by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran Charles and I the movie Public Enemies, all 140 minutes of it, a June 2009 release and Hollywood’s latest take on the criminal career of John Dillinger — pronounced here, as in every other movie about him, with a soft “g” even though Dillinger himself, proud of his German heritage, said the name with a hard “g” and insisted that all his friends and associates do so as well. That’s just one of the many mistakes made in this weirdly anachronistic movie, directed by Michael Mann from a script started by Ronan Bennett and finished by Mann and Ann Biderman, based on a book by Bryan Burrough called Public Enemies; America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. Public Enemies is the sort of movie (like Lady Sings the Blues and The Buddy Holly Story) that frustrates not only because the film runs roughshod over the real-life history it’s purportedly telling, but because the true story would actually have made a better movie.
The film is basically concerned with the long-standing antagonism between Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the FBI agent who was assigned by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to go after him and who led the law-enforcement team that finally ambushed and killed Dillinger outside the Biograph movie theatre in Chicago on July 22, 1934. Remember that date because it’s going to be an important reference point later on to the many anachronisms and flagrant inaccuracies in this movie; as slovenly as it was, the 1945 Monogram film Dillinger (hastily thrown together after the Production Code Administration finally lifted its decade-long ban on Dillinger as a movie subject) was actually closer to the real story. Public Enemies has the flaws of a lot of historical movies these days: an inflated running time (as the film unspooled across all those 140 minutes I couldn’t help but recall how 1930’s Warners hacks like Lloyd Bacon and Ray Enright had been able to tell stories like this in half that amount of running time!); a slow, somber pace — a real surprise coming from Mann, who as a director is best known for fast, exciting, kinetically-paced modern-day thrillers (does he really think people moved that much more slowly in the 1930’s?) — and an elegiac feel expressed not only in the slow pace but also in the relentlessly past-is-brown cinematography by Dante Spinotti.
The biggest single mistake in the film is that the FBI is shown pursuing Dillinger well before they did — or could have; until his famous escape from jail in Crown Point, Indiana on March 3, 1934 the FBI had no jurisdiction over Dillinger since he had not yet committed a federal crime. (The FBI did, however, assist local law enforcement by running fingerprint analysis on Dillinger and making the results available — a kind of cooperation that was highly unusual then even though it’s become routine now.) It was only after the escape that Dillinger drove a stolen car across a state line from Indiana to Illinois — thereby finally committing a federal offense and giving the FBI the pretense it needed to go after him. (One point of accuracy I will give the filmmakers credit for is they don’t call the FBI the FBI — in 1934 it was still officially the Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice; “Federal” wasn’t added to its name until 1935.) What’s more, they have Purvis “making his bones” as a federal agent by shooting and killing outlaw Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, then being assigned to the Dillinger case as a result of his success with Floyd; in real life Floyd survived Dillinger by three months. (The sequence is correct in the novel Pretty Boy Floyd by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, which they adapted from an unproduced screenplay they wrote for Warners — and on the strength of that novel, that movie would have been considerably better than this one!) They also have another legendary outlaw, “Baby Face” Nelson (true name: Lester Gillis), dying along with Dillinger in the Biograph Theatre shootout — the real Nelson, though part of Dillinger’s gang at the end, outlived Dillinger by four months.
The filmmakers took pains to make the movie look as authentically 1930’s as possible, but a lot of visual anachronisms slipped in anyway — contributors to imdb.com noted details like the appearance of modern automobiles, locomotives manufactured well after Dillinger’s death, modern-day judicial robes in the courtroom scenes and the like — and I was particularly (and predictably) annoyed by the musical anachronisms. As delightful as it was to hear three snippets of songs by Billie Holiday on the soundtrack — “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Am I Blue” from early-1940’s Columbia studio recordings and “The Man I Love” from a 1946 concert recording from Los Angeles (not from Carnegie Hall, as stated in the film’s closing credits) — when Dillinger died Billie was an obscure singer eking out a living in hole-in-the-wall New York cabarets and had made only two obscure records (“Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch,” with a Benny Goodman-led studio group and issued under Goodman’s name), and it’s highly unlikely Billie would have played in a place that had a radio wire even to do local broadcasts, let alone be heard on the air in a city as far away from New York as Chicago.
