Bright Lights Film Journal

Playing It Safe with John Dillinger: Michael Mann’s Public Enemies

“Dillinger had recently undergone plastic surgery to alter his face and to try to remove his fingerprints. But Public Enemies does not dare to depict that kind of desperation and that determination to survive under any circumstances.”

The main character in Godard’s Masculin Feminin talks about going to the movies with his girlfriend. “The screen would light up and we’d feel a thrill,” he says. “But we were usually disappointed . . . It wasn’t the movie of our dreams . . . that film we would have liked to make.” It has always seemed to me that film critics must perpetually experience that kind of anxiety, approaching each new movie with great hope but secretly fearing disappointment. Reading reviews of Public Enemies, I was struck by the fact that most film critics wanted to like this movie – maybe even love it. And certainly, some critics have loved it. Manohla Dargis, for example, writing for The New York Times, declares the film “a grave and beautiful work of art” (“Seduction by Machine Gun”) and The New Yorker’s David Denby describes it as “a ravishing dream of violent gangster life in the thirties” (92). But many of the reviews betray the kind of letdown I felt myself. Roger Ebert writes, “This is a very good film . . . I am trying to understand why it is not quite a great film” (Ebert, “Public Enemies“). Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, states that “the beauty and skill of the filmmaking keep you tightly in its grasp,” though there is not much to “hang onto emotionally” (“Public Enemies: Michael Mann and Johnny Depp Make Art of Dillinger”). Perhaps the most depressing assessment is made by Stephanie Zacharek for salon.com, who argues “Michael Mann is . . . sometimes lauded as great when perhaps he’s really only a smart storyteller with good visual instincts. Then again, in an age when an expensive, miserable mess like . . . Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is viewed by Hollywood as movie gold because of its box office performance, maybe that’s enough. At the very least, Mann’s movies always feel as if they were made by a human being” (Zacharek, “Public Enemies“).

Reviewing the movie for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle addresses this kind of disappointment directly. “If Public Enemies lacks anything,” he writes, “it’s something audiences can’t legitimately expect to find: a certain extra something” (“Depp Is Dead-on as Dillinger”). He praises the acting and the direction, but in comparing this movie to another Hollywood film about Depression-era criminals, he asks, “Remember how Bonnie and Clyde was about Bonnie and Clyde but also seemed, in a haunted way, about America in the 1960s . . . Public Enemies is a movie about Dillinger that, days later, is still a movie about Dillinger.” Bonnie and Clyde is widely understood now as a seminal film of the 1960s, which, perhaps without meaning to, spoke volumes about its own time and place – 1967, with its contradictions and conflicts, and its Hollywood film industry willing to court the youth audience and to embrace graphic violence. Public Enemies also tells us about its time and place, and about Hollywood now. Bonnie and Clyde could not be made today; the culture, and the films we see, are increasingly risk-averse and empty. Right now, a movie such as Public Enemies hasn’t the nerve to do something new with the crime film genre. The terrific costumes, the roar of tommy guns, and the allure of hi-def video technology can’t obscure the fact that the movie is ultimately unwilling to challenge its actors and its audience.

Many reviewers have pointed out Public Enemies’ erratic approach to historical facts. The film begins, for example, with a major revision of an actual September 1933 Indiana State Penitentiary breakout. In the movie, Dillinger is on the spot as the ringleader who has the nerve to walk back into the prison “acting” like a new inmate in order to get to the guys he is determined to spring. Although Dillinger was, in fact, responsible for having guns smuggled into the State Pen for his buddies to use in their escape, he was actually in custody at the time in the County Jail in Lima, Ohio. Ironically, the guys he had helped free had to take a significant chance themselves by going to Lima to free him, and did bad job of it, killing the local sheriff in the process.

There are many other distortions and omissions. But the individual facts are not the issue. As Stephen Hunter in The Washington Post points out, “truth is a lousy storyteller, especially when it comes to crime” (“A Hollywood Rarity”). In many cases, the most factually incorrect depictions of the past are the most truthful. It’s not the dates and places, but the overall interpretation of Dillinger as a character that causes this movie to miss its mark. In giving us a Dillinger who is explicable, even boring, and whose motivation is, after all, love for his girlfriend Billie Frechette, the movie flattens out the character of John Dillinger in order to make him more palatable to the audience.

