Saturday, May 9, 2015


Watching PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009) made me think about how different present day America is from the America of the 1930s, and how much it is the same. Depression-era America was a time of great suffering, of the rise of unions, of radical politics, of the centralization of government (including the creation of “federal” crimes and the establishment and growth of the FBI), of radio, of the movies, of FDR. Some of the powers that be tried to demonize immigrants as the cause of our economic malaise (sound familiar?), while others placed the blame on corporate greed. Some of those powers wrapped themselves in the flag even while they violated the values it symbolizes, and regularly claimed to have corresponded with God, who informed them that the ruin of America was found in all those Southern and Eastern European Catholic immigrants who were attacking both the American standard of living and American standards of morality. On the other side were the muckrakers and the reformers, and all those who made an effort to put people back to work.

Present day Recession-era America (now that we are in the age of advertising, of mass media, of euphemism and spin, the word Depression will never be used again, even if fully half the population were to become unemployed) is also subject to divisive and divided politics, and we even have the equivalent of Father Coughlin in Rush Limbaugh. Unions are now in eclipse, and people are told that good old American individualism is the path to financial success (even as the encroachments of both the government and big business make such success increasingly unlikely for the common man).

Seeing these parallels made me wonder why we don’t have the equivalents of a Jesse James or John Dillinger, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, in modern day America. Where is our modern, our postmodern, Robin Hood? Why are there no such heroes today, no pirates, no bank robbers, no nothing? Maybe part of it is because it is now so much harder to rob banks. Surely if they were easier to rob the media would go nuts over the men who robbed them. They would become the kind of perversely inverted heroes the media loves to flog us with, such as O.J. Simpson and the BTK killer. And if a nationally known criminal managed to escape from jail, like Dillinger did twice in his short life (33 when he died), I imagine you might hear a little bit about it on the news. I guess we do have D.B. Cooper, who in 1971 parachuted out of a 727 he hijacked with $200,000 he had extorted and was never seen or heard from again, but that is about it. We also have computer hackers, but cyber-crime is too bloodless to be really compelling.

I am putting aside for the purposes of this essay the question of whether Dillinger did or did not really have sympathy for the common man, had some compassion for some of his fellow men or was just a common psychopath. In the movie he steals from banks, but claims to have never done so from the people themselves. He is beset on both sides by a corporatizing mob, which has become “The Syndicate,” and the incipient FBI, which performs phone taps and pursues him across state lines. I don’t know if the real Dillinger was so much a man against the machine, of if he had such scruples about when and where to be larcenous and to practice brutality: It’s the idea of the outlaw hero, the man outside the law who is more just than those who are function inside it, and the conditions that spawned a public need for such a hero, that are interesting.

Dillinger refuses to perform kidnappings in the movie (and was never charged with kidnapping in real life), and sees his lot in life as part of an “us” that consisted of the have-nots in a fight against the haves, whose representatives were cops, prison guards, bankers and politicians. The Dillinger in “Public Enemies” (played by Johnny Depp) tells the press that he had gotten ten years for stealing $50 and that it was fine with him, because he met a lot of great guys in prison. He is loyal to his “men’” even when it means risking his own life and, unlike Baby Face Nelson (played wonderfully by Stephen Graham, who soon after became Al Capone in BOARDWALK EMPIRE) , he never kills just for the hell of it (again in real life, Dillinger was only ever charged with one homicide, in spite of robbing twenty four banks and four police stations, which are apparently a good place to stock up on weapons).

Maybe our heroes can be found in stories like those told in THE GODFATHER or THE SOPRANOS, but those crooks are mobbed up, literally part of a mob, and are organized in a way that Dillinger never was. Even though he had accomplices, Dillinger was an independent operator. That is part of Depp’s charm in this movie. In an era where the common man was losing his farm to heartless bankers, the same bankers who had blundered with the depositors’ monies so badly that people had lost all their life’s savings, an era in which the government seemed to be in the hands of the same people in charge of the banks and where men who wanted to make an honest living couldn’t, Dillinger was the real American rugged individualist—stronger alone even than the men who gathered together to oppose him.

