John Dillinger's life was written in gunfire and teletype—a rat-a-tat tapestry of mayhem that cowed and captivated a nation.
Blam! Dillinger breaks buddies out of prison! Crack! Dillinger robs bank! Kapow! Dillinger captured! Bang! Dillinger escapes using wooden gun!
His life was too outlandish to make up, too colorful to fully believe. Branded Public Enemy No. 1 by the FBI, this real-life bank robber understood the value of good public relations, and he helped craft his own story. Now, he's a stew of headlines and police blotter entries augmented with hearsay and legend, shaping him as both a vile villain and an antihero Robin Hood.
Public Enemies, the latest film to center around Dillinger, doesn't try to separate reality from fiction, but instead adds a new layer of myth and mystique—pushing enigmatic charmer Johnny Depp into the shoes of one of America's most storied bad guys.
"Oddly," Depp told USA Today, "I'm a big fan."
Public Enemies opens with an audacious assault on Indiana State Prison, where Dillinger cracks out some friends who'd become part of his gang. It ends with his death, when FBI agents gun him down at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. In between we see Dillinger rob banks, shoot guns, fall in love and tangle with Melvin Purvis—the FBI agent who would eventually mastermind his downfall.
Melvin Purvis is a crease-mouthed law enforcer who does his job with grim efficiency. When we see Purvis shoot and kill a gangster, he appears genuinely chagrined that he was forced to do so. And, when one of his officers gets overenthusiastic with his interrogation of a female prisoner, Purvis puts a stop to it.
For his part, Dillinger is gallant—giving up his coat to girlfriends and hostages alike when there's a chill in the air. He's loyal—patching up partners and taking care of his girlfriend when the "smart" thing to do would be to cut and run. He even leaves a depositor's money on the counter as he takes bags and bags of cash out of a bank. "We're not here for your money," he tells the guy. "We're here for the bank's money."
Of course, all of these good qualities are draped from the shoulders of a really bad dude. More on that later.
Dillinger takes a shine to Billie Frechette, a poor coat-check girl who moved to the big city for a little adventure. The two of them become an item and engage in passionate sexual relations. (Billie's wearing a longish, clingy nightgown.) We also see her, apparently nude, lying in a bathtub: We see a blink-quick glimpse of one of her breasts in the scene. We watch as she stretches one of her legs out of the water provocatively. She invites Dillinger to join her—which he would've, had the police not barged in.
Dillinger has created a nickname for a critical body part, and he visits a whorehouse led by a Romanian madam. Several women float across the screen wearing provocative gowns or, less commonly, underwear. One Dillinger cohort ushers two half-dressed females into what may be his bedroom.
In old gangster films, action was often bloodless—good guys and bad guys crumpling to the ground in antiseptic death. Recent films have given us more spatter, more splash—even grotesque fireworks of blood that bloom in deadly patterns.
But in Public Enemies, the blood trickles, like a faucet left running. It oozes out of stomach wounds, runs in rivulets down faces from bullet holes both visible and visceral. Here, though death begins with a bang, it doesn't end with one: It oozes away, ounce by ounce, quiet and cold.
"They look at you right before they go," Dillinger tells Purvis. "Then they just sort of drift away in the night."
We watch several characters bleed to death, drifting away as blood runs over their faces and pools beneath them, sometimes as they still gasp for life.
FBI head J. Edgar Hoover tells Purvis to resort to anything to capture Dillinger: Suspects are to be "interrogated vigorously," and some indeed are. One former gang member is questioned while suffering from a bullet wound to the back of his head. He's in excruciating pain, which naturally gets worse when interrogators press down on the fellow's face. After much screaming and sobbing, he eventually tells the FBI what it wants to know. An interrogation scene with Dillinger's girlfriend is even more wrenching. A massive lump of a man slaps Billie across the face several times, leaving it bruised and bloodied. And, when the information she eventually gives him turns out to be wrong, he comes back and takes a bigger whack at her head.