Most of the reviews of Public Enemies praise the performances, but in many ways casting handicaps the film. Christian Bale – has his facial expression changed once since American Psycho? – is miscast as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, and the movie does nothing to explore the psychological toll the pressures to bring in John Dillinger and to please J. Edgar Hoover must have taken on him. Those pressures were more complex than the movie even hints at, since accomplishing the first – bringing Dillinger in – did not necessarily result in the second – pleasing Hoover. Hoover eventually became so jealous of Purvis’ notoriety that he hounded him out of the FBI. Bryan Burrough, whose nonfiction book Public Enemies is the source material for the film, summarizes Purvis’ post-FBI life this way: “Purvis faded from public view. He served as a colonel in World War II . . . ran a radio station. Hoover . . . did everything possible to destroy his onetime protégé’s legacy” (546). The filmmakers choose not to tell that story, and I don’t fault them for that; but it seems sloppy and distracting to spend precious screen time on Purvis (and all those close-ups!) and not hint at what might have led to that final caption onscreen, which tells us that he “died by his own hand in 1960.”

The film is crowded with FBI agents all wearing what appear to be the same suit and hat. The primary reason Purvis stands out in the crowd of law enforcement officers is that he is not overtly evil. This is one of the screenwriters’ safest choices, portraying almost all FBI agents and police officers as not only inept but brutal. Certainly “inept” is a fair description, since the missteps by both FBI agents and local police officers were in truth astonishing. Stakeouts turned into full-blown shoot-outs, Thompson machine guns blasting away. Innocent bystanders were killed on several occasions, and, of course, there were the famous jailbreaks, including the Crown Point Jail escape in which Dillinger got away in the Sheriff’s own car. But the movie isn’t satisfied with chronicling the blunders of law enforcement; FBI agents are shown torturing a Dillinger compatriot who, having been shot in the head, is begging desperately for pain medication as he dies. Later, when Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frechette is being interrogated, she is humiliated and beaten by FBI agents. In this film, law enforcement is not only clumsy but vicious and violent, whereas Dillinger is cool and controlled, and he’s not such a bad guy; he roughs up some people during robberies but is always polite to women, gives his overcoat to a female hostage, sings “Git Along Little Doggie” as he drives away from a bank robbery turned shoot-out. He never, as far as we know, kills anyone.

This makes the casting of Johnny Depp frustrating, because he doesn’t get to do much with his character. As it turns out, he is not that dangerous – the FBI agents flailing about in the woods at Little Bohemia seem far more likely to kill innocent civilians than Dillinger does. After all, he is loyal to a fault, risking his life for friends like those he springs from the State Pen; a sensitive sort, he broods on several occasions when he watches friends die. He promises that he will always “take care of” Billie, the girl he picks up in Chicago, and that he plans to be with her for life, to “die an old man, in your arms.” Not only does the movie expect us to believe that Billie believes him; it expects us to believe him too.

I have no doubt that Dillinger said things like that to Frechette – but I’ll bet he also said them to Beryl Hovious (the woman he married at the age of 20, before his first prison stretch), and to Mary Longnacre (his girlfriend before Frechette) , and to Polly Hamilton, his girlfriend two months after Frechette had been picked up by the FBI. But the film portrays this romance with no irony, and without even the kinky thrill of some of the early 1930s films, in which women were actually turned on by the violence of their men, in which Cagney shoved a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in Public Enemy or wealthy Norma Shearer reveled in slumming with gangster Clark Gable in A Free Soul. This film doesn’t dare to make Dillinger’s violent outbursts glamorous and exciting – there are no women in this film like Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932) being slapped by her man and saying, “I like it. Do it again” before grabbing and kissing him. On the contrary, this is a typical Hollywood love affair as evidenced by the typical sex-scene montage and the typical post-coital conversation in which Frechette tells Dillinger that she has always been looking for excitement. Investing so much screen time in this romance, the filmmakers rationalize Dillinger and tame him – he’s a violent man, but never with Billie. He has no respect for the law, but he has respect for her.

The screenwriters make Billie, and Dillinger’s relationship with her, the center of the film. But in Dillinger’s world, there was no center. There was no stability; there was no safe house. The closest he came to a home was the farm he grew up on, and he did return to it several times in 1933 and 1934, to see his father and other relatives. But the visits home were rare, and criminals like Dillinger spent much of their time driving from state to state, pulling a bank job and then returning to one hideout or another, most of their money being handed out to keep people quiet. One of the few constants in that world was its itinerant nature.

