As a Chicagoan, I make a point of being annoyed instead of starstruck when film crews take over city streets. But my resistance melted away one afternoon last spring when I turned the corner onto the 2400 block of Lincoln and saw it dressed to look as it did the day John Dillinger was shot down by federal agents outside the Biograph. Walking past the theater, its marquee ringed with a banner that read cooled by refrigeration and iced fresh air, I felt as if I’d stepped into an old gangster movie. The patrons filing out of the Biograph on July 22, 1934, probably had a similar sensation: along with Dillinger, they’d just finished watching a crime drama with Clark Gable called Manhattan Melodrama, and when the feds opened fire it must have seemed as if the story had spilled out onto the street.
Separating the movies from reality was a prime objective for Bryan Burrough, whose hefty nonfiction book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 was the basis for Michael Mann’s new movie about Dillinger. “To the generation of Americans raised since World War II,” writes Burrough, “the identities of criminals such as Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, ‘Ma’ Barker, John Dillinger, and Clyde Barrow are no more real than are Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones. After decades spent in the washing machine of popular culture, their stories have been bled of all reality.” Armed with newly released FBI files containing nearly a million pages of reports, witness statements, and correspondence, as well as numerous unpublished manuscripts and interviews, Burrough produced a scrupulously factual book that still reads like a hell-for-leather action story.
Burrough also blows away several decades of G-man mythology dispensed by J. Edgar Hoover in books, magazine articles, and movies like Mervyn LeRoy’s The FBI Story (1959). In an author’s note Burrough writes that he wanted to “reclaim the War on Crime for the lawmen who fought it,” yet his book is an endless catalog of the FBI’s missed opportunities and near-criminal incompetence. Melvin Purvis, director of the Chicago office, became a legendary figure after Dillinger was iced, but the record shows he was in way over his head. At one point he got a surefire tip to expect Machine Gun Kelly at a tavern on South Michigan, but incredibly he forgot about it and Kelly slipped away. Long after Dillinger had become America’s most wanted man, Purvis neglected to put the Dillinger family farm under surveillance. Purvis’s biggest fiasco came in May 1934, when he and 20 other agents converged on a rustic lodge in northern Wisconsin where the Dillinger gang was hiding; there was no clear plan and the raid descended into chaos, leaving one agent and one bystander dead. Dillinger and his crew escaped unharmed.
Burrough may have set out to dispel the fictions created by movies like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Bloody Mama (1970), but his book originated in a development deal for an eight-hour HBO miniseries that never got off the ground. When it was published in 2004, the movie rights were immediately picked up by Mann, director of Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), Ali (2001), and Collateral (2004). Public Enemies is a natural screen property, with its meticulously chronological narrative, hurtling momentum, and sharply focused reconstructions of daring bank jobs and kidnappings. Yet at 500 pages, it’s so stuffed with incident that no theatrical feature could possibly cover it all; in a recent New York Times story, Mann’s coproducer, Kevin Misher, referred to the book as a “research bible” for the movie he and Mann had in mind, which would center on the cat-and-mouse game between Dillinger and Purvis.
As it turns out, Mann and Misher aren’t exactly bible thumpers. Public Enemies begins with Dillinger (Johnny Depp) arriving at Indiana State Prison and engineering the escape of several inmates, among them his criminal mentor, Walter Dietrich. After one inmate gratuitously kills a guard, setting off a chain of events that leaves Dietrich dead, Dillinger pushes the inmate out of a speeding car. This gripping sequence establishes both Dillinger’s loyalty and his ruthlessness, but it’s largely fiction: although Dillinger helped set up the Indiana escape by smuggling in some guns, he was locked up in Lima, Ohio, when it actually went down.
In the movie’s next sequence, FBI lawman Purvis (Christian Bale) personally guns down Pretty Boy Floyd in an Ohio apple orchard, a feat that wins him the top job in Chicago; in fact, Purvis was among several agents firing on Floyd, and the incident happened four months after Dillinger’s death, when Purvis’s star was falling, not rising.
Writing in Vanity Fair as production on the movie began, Burrough admitted the script was “not 100 percent historically accurate” but declared it “by far the closest thing to fact Hollywood has attempted.” Unfortunately, what suffers most from Mann’s narrative compression and invention is Burrough’s detailed exposé of the FBI’s lurching performance. A master of the action set piece, Mann re-creates some of the bureau’s big debacles, but they fly by too quickly to allow a true appreciation of how bungled they were, and in the case of the Wisconsin raid Mann polishes the FBI’s record—in the movie one of Dillinger’s men is fatally wounded by one of the feds as they flee through the woods.
The liberties Mann takes with the facts are reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s in The Untouchables, where Eliot Ness decides to get tough with Capone by policing outside the lines. Mann has Hoover (Billy Crudup) ordering Purvis to “take off the white gloves.” Subsequently Purvis’s men torture a suspect in his hospital room by applying pressure to a wound and try to beat a confession out of Dillinger’s loyal gun moll, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Neither incident is in the book.
“Men like Charles Winstead and Clarence Hurt, the two agents who killed Dillinger, have long remained anonymous,” Burrough writes, “even as movies are made about the murderers they hunted.” But that’s how Hollywood works, and Mann can be forgiven for turning the spotlight back onto Dillinger. He was a larger-than-life character, the most famous and admired of all the Depression-era bad guys. The newspapers ate him up: an Indiana farm boy turned bank robber, he seemed like a decent man who’d been forced into a life of crime by hard times, like the tough guys played by James Cagney. On bank jobs Dillinger treated bystanders gently and courteously, and readers saw him as one of their own. In the movie, introducing himself to Frechette, he declares, “I like movies, baseball, fast cars, good clothes, and you. What else you wanna know?” There doesn’t seem to be much else, and though Depp is no one’s idea of a tough guy, he captures Dillinger’s humor and charm.
Like many of his fans, Dillinger was a movie nut, and some of the film’s most satisfying moments play with the permeable boundary between his life and the silver screen. At one point Dillinger is sitting in a theater watching a newsreel report on the FBI’s nationwide manhunt for him, as the narrator warns patrons that John Dillinger could be sitting right next to them. The houselights come up, and Dillinger squirms as the narrator urges patrons to look to their right, then their left. Mann, a Chicago native who used to go to movies at the Biograph, dwells heavily on Dillinger’s last show, cutting back and forth from the street, as the agents take their positions, and the theater, where Dillinger enjoys Clark Gable as a wisecracking hood on his way to the electric chair. By that time the circle had closed: Dillinger was the inspiration for the sort of movie characters that once inspired him. But a few minutes later, out on Lincoln Avenue, the screen went black for good.
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