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The same kind of conflicts, Mann says, attracted him to The Insider, his Oscar-nominated 1999 docudrama about a censored 60 Minutes exposé of the cigarette industry. “There you have big capital in terms of Big Tobacco, and the threat of Big Tobacco on CBS causes Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt to kind of betray what’s going on inside of them,” he says. “I’m taken with the self-examination we all go through, that characters go through, when they find themselves in crisis. So it may seem on the outside like these are very different movies, but to me those are the conflicts I’m attracted to.”
When I press Mann on the subject of his many criminal antiheroes, he finally allows, “There’s a little joke in Chicago that film directors who grow up in the suburbs make comedies, and directors who grow up in the city don’t. I went to high school a mile from the high school Billy Friedkin went to.”
He also admits that one of his formative creative experiences came on the set of his 1979 debut feature, The Jericho Mile, which was produced for American network television but, like Steven Spielberg’s Duel, distributed theatrically overseas. The film, the story of Rain Murphy, a prison lifer who trains to be an Olympic runner, was shot on location in California’s notorious Folsom State Prison, with more than two dozen actual convicts in speaking roles.
“One assumes that when you confine a human intelligence, spatially, in a 3-foot by 6-foot cell, that there will be some diminishing of capacities of personality,” Mann recalls. “In my experience, just the opposite happened, particularly among these guys. The spirit to express oneself and to be an individual, and to make sense of existence and your surroundings and your life, just amplifies when that happens. All detail becomes incredibly important — the crease in your pants becomes important; how your hair is becomes important; the tattoos you’re putting on your body become important; the 2 feet of space on the second bench in the prison yard — that’s mine, you know, and if someone else sits down there, it’s not by accident.
“Frequently, you’d meet people who had committed heinous crimes; some regretted them. Often, these were people who hadn’t even completed an eighth-grade education, and the most important questions to them were the real fundamental questions: How do I view the rest of my life that I’m going to spend here? What is existence? I met really bright, articulate people who were really wrestling with these problems. So you start to feel like the world that we know — I didn’t grow up in a comfortable, bourgeois environment but the world that most of us inhabit here — is somewhat anesthetized, that we just travel through life putting one foot in front of the other, having a value system that’s only temporary, having ambitions that we may hold but put off into the future, and then when the future shows up all of a sudden, it’s, ‘Ah, I guess it’s too late. It’s never going to happen.’ It feels almost robotic. And those are very much some of the thoughts I was having in ’79, when I was in Folsom doing The Jericho Mile.”
That sense of heightened self-awareness courses through most of the characters Mann has written since, not least of all Dillinger, who upon being asked what he wants by his lover, the French-Native American coatcheck girl Billie Frechette, responds simply, “Everything. Right now.” Indeed, the feeling that Dillinger is living on borrowed time — and knows it — permeates Public Enemies, culminating in a hauntingly beautiful scene in which he spends the final moments before his assassination, at the movies, watching the 1934 MGM crime drama Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable and William Powell as childhood friends who grow up on opposite sides of the law. “Die the way you lived. Don’t drag it out,” says Gable shortly before being escorted to the electric chair — words that capture the essence of Dillinger, as well as Mann’s abiding interest in men who live by their own codes, outside the strictures of normal society.
“What was on my mind was really a lot more textual than that,” Mann says, once more setting me straight. “It goes like this: Imagine that Dillinger is in that movie theater, in real life. Manhattan Melodrama really is the movie he’s really watching. Clark Gable’s character, Blackie, is derived somewhat from Dillinger. Dillinger was the biggest news item, second only to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1934. He has headlines every two days in every single newspaper. Consequently, he affected the way people wrote movies. So, now you have the real John Dillinger watching Clark Gable deciding what’s going to happen in his life now that the rope’s run out. And we know that the rope’s run out for Dillinger, and Dillinger probably intuits the rope’s run out for him, because not 100 feet away are 13 FBI agents who are going to shoot him as soon as this movie’s over.
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