Even the notion of a “gang” was significantly different from what the movies (including Public Enemies) tend to show us. What is depicted as the Dillinger “gang” was really a loose network of independent entrepreneurs. Bandits like Dillinger shopped around for the best available talent, and who they worked with depended on the job at hand. The movie does allude to this as we see Dillinger reluctantly agree to work with “Baby Face” Nelson because there are precious few bank robbers available at the moment, and in the fact that Alvin Karpis, most closely associated with the “Barker gang,” approaches Dillinger on two occasions to try to recruit him for a kidnapping and for a train job. (Dillinger turns down the kidnapping opportunities – that’s not his area of expertise – but by the end of the film he is looking forward to the train robbery.) Certainly Dillinger and other 1930s criminals would break each other out of jail on occasion; they owed each other favors and wanted the best “sub-contractors” they could get. But sometimes a guy was too hot to try to break out, and if someone you knew died, you didn’t spend time mourning.

The world Dillinger moved in was filled with people who had their hands out for cash, and it was sordid and it was dirty. The film makes a half-hearted effort to convey the chaos of the outlaw life: Having convinced Billie that she’ll never have to be a coat-check girl again if she comes with him, Dillinger takes her to his latest “home,” and she comments on how nice the hotel room is. She asks how long he’s stayed there, and he answers, “For a long time. Since yesterday.” He talks of always looking toward the future, going on a great “ride,” asking her if she’ll take that ride with him, to which she says yes. But in truth, the great ride consisted of cheap boarding houses, brothels, and the back rooms of saloons. In March 1934 alone, Dillinger was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Shiller Park, Illinois, Mason City, Iowa, and St. Paul, Minnesota. In the book on which Public Enemies is based, Bryan Burrough paints a grim picture of endless and tedious card games, of constant worrying about gang members who drank too much or prostitutes who might inform, and of men so desperate that they shaved off the skin on their fingertips with razor blades in an effort to eliminate fingerprints. There is no inkling of that world in this movie, in which even the bloodiest bank robber wears a brand new fedora and an overcoat seemingly designed by someone who worked on The Matrix.

The romance with Billie and the scenes in which Dillinger mournfully watches his colleagues bleed to death serve to redeem Dillinger for the viewer. The glorification of the romance leads us to the final scenes of the movie, the most false part of the film. The decision to privilege the Dillinger-Frechette romance forces the filmmakers to wedge in an inexplicable appearance by Leelee Sobieski as Polly Hamilton, Dillinger’s last girlfriend. We see her fleetingly in the final scenes, including the FBI ambush of Dillinger in front of the Biograph Theatre. But no one explains who she is. She and Dillinger have no physical contact, and since he calls every woman he meets “honey” or “doll,” the way he speaks to her gives us no clue that this is his new girlfriend. In truth, Dillinger had moved on from Billie, who had already been convicted of harboring Dillinger and sentenced to two years in prison. In this movie, he is still thinking of her and even asks one of his assassins, with his dying breath, to give her a message for him.

Just before he was killed outside the Biograph, Dillinger spent the evening watching a crime film, Manhattan Melodrama. No one could have concocted such irony! And Public Enemies makes use of this scene – Dillinger in the movie theatre, watching Gable walk toward the electric chair, telling a fellow death-row inmate, “Die the way you lived. Don’t drag it out.” It looks beautiful. In a movie that really doesn’t take advantage of the visual possibilities of the crime film genre, this moment does stand out. With a wry smile, Dillinger watches Gable walk nobly toward death, having rejected the last-minute commutation his pal William Powell has offered. He embraces death. In the way that Mann and his editors intercut Gable with Depp, we are meant to see Dillinger doing the same thing. We are meant to believe that he knows he will die – as many of his colleagues have. He has, in fact, already courted death by deliberately strolling through the Chicago Police Department’s Dillinger Division, gazing silently at mug shots of Homer Van Meter and “Baby Face” Nelson, among others, the word “Deceased” stamped across them.

Mick LaSalle makes the case that at this point the film achieves “poetry” (“Depp Is Dead-On as Dillinger”). And yet, as I said, this scene feels like the most false moment of the film and its great error in portraying Dillinger. In truth, Dillinger had recently undergone plastic surgery to alter his face and to try to remove his fingerprints. But Public Enemies does not dare to depict that kind of desperation and that determination to survive under any circumstances. Mess with Johnny Depp’s face? I haven’t heard or read anyone involved with the film discussing this decision. I like to think that Depp would have wanted to try some make-up experiments for this but that cooler heads (perhaps those investing in the film) prevailed. I wonder if the filmmakers were afraid the audience would laugh or that critics would become obsessed with the make-up.

