Pairings/Characters: Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis
Fandom: Public Enemies
Spoilers: For the movie, natch! :)
Summary: Christian Bale gives a wonderfully-understated performance as Melvin Purvis.
Date Of Completion: January 9, 2010
Date Of Posting: January 14, 2010
Disclaimer: I don’t own ‘em, Universal does, more’s the pity.
Word Count: 1024
Feedback welcome and appreciated.
Author’s Notes: I’m starting a series of essays about all aspects of Public Enemies. Subjects will range from acting, costuming, directing, characterization, fannish interpretations (including slash), and so on. I encourage people to write their own! :) Naturally, these essays are my own opinion and are not any definitive word on the subjects, but you have to start somewhere! :)
It amazes me that so many people either dismissed or just plain dissed Christian Bale’s performance as Melvin Purvis in Public Enemies. The critics (and some fans) called his performance ‘wooden’, ‘uninspired’, or ‘mailed-in’.
To me, from the very first, I thought his acting was understated, and, unlike some people, that isn’t a dirty word to me. Whether it was Christian’s or Michael Mann’s (or both) choice to play it that way, it was the right one.
Johnny Depp played John Dillinger with a degree of understatement, but he was larger- than-life. It was very smart to play Melvin Purvis more low-key.
Besides, real-life Mel was a quiet man, understated but capable of commanding his men’s loyalty just as Johnny did in a more flamboyant way.
So we saw a Mel on-screen who was high-strung, dedicated, and conflicted.
When first we meet Melvin Purvis, he’s efficiently hunting down Pretty Boy Floyd. After Floyd dies, we see that Mel isn’t upset over killing the gangster in the line of duty, but neither is he exultant. This is in sharp contrast with later incidents (more on that later).
We see his idealism and belief in Hoover and the Bureau’s modern crime-fighting methods, but then we see how conflicted Mel becomes in the course of the film, and Christian clearly shows this to the viewers. For example, we never see him talking to a friend and colleague about his misgivings (Carter Baum would have been a good choice), but we see the soul-wrenching expression on his face while a wounded, dying man is tortured (exceptional piece of acting here), or his silent distaste during Hoover’s ‘Take off the white gloves!’ speech, or his obvious disapproval and actions over Billie’s mistreatment.
Christian is able to convey a man of great passion reined in by his own sense of honor. He kills during the rundown of Pretty Boy Floyd but in the name of justice and gives Floyd every chance to surrender; when he kills Baby Face Nelson, it’s for sheer revenge for the killing of the unarmed Wharton at the Sherone Apartments, for Carter, and for Sam. He was a man unleashed, and all the more powerful for the restraint shown previously.
Another fine piece of acting is the expression on his face when he learns that Billie has vanished, along with their best chance to capture John. Nothing is said, but his agony is evident (along with near-tears), and I’m always impressed when I see that scene.
Again we see a restrained Mel at the Biograph, appearing calm, but tension is radiating out from him, conveyed by his eyes and movements. When he’s waiting in the car with Doc, he’s silent, but has to get out and start pacing around until he spots Johnny, Anna, and Polly at the ticket window.
Again, Mel’s honor comes into play: he struggles to push past innocent bystanders (a metaphor of his own conflict) while Charles Winstead cleaves through the crowd with single-minded purpose.
I was pleased to hear the Director’s Commentary and have my read of conflict in Mel validated by Michael Man. Simple to read? Sure, but a lot of people seem to have missed that point with their criticism of Christian’s performance.
Interesting details in this scene: it almost seems as if Mel’s calling, “John!” while he’s struggling through the crowd, trying to give fair warning, and hesitates to shoot Johnny while Charles and Clarence Hurt have no qualms and fire.
After John dies, Mel’s reaction is severely restrained, and as he walks across the street, symbolically swims upstream against the tide of curiosity seekers and souvenir-hunters, a man who is a ghostly wraith as fog or smoke blow across the screen, the last time we see him.
This moment is the zenith of his career, and yet it seems to leave a bad taste in his mouth. In less than a year, he would resign from the newly-christened FBI. His life afterwards would be long years of frustration, born out of being blocked by Hoover for the kind of work he wanted, and his contributions and very name erased from FBI files, like Stalin erasing the names of people he wanted to become ‘non-persons’.
There was a posting of a scene scripted that would have put the finishing touches on this character. Thanks for the find, mistressmarilyn! Melvin Purvis is shown marching into J. Edgar Hoover’s office and resigning, giving Hoover a piece of his mind about the Dillinger case and the man he had spent so long hunting down: One thing I learned was that Dillinger was an Outlaw and my Adversary. But he was no punk. And he was no hoodlum. A pity that this scene was either never filmed or ended up on the cutting-room floor, and a shame that if it was filmed, didn’t appear on the DVD as a deleted scene. This scene could have been so powerful, harking back to all the scenes of conflicted Mel that we saw throughout the film. Instead, we get him just walking off into the night. Symbolic, but the added scene would have carried more oomph, in my opinion.
This is a man who doesn’t kill during a manhunt or kill for revenge in this particular instance. He doesn’t kill at all, and certainly has no expression of triumph.
Christian gives us clues as to Melvin Purvis’ personality or mindset. He freezes while he watches Wharton die at the Sherone Apartments. He freezes at seeing the innocent man killed in the car at Little Bohemia.
During his meeting with Johnny in Tucson, he plays the macho mano-a-mano but his inner conflict is shown after Johnny’s comment, “Better get yourself another line of work, Melvin.” Maybe he’s right, Mel’s expression says?
He and Johnny Depp were a joy to watch in this scene as they circle each other like boxers in the ring, jabbing and feinting, smiling and sizing up.
It boggles my mind that people thought that Christian’s performance was ‘wooden’.
And, BTW, didn’t he look gorgeous in his suits and fedoras, and didn’t those honeyed Southern tones make you swoon? ;)
Cross-posted to guns_fedoras