Hollywood makes myths and always has, and I guess that’s as it should be. Moviegoers want to be entertained, after all, so moviemakers have long burnished history to make it more entertaining. From “Birth of a Nation” all the way up to “Mississippi Burning,” “The Untouchables” and the little-remembered CIA-in-Laos film “Air America,” the facts of American history have marched off to battle with Hollywood myth and, sadly, at least for me, lost almost every time.
Only the stodgiest Ivy League historian will step forward these days to argue that there was really no smooth-talking Mr. Anderson who outfoxed the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s. But there is something to be said for trying to give audiences some sense where the lines between history and myth are drawn. This year’s big July 4 movie, “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard, is just the latest film that will probably raise such questions.
The movie, directed by Michael Mann, maker of such memorable films as “Heat,” “Collateral” and “Last of the Mohicans,” is based on a book I wrote several years back; the movie, however, is all Mann’s. While the book tells the intertwined stories of all the major Depression-era bank robbery gangs -- those of Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly and Pretty Boy Floyd, among others -- Mann has chosen to focus on the most successful of this group, Indiana-born John Dillinger, whose crime spree during 1933 and 1934 held not just the nation but much of the Western world in thrall. Depp plays Dillinger and Bale his nemesis, the FBI agent who zealously pursued him, Melvin Purvis.
Though during his life his notoriety dwarfed that of lesser peers such as Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger’s fame has dimmed over the last 75 years, in part, I suspect, because he never earned a memorable nickname or spawned an Academy Award-winning movie.
Born in 1903, Dillinger was the classic nobody from nowhere, a terrible student with an abusive father who found himself at loose ends in his early 20s. He tried the Navy but went AWOL, then marriage, which didn’t take. He was bumming around his hometown outside Indianapolis one fateful night in 1924 when a character from the local pool hall lured him into the drunken mugging of their grocer. A judge threw the book at poor Dillinger, who ended up doing nine years of hard prison time, mostly at the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City.
There he fell in with a group of hardened bank robbers, who before his parole in May 1933 taught him how to rob a bank, gave him a list of targets and begged him to use the proceeds to break them out. Which he did, smuggling guns into the prison that enabled his pals to bust out the following September. For the next 10 months Dillinger and his new gang, later to include figures such as Baby Face Nelson, embarked on a series of criminal adventures that, in terms of their sheer outrageousness, have seldom been matched.
He was arrested twice, then staged two spectacular escapes, followed by two shootouts with the nascent FBI, including what remains the most dramatic gunfight in the Bureau’s history, the infamous battle at Little Bohemia, where Dillinger managed to escape despite being encircled by two dozen FBI men at a remote pine-shrouded lodge in far northern Wisconsin.
Star of the newsreels
What elevated Dillinger above the ranks of ordinary bank robbers was not just his derring-do but the way regular Americans cheered him on. This, after all, was the nadir of the Depression, a time when millions of people were angry at the banks and moneyed interests they felt had robbed them of their jobs and homes. In Dillinger many Midwesterners saw a charming, aw-shucks farm boy who was doing what they couldn’t -- retaliating against the banks, a sentiment that more than a few Americans might share in today’s scandal-plagued recession. A poll of moviegoers found Dillinger was drawing the most applause of any major American shown in newsreels, rivaling President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh.
“Public Enemies” marks at least the fourth time Dillinger’s story has been told in a film, beginning with Lawrence Tierney’s portrayal in 1945’s “Dillinger.” The most memorable portrayal was probably the great Warren Oates’ version in John Milius’ 1973 film “Dillinger,” though I’m told Mark Harmon also played the gangster at some point in recent years. I missed that one.
The Milius-Oates Dillinger was the highlight of a string of Depression-era crime films spawned by the success of 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” the movie that persuaded Americans that Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, a pair of white-trash spree killers from the slums of Dallas, were actually glamorous, caring, misunderstood young rebels. Granted, a great film, directed by Arthur Penn, but the real Bonnie and Clyde were nothing like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. They were just two stupid Texas kids who drove around the Midwest for three years, robbing things when they ran out of money and murdering anyone who tried to stop them; even their peers looked down upon them.