In the movie, we see Dillinger, charming, ultra-masculine, daring beyond belief, courtly, oddly shy, squared off against Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who runs the manhunt for Dillinger at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover.

Purvis seems almost autistic in his lack of emotion, as tough as Dillinger, perhaps, but without the passion. You could say that it wasn’t Purvis but Dillinger’s passion for Billie Frechette that brought Dillinger down. Purvis knew Frechette was in Chicago and also knew Dillinger could not resist going to her. Still, the Purvis here detailed is frightening. He doesn’t seem to have anything in his life that can make him swerve from the path he is on. Purvis has no loyalty to his men, and no motivation that we can see for what he does beyond the thrill of the hunt. He shoots Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) in an apple orchard, making a stupendous shot from hundreds of yards away, and it seems to be the only time in the movie when he genuinely enjoys doing anything. The movie gives no back-story for Purvis, and this seems right. A man so obsessed with the hunt seems to need to only have been born that way. And we aren’t going to get either guy to go on too much about their childhoods, both being men of action and not words, although Dillinger does take the time and effort to charm his girl.

I couldn’t help but love Dillinger’s character. He is so tough, so unafraid of any man, or anything, including death. He falls in love with Frechette (Marie Cotillard) at first sight, going up to her with his hat in his hand, literally and figuratively, and then telling her that they are meant to be together with such conviction that she looks at him as if she realizes she has no choice but to be with him (not that she minds). And then, making him seem even more lovable, she asks him to dance and he says he doesn’t know how. She takes his hand and teaches him. The scenes with Frechette are great. He tells her she has no reason to feel like she is less than the snooty broads around them when they go to a fancy joint for breakfast, and you can see the pride he takes in himself, refusing to feel like he is somewhat less than anyone for having come up poor. When she tells him she is afraid he will die, he tells her he is tougher and smarter than all the guys after him put together. And you believe him.

The gun fights in the movie are great, and the whole 30s, noir, dustbowl farmer, hobo, fedora, overcoat, running board, floor model radio sensibility is just wonderful, spot on, at least to a person who wasn’t born until 1962.

The way the movie presents it, it is really The Syndicate that dooms Dillinger. And it is a business decision. Public enemies like Dillinger are giving Hoover the leverage he needs for federal laws against all kinds of crimes, and the Syndicate can’t buy people off on a national level (usually, anyway). The Syndicate doesn’t want a federal law enforcement agency that can pursue them across state lines (The FBI, which had its genesis in the 30s). They stop giving Dillinger safe haven, and stop helping him escape. One of the FBI guys is a mole the Syndicate has planted, and it is he who predicts where Dillinger will be (the Biograph Theater in East Chicago) on the night he ends up dead.

It’s a great scene, Dillinger watching a gangster movie with Clark Gable playing the gangster as Dillinger awaits his own fate as a gangster. The movies were a sign that the world was changing, mass culture on the rise, and it is the mass efforts of the Syndicate, FBI, and the local cops that bring Dillinger down.

I couldn’t help but think of Dillinger as a throwback to an earlier time, one who learned armed robbery as a kind of trade, finding in prison a kind of guild hall where you honed your skills. By the time he got out of prison (he served just under ten years, and started his rampage in 1931), Dillinger was in a new world. In those ten years, crime had organized, and was all about prostitution and gambling and loan sharking. He was an old timer at 30, robbing banks, which even then was going out of style. Whatever Dillinger really was, he appeals as a representative of the American ideal of the strong man who can make it on his own, whether he is pitted against the wilderness or the institutions less powerful men create to protect themselves from the strong. I couldn’t help but cheer for him.

© 2015 Mike Welch


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Mike, where are those good thieves now? It's a great question. The biggest thieves today are breaking laws that have not been passed, and given our system, can't be passed. It all brings to mind the words of Woody Guthrie: “Some rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen”, written honor of Pretty Boy Floyd, who robbed banks and helped the poor. Today's thieves are called bankers and hedge fund managers. They rob billions, and when they give away money, rather than giving to people in rags, they give it to gain social status while wearing tuxedos. Tempus fugit.