Celebrating criminals as heroes has been a longstanding Hollywood tradition, from 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” in which James Cagney played a Prohibition-era bootlegger, to the recent “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp as famed bank robber John Dillinger.
What struck me as I watched this play out yet again is that it’s a narrative tradition the Bible – one of our earliest narratives – avoids altogether. That’s curious, because the Bible is otherwise full of all sorts of seedy Hollywood elements – sex, violence and so forth. There are scoundrels aplenty in its pages, but most of their stories spend less time on the sordid details of their sins than on their hard-won redemption.
Movies such as “Public Enemies” are all about the crime and punishment. Directed by macho filmmaker Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Miami Vice”), “Public Enemies” immerses itself in its tough-guy underworld, with Johnny Depp’s Dillinger as the noble outlaw at its center.
Robbing a bank, Dillinger flashes a smile and tells a customer to keep the cash he had laid out on the counter. “We’re not here for your money,” he says. He’s nothing less than a gentleman to the female tellers he temporarily kidnaps in order to make his getaway, even leaving one his fine top coat so she won’t be cold.
Add to this the fact that Dillinger is rarely shown with actual blood on his hands and you have yet one more addition to the legend of Dillinger as some sort of gallant, Depression-era Robin Hood.
Of course, as in gangster movies since the dawn of cinema, even the dashing criminal must get his comeuppance. And so “Public Enemies” ends with Dillinger’s death at the hands of the FBI outside of Chicago’s Biograph Theater. Yet the “punishment” feels as obligatory as the opening titles of 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” which took great pains to insist that the movie to follow wasn't meant to glorify a criminal lifestyle.
The Bible has villains who are punished too – think of Judas. But Judas’ suicide was a dismal ending to a tragic story, not a slow-motion, romanticized, martyr-like moment.
Hardly the sort of part for a matinee idol like Johnny Depp.