It may be the unavoidable glare of the Michael Jackson media juggernaut, but I saw the new movie about John Dillinger, Public Enemies, and immediately believed it was a fitting release for this exact cultural moment.
Why? The film ends with Dillinger's storied killing by FBI agents outside the Biograph theater in Chicago in 1934. Or very nearly ends. A coda follows in which one of the lawmen responsible for the killing makes a touching visit to the bank robber's love interest to share with her the dying man's whispered last words. That sentimental closing moment underscores how the film presents the Public Enemy #1 to be remembered: as an outlaw with a heart of gold, who genuinely loved a woman and sought to escape with her from the midwestern life of crime.
In a way, this is the male, gangster version of the whore with a heart of gold story. But it's also a story that has changed over time. Manhattan Melodrama, the 1934 film starring Clark Gable as a gangster that Dillinger saw that fateful night at the Biograph, was equally a production of its time. Gable dies in the end in the electric chair but the closing is really about his childhood pal, now the DA, played by William Powell, and the woman they both loved, portrayed by Myrna Loy, affirming their marriage and future together. That sort of affirmative Hollywood ending was mandated in productions of the time, particularly those involving gangsters, and at least tempered the sympathies of viewers for criminals and their misdeeds.
In the current film, director Michael Mann has built our contemporary Dillinger to be a legend -- or rather a larger legend than he was. Played by Johnny Depp with an angular cool, Public Enemies offers little insight about his motivations for the string of action sequences that constitutes it. His lawman nemesis, G-Man Melvin Purvis, is similarly undifferentiated as played by the increasingly ubiquitous Christian Bale. (This lack of dimension becomes all the more conspicuous in a closing title, where we learn Purvis not only quite the FBI a year after Dillinger's demise but then killed himself some two and and half decades later.) That lack of character dimension leaves the action but also allows the broad, even archetypal contours of the outlaw story to be foregrounded.
Outlaws can occupy a special social status between the people and the law or legal institutions and authority. Allowing everyday citizens to keep their money while taking the bank's funds during a robbery is only the most obvious way this status is presented. The recognition of the power of a nascent national media by the manipulative FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, makes clear how those claiming the legitimacy of the state or police must use the press to battle with so-called outlaws for the public's hearts and minds as much as with tommy guns. Especially in hard economic times, when the political and economic system is under duress, that battle for public confidence and the outlawry it facilitates is vital.
If the enduring fascination with Dillinger and his status as a Public Enemy is only burnished by the new film, viewers in July 2009 may exit the theater thinking here was a charismatic outlaw who died too soon at the hands of a legal but not altogether moral order. The coda with his tearful lover is crucial because it emphasizes that he died too soon. For the two of them but also for us.
Dying young has a long history in Anglo-America, from Housman's poetic athlete to the more layered celebrity deaths of the last half-century. Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Elvis are among the performers whose early deaths are still cause for commemoration. More to the point, these deaths have enabled our individual and collective memories of these performers to remain fixed on their youth -- its beauty and its rebelliousness. The most common comparison made with Michael Jackson is Elvis, which is appropriate both for the rarefied cultural heights they occupied but also because they were ultimately not so young when they both died (Elvis 42, MJ 50).
Focusing on the past youth of the aging or dead is ultimately an act of wish-fulfillment for present-day onlookers seeking to arrest or even deny the passage of time. Amplified by the echo chamber of popular culture, such an act can also become an important affirmation by the public not only of its existence but its own vitality. That such affirmations so often turn on perceptions of beauty and rebelliousness, of the creative grace and outlawry of those who are gone, is being evidenced yet again today.