night, the DH and I went out to see Public Enemies with Johnny Depp, and then we came home and watched The Public Enemy with Jimmy Cagney. Both are gangster flicks. Both have a gangster as the main character, John Dillinger in Depp’s case and the fictional Tom Howard in Cagney’s. The new movie has a lot of hyper close-up, claustraphobic jiggly camera work and a Johnny Depp who seems to have been put on Valium for the duration for all the emotion his face shows even during the fight scenes. The old movie has the famous grapefruit mashing scene, Cagney with his most manic game-face and white eyes glowering out of the shadows, and what has to be the most blunt and brutal ending of a movie ever (it’s also the movie that almost got him killed and convinced him actors needed a union so directors couldn’t do things like shoot live ammo from the machine guns anymore. True story).
Over 75 years separate these two movies. Now, usually, when Hollywood does a remake, or brings back an old genre, you notice a striking change of ethic, outlook and story emphasis.
Not this time. The ethics of the gangster picture have not changed in any major respect in the past 75 years, and I find that kind of startling.
The gangster flick where there is a criminal protagonist goes like this: the gangster is identified, he (there’s only one where the gangster’s a she and she’s part of a team), commits a series of spectacular crimes where no bystanders are killed, the gangster is shown to have genuine love for another person; mother, girlfriend, gangster buddies. One or all of these is killed. Gangster is driven to desperate act which either results in his death, or results in the betrayal which results in his death.
And somewhere in the movie we will identify the real bad guy. The protag only does bad things, but he has lines he will not cross (in Depp’s case he won’t kidnap people). But in the picture there will be a villain without any such boundaries, and thus the distinction is drawn between the person who only does bad things and the Bad Person, who can be killed and that’s okay, and the protag, who dies tragically either betrayed or outnumbered or both.
This formula is really insanely iron-clad, even by Hollywood standards. Even the Western’s got more variation. So, since we all know how its going to go and how it will come out, what’s needed in the middle, along with some basic suspense creation, is a good character sketch. We’ve got to get to know this particular protagonist and what makes him specifically a criminal as opposed to an Honest Man. We’ve got to be charmed, facinated, sympathetic, and horrified. We’ve got to want him to turn away in time, even though we know he won’t.
We didn’t get any of that in the new Depp movie. None. We got the standard plot, and this…guy kind of gliding through it all and getting gravely, undramatically depressed as his friends got killed around him. I know Depp has got manic energy. Witness his Sweeny Todd, so this has got to have been a deliberate choice on somebody’s part.
Unfortunately, another deliberate choice on somebody’s part was to show Depp in a movie theater watching Clark Gable in a gangster flick, and Gable just wipes the floor with him. Gable has energy, verve, charm, better dialogue and a prettier girl-friend. Is it fair to hold Depp up to the standards of Gable? I wasn’t the one who did it. The film makers put them on screen together, and invited the comparison. Bad decision.
So, if you’re in the mood for gangsters, I recommend any of the following: White Heat, Angels with Dirty Faces, Bonnie & Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Public Enemy. If you’re in the mood for a retake, let me suggest the new Star Trek film. The folks who made that understood what they were working with.