Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger in Public Enemies
Criminals fascinate, and always have. Whether it’s Jack the Ripper and the Krays on this side of the Atlantic, or Jesse James and the Mafia on the other, they generate conflicting emotions in all of us. Yes, we know it’s wrong to rob trains or machine-gun our rivals. Yet down deep, admit it, there’s a part of you that wanted Ronnie Biggs to live the rest of his life on some sunny Brazilian beach.
What drives these feelings, I think, are the petty frustrations we all share with the rules of life, the mortgage that must be paid, the pompous boss who must be flattered, even the long queue at the supermarket (or bus stop with the strikes). Wouldn’t you love to rip up that mortgage bill, deck your boss or jump that line? That’s what criminals do. They break the rules that we cannot, and we live vicariously through them. Best of all, they usually meet justice in the end, confirming our faith in societal rules that we may dislike but know that we need.
Throughout history the glorification of criminals tends to rise during hard times, when living by the rules no longer protects us from losing a job or a home. This breeds resentment, and thus a tendency among some to root for those who flaunt the rules, who fight back. A case in point was America during the Great Depression, when legions of disaffected Americans cheered on an army of outlaws who rampaged through the Midwest, robbing banks and kidnapping millionaires. At the peak of this crime wave during 1933-34 the most visible of these gangs were led by Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly and Ma Barker. All these vaunted criminals rose and fell during the same 18 months.
Dwarfing all of these, however, at least in terms of international notoriety, popularity and headlines, was a flamboyant Indiana-born stickup man named John Dillinger, who is being brought back to life this summer in the movie Public Enemies.
The film, which is based on a book that I wrote a few years ago, is no straight-to-DVD indie either. Dillinger is portrayed by Johnny Depp, his nemesis, the FBI agent Melvin Purvis, by Christian Bale. The movie is directed by Michael Mann, the director of such memorable films as Heat and Last of the Mohicans.
For all the notoriety that Dillinger received during his lifetime, his profile has dimmed over the decades, in large part because, unlike Nelson or Kelly, he never earned a memorable nickname or, like Bonnie and Clyde, attracted a top-tier director.
Yet Dillinger is in many ways the consummate American antihero, an incorrigible criminal who was nevertheless cheered on by thousands of ordinary Americans. Part of this can attributed to the Depression; people were out of work and angry at the banks and businessmen who they considered to have put them there. They applauded Dillinger because, as a symbol of public outrage, he was able to do what they could not: fight back. But much of it was due to Dillinger’s outsized personality. He had charm and charisma to spare, vividly displayed in newsreels after one of his arrests, and he assiduously catered to his public, draping his coat over women who he took hostage during his bank robberies. “We don’t want your money, mister,’ he famously told one startled bank customer. “Just the bank’s.”
I won’t give away the movie, but one may safely assume that Depp is able to convey Dillinger’s likeability in spades. That will no doubt oblige reviewers and many customers to ask: how do these Hollywood myths compare with reality? The answer, at least when it comes to the greatest American crime stories, has been not very well.
From The Untouchables to Mississippi Burning, Hollywood has taken the facts of famous crimes and twisted them into wonderful narrative dramas in which, alas, the facts are inevitably and badly outgunned.
The classic example is the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde. It’s one of the best films yet made, but as history it’s sadly lacking. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, beautiful and dashing, were nothing like the real-life Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, a pair of white-trash spree killers from the slums of Dallas, Texas. Bonnie and Clyde were never rebels or philosophers. They were pint-sized, unattractive, barely out of their teens, dirty, smelly murderers for whom crime was a kind of game. You can see it in the silly photos that they took of each other, posing with machineguns and fat cigars. They weren’t even especially adept criminals, knocking off far more drugstores, filling Continued from page 1 stations and supermarkets than actual banks.
Their story has no clear narrative arc, no real rhyme or reason. Between 1932 and 1934 they simply took one long road trip through the Midwest, robbing things when they ran out of money and killing anyone who tried to stop them; Clyde and his partners murdered about a dozen innocent lawmen. Even their peers looked down on them, and their fame was largely limited to Texas and neighbouring states; the only time Bonnie and Clyde made the front page of The New York Times was the day after their deaths. The scene in the movie that hews closest to history is the last. Bonnie and Clyde really were cut to pieces by a hail of bullets on a dirt road in rural Louisiana.
Worse, at least in terms of historical accuracy, was the 1970 movie Bloody Mama, starring Shelley Winters as the criminal mastermind of another infamous Depression-era group, the Barker gang. In the film Winters portrays the submachineguntoting Kate “Ma” Barker, who, legend and the FBI has it, led her sons and their hillbilly pals in a string of bank robberies and kidnappings. Yet research for Public Enemies proved that Barker did nothing of the sort. She never carried a gun, had her face on a wanted poster or walked into a bank to do anything other than make a deposit. “That old woman,” one of the gang said decades later, “couldn’t even plan breakfast.”
