Posted: 07/05/2009


Public Enemies

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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Was the famous and also infamous John Dillinger a bank robber, lover, fancy dresser, smooth criminal, arrogant outlaw, soft teddy bear, or all these and more? The recently released movie Public Enemies answers the above question—and it seems the villain John Dillinger, played by all encompassing actor Johnny Depp, exhibited all these characteristics and more.

While his main job was robbing banks and breaking out of prison, the movie covers not much of the history of what led him to rob banks, but concentrates more on the Chicago branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s quest to nail Dillinger and stop his bank-robbing frenzy across the Midwest—under the leadership of new FBI head J. Edgar Hoover. But Hoover, played by Billie Crudup, was soon to be outsmarted, and he enlisted the help of G-man Melvin Purvis, played brilliantly and slickly by Christian Bale (of Batman fame).

Dillinger had a soft spot for his lady, Billie Frechette, played by Marion Cotillard, as he met her at a restaurant and discovered through initial conversation that she had led a lonely life, much the same as he had. They both seemed to have scratched their way to some semblance of a life, and Dillinger courted Billie and essentially rescued her from her job as a coat check girl. This happened pretty fast, and Billie had no choice but to go along and be dragged into a life of crime—a life that brought her steady meals, fancy clothes and a fur coat to boot!

The movie is set four years after the Great Depression in 1933, and the city and the nation have grown irritated with Dillinger’s wild abandon. But while he irritated law enforcement officials, Dillinger drew the common man to admire him and his unlawful deeds. Hoover had deemed him “America’s first Public Enemy No. 1” and was hell bent on bringing him to justice.

The movie is chock full of rapid machine-gun firepower, real life Chicago locations, and many cuts by the late Jazz great Billie Holiday. Public Enemies shows Dillinger as a charismatic, sharp-dressing bank robber, who you would have guessed went to school to learn how to hone his craft. Dillinger is slick and successful in robbing banks and breaking out of prison. But he’s portrayed as attaching himself to a gang that might have been his downfall—that day at the Biograph Theater in Chicago when he was gunned down, after watching a gangster flick. The period wardrobe in Public Enemies is so cool, with fedoras, top coats, linen slacks and nice sunshades, it’s easy to see why men and women alike admired Dillinger. The movie also touches on the lives of other period gangsters—Baby Face Nelson, Frank Nitti and Pretty Boy Floyd, among them.
The scenes with the FBI interrogating Billie once she’s captured, while attempting to flee with Dillinger one last time, are disgusting, and she’s only saved when Purvis comes into the police station and saves her face from further abuse.

The cops were almost as clumsy as Dillinger’s gang, as when they arrested Billie, Dillinger was waiting in the car for her, and he easily slipped out of their view.
Dillinger was so bold that at one point he actually went into a Chicago police station, talked to fellows in the office that was specifically dedicated to bringing him in—dead or alive—and the officers there were so engrossed in a baseball game that they didn’t notice that he had walked into the room.

Dillinger and his gang run Purvis and Hoover ragged, until Purvis brings in some fresh G-men out of Texas. It was the expertise and insight that the Texas crew brought into the wild car chases and shootouts that finally bring an end to Dillinger’s rein on July 22, 1934. The infamous “Lady in Red” (Anna Sage), played by Branka Katic, also prominently proves instrumental in helping the FBI capture Dillinger—but even then his heart seems to bleed for Billie, as his life finally oozes away from him, as he lies dying on the hot concrete on a North Side street. But in the end after nearly two and one-half hours, you leave the theater thinking that Public Enemies was more about showcasing the tenacity and doggedness of the FBI, Hoover and Purvis, as opposed to telling a more comprehensive Dillinger life story.


Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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