If they had wanted to use a real-life jazz great on the soundtrack, they should have picked Jack Teagarden, who had at least an indirect connection to Dillinger. In 1933-34, Chicago was hosting a world’s fair called the Century of Progress Exposition, and the real Dillinger frequently went on dates there, sometimes just with one of his (many) girlfriends and sometimes with members of his gang. One of the exhibitors at the Century of Progress was hosting an on-site nightclub at which Teagarden led a band, and while it’s not known for certain whether Dillinger actually saw Teagarden perform (unlike Al Capone, Dillinger was not known as a jazz fan), it’s certainly more likely than that he ever heard Billie Holiday! (There’s another musical anachronism; Diana Krall plays a jazz singer and is shown performing “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” in the film, but the arrangement is characteristic of the 1950’s rather than the 1930’s. The film also includes Benny Goodman’s recording of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” — made on July 1, 1935, almost a year after Dillinger’s death.)
As a movie, Public Enemies isn’t bad — though the factual errors and in particular the inflation of the role of the FBI (or whatever it was called then) in his capture rankle. The best thing about it is the kind of parallelism built up between the crooks and the cops, who in the rather cynical manner of a lot of modern crime films are shown as morally equivalent — especially when Purvis orders a roundup of all of Dillinger’s acquaintances, including family members and others not suspected of any involvement in his crimes, and tells his men to keep them under custody until they provide information: the parallel to George W. Bush and his orders for the indefinite detention of so-called “terror suspects” is unstated but relatively obvious. The script also does a good job of depicting Dillinger’s bravado — at one point he walks into a Chicago police station (his current girlfriend needs a police license to work as a waitress and he’s accompanying her as she gets it) and strolls through the office of the Chicago Police Department’s anti-Dillinger task force, unrecognized.
Another nice touch of characterization riffed off the last night of Dillinger’s life, when the FBI got a tip that he was going to a movie at either the Marbro or the Biograph, but the tipster — Anna Sage (Branka Katic), later known as the “Lady in Red” because the orange dress she was wearing (her pre-arranged signal to the federal agents) showed red under the theatre’s outside lights — didn’t know which. Purvis looks at the movie listings in the newspaper and, though he has both theatres staked out, he himself goes to the Biograph because it’s showing a gangster movie, Manhattan Melodrama, while the Marbro is showing Little Miss Marker and he can’t imagine Dillinger wanting to see a Shirley Temple movie when something ballsier and closer to his own experience is available.
The cast is strong but not as strong as it could have been; as Dillinger, Johnny Depp turns in a surprisingly un-quirky performance, losing himself in the character but also making him a bit on the dull side. (Before Depp signed for the role, Leonardo DiCaprio was also up for it — though I think the best actors for the part today would have been Nicolas Cage and Sean Penn.) Christian Bale is interesting as Purvis — though the film doesn’t tell the rest of the story (there’s an American Graffiti-esque title that mentions that he left the FBI in 1936 and committed suicide in 1960; what it doesn’t mention is that J. Edgar Hoover forced him out because he brooked no rivals in public esteem) and there’s a bit of the Batman in his performance (not that I minded!) — and Billy Crudup is fascinating as Hoover. Considerably better-looking than the real one, without the famous bulldog face and with an odd hint of a British accent at odds with the way the oft-filmed real Hoover talked, Crudup nonetheless catches the smarmy self-righteousness of the man. Dillinger’s main girlfriend Evelyn “Billie” Frechette is played by Marion Cotillard (Academy Award-winner for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose), and she’s quite good, properly proletarian and with only a hint of her French accent — I’ve seen much worse attempts by foreign actors to adapt to playing American characters in American movies!
Public Enemies isn’t a bad movie, but it’s still not the film it could have been — the Dillinger story has a lot more interesting cinematic possibilities than are explored here and, quite frankly, the one I would have liked to see is a film I think should be called Dillinger and Leach — Matt Leach being an Ohio state police detective who obsessively pursued Dillinger and then, after Dillinger’s death, was so pissed off at the FBI for horning in on the case and getting the glory for killing Dillinger he bitterly told Ohioans not to cooperate with the FBI and got fired for his pains. Dillinger and Leach actually had the mutually taunting relationship Mann and his writers tried to establish here between Dillinger and Purvis, and the film also touches on the interesting relationship between Dillinger and organized crime (they helped him at first but then shut the doors to him and his gang because Dillinger’s highly publicized, flamboyant sorts of crime were drawing police heat that might potentially get the mobsters in trouble as well)) and the fame of attorneys like Louis Piquett (Peter Gerety) who were considered — often with good reason — to be just as corrupt as the gangsters and outlaws they represented. (The real Piquett was disbarred two years after Dillinger’s death.)
Public Enemies is a good movie, but it’s not great — and given the potential of the story (filmed at least twice before, in 1945 and 1973, as well as in innumerable other variations, including The Petrified Forest, that got around the Production Code ban on Dillinger films by creating characters recognizably based on Dillinger but just calling them something else), the talent of the cast and director Mann’s reputation for slam-bang energy, it should have been great.