Posted: July 01, 2009
Dave on film: Criminals and their audiences
Reviews of "Public Enemies" and Hitchcock's "Rear Window"Dave Taylor
Surprisingly, while July 4th is a major holiday – it’s not a weekend that movie studios like to target. That means this week is rather light on cinematic releases, offering only two: “Public Enemies” and “Ice Age 3.” Of course, the powerhouse “Transformers” movie will continue its box office domination, no doubt, and a few others will garner audiences too, including the sophomoric success “The Hangover.”
This week, as a result, I¹ll talk about the new Johnny Depp movie “Public Enemies” but also go back in time a bit and take another look at one of my favorite movies, Alfred HItchcock's classic “Rear Window.”
From the first scene, the visual style of “Public Enemies” is set, and it's gorgeous. Director Michael Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti gave the film its sepia palette and a gritty, sporadically neo-realistic feel. Some scenes stood out as beautiful examples of the art of filmmaking, and coupled with a terrific musical score that featured period jazz, I think “Public Enemies” is one of the best produced films so far this year.
The film’s leads, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, are two of the most popular leading men in Hollywood. Depp does splendidly in his role as Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger. Christian Bale doesn't do much at all with his role as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, however. That’s partially because he's just a stoic, unemotional actor, but also it’s the result of a weak script.
Without an understanding of the protagonist, we're left sympathizing with the bad guy, John Dillinger, who is portrayed in this film as the cliché gentleman thief. Twice we see him taking off his overcoat and draping it around a woman (one a hostage!); another time, while robbing a bank, he finds that a bank customer has dumped his money on the counter and says: "You can keep that money, sir, I'm here to take the bank's money, not yours".
I'm a big Depp fan, and I love the era and jazz, but the film is too long at 2 hours, 20 minutes. It's also a marathon of gun fights, all too infrequently punctuated with quieter scenes when heists are planned, or when Depp’s character woos the lovely Billie Frechette (played by Marion Cotillard). For all the film’s terrific cinematography, there's at least one shoot-out scene that's bewildering in its "flashing gun muzzle" style, and, as a whole, “Public Enemies” should have been cut down significantly.
I expect that “Public Enemies” will do very well at the box office and be another hit for Johnny Depp. It's a good film, it's enjoyable and it's lovely to look at and listen to. In a year or two, however, it'll be "that film Depp did between ‘Pirates’ and ‘Alice [in Wonderland]’" and "that film Bale made between superhero roles".
There are many films that have been written about Hollywood, but none have done a better job of exploring the relationship between the film viewer and the film than the absolutely brilliant 1954 “Rear Window.”
The story has James Stewart (playing L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies) as a photo-journalist with his entire left leg in a cast, toe to hip, stuck for two, hot summer months in his Greenwich Village apartment. Day by day he sits, bored, watching his neighbors through his window with binoculars, including the barely clad ballet dancer Miss Torso, sad Miss Lonelyhearts, a songwriter and newlyweds.
More ominous, however, is Lars Thorwald (played perfectly by Raymond Burr) as the angry man across the courtyard who gets into fight after fight with his wife until she mysteriously vanishes. Did he finally get fed up and kill her? Did Jefferies witness a murder?
In “Rear Window,” Stewart plays both the armchair detective, the nosy neighbor and a surrogate for all of us sitting in the theater. He sneaks into the lives of the people up there on the big screen – the flickering shadows on the wall.
Of course, it doesn't hurt a bit that Grace Kelly (as media darling and cover girl Lisa Carol Fremont) is his fiancée and is an absolute vision of loveliness. In fact, the scene where we first see her is, in my mind, one of the most beautifully filmed moments in all of cinema. She's breathtakingly stunning, and director Alfred Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks both know it. Film historians refer to that scene as the perfect example of "making love to an actress with the camera.”
When we watch a film, do we see what we think we see, or do we see what we want to see? Are films a peek behind the scenes of reality or are they their own reality?
As Jefferies' housekeeper Stella (as played by the great character actor Thelma Ritter) says early in the film: "Mr. Jefferies, we've become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change."
Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.