Dillinger was popular for a very good reason", said director Michael Mann during a packed press conference at the ballroom of the Berkley hotel, I attended this week for Public Enemies (my review here).
"In Chicago alone in 1933, of 166 regional banks 140 had failed. Unemployment wasnt 8%, it was 25%. One in four were hungry and cold and miserable, and most people blamed the banks. So Dillinger is stealing from the banks and hes sharp enough to know that he has to treat hostages well, because he knows theyre all going to be interviewed on the radio.
I studied History at Cambridge University, home to what is widely considered as one of the best History faculties in the world. I say this not only to blow my own trumpet, but also to put Mann into perspective. This guy gave one of the best oral overviews of a historical period I have ever witnessed. Its no coincidence that Mann was attracted to Dillinger. Hes a native Chicagoan who during his youth regularly visited the Biograph cinema, outside which the outlaw was gunned down. More importantly, Dillinger is the very definition of the prototypical Mann hero: a consummate professional. To use Manns own words, Dillinger was great at doing what he did, very sophisticated, he planned his robberies with great precision, he employed techniques picked up from the military and his crew had great op sec - operational security. His professional credentials were solid, coming as he did from a genealogy of heist masters that stretched back to Herbert K. Lam, from whom the expression on the lam was originally derived. Will Graham (Manhunter), Neill McCauley and Vincent Hanna (Heat), Lowell Bergman (The Insider), Cassius Clay (Ali), Max Durocher and Vincent (Collateral), and now John Dillinger Mann not only smuggles his auteurish obsession with professionalisms dynamics and psychology into blockbuster Hollywood action movies. He actually gets away with it on a regular basis. And that, dear reader, is something which only visionaries of American cinema such as John Ford, John Huston and Sam Peckinpah have ever achieved before. Johnnys was the last of the three separate interview sessions. He strolls into this room full of idolaters and looks up at the huge poster of himself that hangs behind the dais. Entirely too large, he mutters. Asked later about this comment he says that if he could avoid looking at himself in the mirror in the morning, he would. I find a great sense of safety in ignorance. If you can just stay ignorant almost everything will be OK. I dont like watching myself in movies and I dont like to be aware of the product. I like the process. Thing is, you believe him when he says it. Maybe this down-to-earth attitude and focus on the craft is derived from what he describes as 20 years of making what the industry considered to be failures, 20 years being defined as box-office poison. My guess is that theres more to it than that. This is a man who, queried as to what one film he would take to a dessert island, answers Withnail and I, without a question. This is a man who claims to have been blown away by Stephen Grahams performance as Combo in Shane Meadows This is England. A man who, tongue firmly in cheek, states that the next character he would be interested in playing is Carol Channing. A man, that is, who is a genuine fan of the dramatic arts. In short, one of us. Marion Cotillard, the Oscar-winning French actress who plays Dillingers love interest in Public Enemies, was first up during the press conference. Apparently Michael Mann sent Ms. Cotillard to meet up with real life convicts wives in order to prepare for her role. I hope those sessions were filmed and turn up on the DVDs extra features. You cant help but wonder what the interviewees made of this extremely sexy middle-class French woman asking them questions about their screwed-up lives. Unfortunately, those interviews would probably have more entertainment value than Cotillards intervention at the Berkely, which tended to drift towards the obvious. Not that she can really be blamed. Facing a room full of journalists is difficult enough without having to do it in a language which is not your own. In any case, Id recommend you store her name in your hard drive. Cotillard is a stunning beauty who has already built up an impressive body of work. Definitely one to watch. P.S. - If you are wondering why I haven't bothered to simply the post the MP3 of this press conference, it's because the Sony TCM-200DV tape recorder is a piece of junk, this particular piece of hardware is absolutely useless. Half way through Johnny Depps hugely entertaining session, I began to realise, to my utter chagrin, that my audio device would stop rolling every once in a while and then start up again. I naively harboured the hope that this might be some clever energy-saving device dreamt up by the big brains at Sonys workshop in order to expand battery lives and enhance the mobile taping experience. Alas no, said device is simply a piece of junk that stops and starts at its own whim. Which just goes to show that John Connor got it (or will get it) right: human kind must destroy all wilful machines or perish in frustration.