The myth of Ma Barker, however, owes less to Hollywood invention than J. Edgar Hoover’s desperation. In reality, it was Barker’s son Fred and his partner Alvin Karpis who ran the gang. Ma Barker travelled with them from time to time, happily living off their ill-gotten gains, but she spent most of her time sitting by the radio doing jigsaw puzzles. The seeds of her legend were planted on the day that the FBI cornered Fred in a Florida lakehouse in January 1935. Once the smoke cleared from the resulting gunfight, FBI agents found that they had killed Fred Barker, as planned, but were startled to find that they had also killed his 62-year-old mother. Rather than explain this to the press, Hoover told reporters that Ma had been the brains of the outfit. Only with the opening of case files decades later can we see that the FBI did not gather a single fact to suggest that Ma Barker was anything but a dimwitted grandmother.
Dillinger presents special challenges for the historian and, in particular, the film-maker. He never intended to become a criminal. He never intended to be much of anything. He was the son of an abusive Indianapolis grocer, and a terrible student given to petty crimes; after high school tried the Navy, which he didn’t take to, and marriage, which didn’t work either. He was loafing in his neighborhood pool hall in the early 1920s when a local troublemaker enticed him into the drunken mugging of a grocer. A judge threw the book at Dillinger, giving him what became nine hard years, most of it in the Indiana State Penitentiary.
In prison he fell in with a hardened group of bank robbers whose friendship, one suspects, warmed once it became apparent that Dillinger would be given parole first. At that point his pals taught him how to rob a bank, gave him a list of promising targets and then made him promise to use his illegal proceeds to free them. That is exactly what Dillinger did, smuggling in a set of pistols the group used to break out of prison in September 1933. “There’s no denying I did it,” Dillinger told reporters after his subsequent crime spree and arrest. “Why not? I stick to my friends and they stick to me.”
That impromptu press conference in January 1934 introduced Dillinger to millions of Americans. His fame can be attributed in large part to his being one of the few “public enemies” to be captured and interviewed during his career; almost all the others were seen only as rigor mortis set in.
His performance in front of those reporters was breathtaking. He smiled and joked, leant his elbow on a prosecutor’s shoulder and admitted everything. As one scribe put it the next day, Dillinger “rates in the eyes of calloused observers as the most amazing specimen of his kind ever seen outside of a wildly imaginative moving picture”.
Dillinger has been portrayed by diverse actors in several movies, though by far the best-remembered is Warren Oates in the title role of Dillinger, directed by John Milius in 1973. The movie’s storyline bears little resemblance to history, and Oates, while a fine actor, is far too rugged a performer for Dillinger. The real Dillinger was a lover, not a fighter, absolutely smitten by his girlfriend Billie Frechette, and his politeness toward those he robbed was legendary.
Even worse was the movie’s portrayal of the lead FBI agent, Melvin Purvis, played by the hulking actor Ben Johnson. In the film Johnson is the walking personification of the taciturn western sheriff, a big man of few words who takes out gangsters by the score with nothing in his hands but a gun and a cigar. The real Purvis was a small, squeaky-voiced 29-year-old whose ineptitude was one of the main reasons that Dillinger was able to remain at large for so long. Little of this was Purvis’s fault. He was earnest, good-hearted and hardworking. But the FBI was very much in its infancy at the time. Until the gunfights of 1933 its agents were not allowed to carry firearms and, legally, could not make arrests. Purvis was simply never trained to the things he was called upon to do in the pursuit of Dillinger. Though the press never caught wind of it, Purvis was ultimately replaced. He later resigned from the FBI and killed himself in 1960. About the only thing that the 1973 Dillinger got right was in the young Richard Dreyfuss’s portrayal of the cackling psychopath Baby Face Nelson, Dillinger’s sidekick.
The Dillinger and Purvis you will see in Public Enemies are far closer to history than just about any cinematic gangster of recent issue. Yes, there is a degree of fictionalisation, but that’s Hollywood; if the film was 100 per cent accurate you’d call it a documentary. Mann, a stickler for historical accuracy, managed to shoot at the actual scenes of Dillinger’s most famous jailbreak; the site of his most famous gunight, at the Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin; and the site of his death, shot by the FBI outside the Biograph Theatre on Chicago’s North Side. For the Biograph scenes, Mann prevailed on the city of Chicago to hand over six blocks of North Lincoln Avenue, which were transformed into an exact replica of that steamy evening when Dillinger met his fate 75 years ago, in July 1934.
I was an extra in these scenes, portraying one of the first reporters to rush toward Dillinger’s fallen body. As someone who spent almost five years researching his story, it was an eerie experience. Everything was as it had been that night. Depp was dressed exactly like Dillinger; it is said that he was even wearing some of Dillinger’s clothing. Once he fell, to the same stretch of pavement where Dillinger died, I rushed past Christian Bale, as Purvis, towards him. This scene was shot over and over, and every last detail was true. History and Hollywood myth are seldom the same, but in this one small case I was able to smile, because Hollywood, for once, had got things right.
Bryan Burrough is the author of Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 Public Enemies opens nationwide, July 3
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