Countless gangsters, cops, prison guards and civilians are gunned down in harrowing, frenetic and loud firefights. One guard is apparently beaten to death. Dillinger punches a would-be partner several times before throwing him out of a moving car. Prison breaks involve lots of fisticuffs and many threats. Dillinger thwacks a bank manager with a gun butt. In an old film clip, we see Clark Gable shoot somebody.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. Two s-words. A smattering of milder profanities includes "b--ch," "b--tard" and "h---." God's name is abused 10 or 12 times—half of the time in combination with "d--n." Jesus' name is also misused.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dillinger and several other characters are seen smoking cigarettes and drinking wine, whiskey and unnamed beverages from a flask. Dillinger names whiskey as one of his favorite things, and he asks Billie if he can buy her a drink. She acquiesces. Purvis lights a cigar as a sign to take down Dillinger.
Other Negative Elements
In an effort to capture the supposed ethos of the culture that surrounded John Dillinger, Public Enemies romanticizes a thief and a killer. Never mind that in real life he killed 10 men and wounded seven others. In Public Enemies, Dillinger—with his Depp-imbued swagger and charisma—comes across as a pretty nice guy. The film suggests he doesn't want to kill anyone, shooting only when things get perilously out of hand.
Strapped down during her interrogation, Billie is not allowed to go to the bathroom, and she ends up wetting herself.
In the "no duh" category, Dillinger and his men steal money, guns and cars—including the sheriff's own set of wheels—and use duplicitous means to escape the long arm of the law (or sometimes just to impress the ladies). Dillinger bribes local law enforcement. And gambling gets some screen time.
America loves its bad guys.
Even people who've never run a red light or taken 10 items into the "8 Items or Less" checkout lane are still fascinated with stories about Blackbeard, Butch Cassidy and John Dillinger. We love the rebel, the guy who fights The Man, and we're even willing to forgive those who break the law—as long as they do so with a tinge of morality and loads of charisma.
Dillinger is portrayed in Public Enemies, at times, as a folk hero. And back then, he sort of was one. Even the FBI's own website admits as much.
"During the 1930s Depression, many Americans, nearly helpless against forces they didn't understand, made heroes of outlaws who took what they wanted at gunpoint," the site reads. "Of all the lurid desperadoes, one man, John Herbert Dillinger, came to evoke this Gangster Era, and stirred mass emotion to a degree rarely seen in this country."
I don't know what this villain affection really says about us, frankly. Maybe we, feeling helpless inside The System, sometimes like to see people break things wide open. Maybe it speaks to something darker in our souls—an outlet for our own rebellious desires. Maybe it's just because the bad guys always seem to be having more fun in the movies.
Whatever the reason, though, I think there's a particular danger in looking up to this particular bad guy. Public Enemies' John Dillinger doesn't just tap into our American sense of villain envy. He encourages a sin even more quintessentially American: greed.
"What do you want?" Billie asks Dillinger.
"Everything," he responds. "Right now."
In the middle of the Great Depression, such bravado represented the height of audacity. But in the decades since Dillinger, many Americans internalized this very message—leading to things like easy credit, subprime loans and the CW's Gossip Girl. We want everything. And we want it right now.
Like Dillinger, we're paying for our materialism.
But to hear an onscreen Dillinger offer up this philosophy again—a Dillinger we're encouraged, in many ways, to embrace as a stylish antihero—is a little troubling.
"It's like today, there's a recession and like now, people back then felt there was this great sense of injustice and that these fat cats were just screwing them over," Christian Bale told USA Today. "And Dillinger was somebody taking it back. It's like Dillinger was the right man at the right time and he seemed almost to have a cause."
Dillinger did indeed become a populist hero for some back then. But he was no Robin Hood, handing money to the needy and trumpeting the needs of the common man. In the film, he thinks himself an uncommonly bright man, and he spends his wealth the way any "fat cat" might—on furs, trips, women and wine.
Dillinger wasn't fighting an economic downturn. He emulated the thinking that got us there in the first place. More importantly, and more obviously, he was a liar, bank robber and killer. Those are important things to keep in mind as we sort out who our real public enemies actually are.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger; Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis; Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette; Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover
Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Collateral, Ali, The Insider, Heat, The Last of the Mohicans)
July 1, 2009
Paul Asay Paul Asay