Instead, Depp remains recognizable and has never looked better, and Dillinger is offered an opportunity in this Biograph scene to be redeemed by accepting death. For LaSalle, this works: Dillinger comes to terms with his own mortality – may even welcome it. But as I see Dillinger, he believed he would make it home that night alive, just as he had many other nights, slipping away from the law into the general population of Chicago, believing that his primitive plastic surgery rendered him relatively safe from the law. In trying to see ahead, Dillinger apparently sometimes talked of leaving the country, maybe heading to South America; most of the bandit criminals of the 1930s entertained the idea. But in the final analysis, would Dillinger have gone after all? In the film, he and Karpis talk about going “farther than Cuba” after the train job. He mentions, “Maybe Caracas.” Karpis, who was captured in 1936 and served decades-long stints in federal prisons (among them both Leavenworth and Alcatraz), eventually did leave the U.S., spending his last years in Spain. But Dillinger? I find it hard to believe he had even heard of Caracas, no less that he could imagine himself there. It seems just another pleasant dream, like the one of him living to old age and dying in Billie’s arms.

It’s ironic that Public Enemies draws such an insistent comparison between Gable and Depp. It seems obvious: glamorous, good-looking movie stars, smooth, funny, the perfect romantic lead. That’s how Depp plays the role, and he’s beautiful in the part; the clothes look as good on him as they did on Gable. But in truth Dillinger had more in common with the kinds of criminals James Cagney played in the 1930s and Humphrey Bogart in the 1940s. Neither of them had the opportunity to play Dillinger, since Hollywood filmmakers had been explicitly directed by Will Hays, who monitored controversial film content for the studios, that “No picture based on the life or exploits of John Dillinger will be produced, distributed or exhibited by any member company of the [MPPDA].” (Munby 152). Certainly, Bogart ‘s performance as Roy “Mad Dog” Earle in High Sierra is an oblique version of Dillinger, and Bogart gives it his best – but he is hampered by a romantic subplot featuring a handicapped girl whom Earle falls for, the kind of narrative contortion required to prevent Hays from making a positive ID of the character as Dillinger. And of course, Earle ends up on a mountain, seeking redemption in the great outdoors, whereas Dillinger preferred the city, where he could bribe his way from hotel room to hotel room, and it was in a Chicago alley that he died.

And so for me and for many reviewers, Public Enemies is not the movie of our dreams. The great John Dillinger film has yet to be made. That wouldn’t be so disappointing except that this was such a good opportunity. I think many of the critics reviewing this film feel that too. How often will we get an actor of the caliber of Johnny Depp who, despite his penchant for exaggerated costumes and make-up, truly can act with his eyes and with his body language – like De Niro, like Montgomery Clift? How many more chances will we have to shoot in actual locations, now that CGI has become the primary tool for most of Hollywood? I hate to believe that Mick LaSalle is right in saying that we can no longer “legitimately expect to find” that “certain extra something” in the movies. If he’s right, we’ve missed our best chance.

Works Cited

Burrough, Bryan. Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Dargis, Manohla. “Seduction by Machine Gun.” The New York Times online, 1 July 2009. Web. 8 July 2009.

Denby, David. “Tommy Guns and Toys.” The New Yorker, 6 & 13 July, 2009. 92-93.

Ebert, Roger. “Public Enemies.” Chicago Sun-Times, 29 June, 2009. Web 8 July 2009.

Hunter, Stephen. “A Hollywood Rarity: Banking on Dillinger.” The Washington Post online, 5 July, 2009. Web. 11 July 2009.

LaSalle, Mick. “Depp Is Dead-On as Dillinger.” San Francisco Chronicle online, 1 July 2009. Web 7 August 2009.

Munby, Jonathan. Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Turan, Kenneth. “Public Enemies: Michael Mann and Johnny Depp Make Art of Dillinger.” Los Angeles Times, 1 July 2009. Web. 8 July 2009.

Zacharek, Stephanie. “Public Enemies.” Salon.com 1 July, 2009. Web. 8 July 2009.