Bonnie and Clyde weren’t even especially well known outside Texas. The only time they ever made the front page of the New York Times was the day after they died.
When recast as beautiful hippie-era rebels, however, Bonnie and Clyde were transformed into unforgettable movie characters, so much so that after “Bonnie and Clyde” just about every Depression-era crook got a film, even the little-known Alvin Karpis of the Barker gang. I dimly remember a forlorn Martin Sheen in 1974’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.”
The most vivid, and wrongheaded, of these films may have been Roger Corman’s 1970 “Bloody Mama,” which featured Shelley Winters as the grandmotherly Ma Barker, the supposed brains of the Barker-Karpis gang. (Yes, that was a very young Robert De Niro playing one of her sons.)
Newly released FBI files show conclusively that Ma Barker was never even a criminal, much less a mastermind. A lonely old hillbilly woman who knew of her sons’ crimes but spent much of her time doing jigsaw puzzles, her posthumous notoriety was concocted by J. Edgar Hoover, whose men inadvertently killed her in a gunfight with her son Fred. Rather than explain this, Hoover portrayed Ma as an evil genius who was symptomatic of everything he believed was wrong with the American family. She has gone down in American lore as just that, spawning characters and references in everything from Dick Tracy comic strips (“Maw Famon”) to the “Batman” television series (“Ma Parker”) to “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” Her name has even escaped the lips of Homer Simpson.
Movies about the Depression-era marauders have been made since the 1970s, though none are especially memorable. Ma Barker was portrayed by Theresa Russell, of all people, in a forgettable 1996 movie. Even the psychopathic Baby Face Nelson got his own movie a few years back; he was played, unfortunately, by C. Thomas Howell, an actor who was about as frightening as Count Chocula. A far better Nelson, played by Richard Dreyfuss, stood alongside Warren Oates’ Dillinger. Nelson was a chattering bore, and Dreyfuss nailed him as such.
Oates, alas, was far too tough, not to mention too old, to play his role. He played a mean Dillinger, a Cagney-like tough who punched out his girlfriend, Billie Frechette, who was portrayed as a kind of Depression-era Malibu Barbie by the pop singer Michelle Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas. (Every time poor Phillips cast her gaze around a smoky barroom, you thought she was looking for the beach.) The real Dillinger, unlike Nelson or Clyde Barrow, was never the indiscriminate killer Oates seemed to be. He shot and killed exactly one man, a detective who fired on him outside a bank in East Chicago.
There are those, I wager, who will say Johnny Depp is too polite or too smooth to portray Dillinger. In fact, those were the very qualities that made the real Dillinger so appealing. It would be self-serving of me to say that this new “Public Enemies” brings the most historically accurate Dillinger -- I’ve seen the film, and it’s true -- but Michael Mann impressed me as a real stickler for historical accuracy. Yes, there is fictionalization in this movie, including some to the timeline, but that’s Hollywood; if it was 100% accurate, you would call it a documentary.
This is the first Dillinger and the first gangster movie I’m aware of that takes great pains to get not only the details but the sites right. Mann not only shot at the actual scene of Dillinger’s greatest jailbreak, the lockup in Crown Point, Ind., but at the actual scene of his greatest shootout, at the Little Bohemia lodge. Somehow he prevailed upon Chicago to hand over six entire blocks of North Lincoln Avenue, where Dillinger memorably met his fate outside the Biograph Theater one hot night in July 1934.
I was an extra in that scene, dressed in period costume as one of the reporters rushing toward Dillinger-Depp as he was shot. It was a genuinely eerie experience. Up and down the street, storefronts had been transformed to appear exactly as they had that night 75 years before. Even the Biograph’s marquee had been reproduced in detail. Yes, I know it’s just a movie, and I know most in the audience won’t especially care that the details are historically accurate, but I can vividly remember looking around and smiling nevertheless, happy that, in this one small case at least, Hollywood was getting it right.