Print the Legend

07/01/2009 4:00 AM |

Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, whose movie versions created and secured the legend more than anything they did in life, John Dillinger’s was already cinched during his lifetime by yellow journalists and his own undeniable flair. A scheming, Machiavellian kidnapper and mastermind like Alvin Karpis shunned the spotlight, while Dillinger luxuriated in it, because John loved the appeal of a great character. A movie lover himself, he lived as if film was rolling, shrewdly authoring his own life before the movies ever got around to coauthoring it. As each subsequent generation produces its own onscreen Dillinger, adjusting for style and cultural climate, the “truth” of the man grows fainter, and more irrelevant.

In the new Public Enemies, Johnny Depp has resurrected him, and as in all of Dillinger’s movie characterizations, the most interesting problem faced by filmmakers and actor is how to bridge the man/myth gap. Mann’s brutal digital intimacy skirts psychoanalysis, and Depp’s businesslike glumness (recalling his Donnie Brasco) follows suit. It’s often a Dillinger desaturated of both color and emotion, as if they’re manipulating him to fit the current taste for dark knights.

But a clash between extreme realism and rich sentimentality gives Public Enemies the conflict that makes it hum. In some respects, it downplays the Dillinger legend. His famous prison escape with a wooden gun, bolded for comic effect in previous films, is minor here; blink and you’ll miss the dummy pistol. The love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), the details of which are largely conjecture, is banked upon lavishly. Depp and Mann have given us a sober and factual criminal Dillinger, but have done their own mythmaking by proposing the florid romantic lover. He even cries.

In Dillinger (1945), Lawrence Tierney was the first to step into Snake Eyes’ shoes, and his smile-free bluntness predicts Depp’s (but there is no great romance from Tierney). His Dillinger is insecure and driven by revenge, and at times frighteningly cold. He goes to elaborate pains to stab a waiter who once called him a “two-bit chiseler” in front of his girl. He’s well-mannered (“Stand up when you meet a lady”) and sensitive, and the movie hits the fabled bullet points, but Tierney has drastically dialed down the personality of the life-loving bandit known from tabloid headlines. Max Nosseck’s film wags an obligatory Hays Code finger at the Dillinger myth while providing vicarious thrills with its low-rent violence. A “story written in blood, bullets, and blondes!” said the tagline, and Dillinger’s a decided cheapie with small ambitions. This surprised a young John Milius, the writer/director who does the commentary track for the 1945 film’s DVD. He thought a criminal of Dillinger’s stature deserved the A, not C, treatment. So he made his own version.

Milius’s 1973 film shares the same one-name title, but it’s a louder, lustier affair that probably breaks some sort of record for blank rounds expended. Arriving during a peak-point for quality freedom in Hollywood directing, Dillinger allowed the gun-happy Milius (he’s a longtime NRA director) a chance to send a love letter to the heyday of American cops-and-robbers shoot-outs. Preferring the Robin Hood myth, the real Dillinger tended to downplay his violence. This movie revels, generally without censure, in the Peckinpah mode. Amplifying gangster film tropes rather than chucking them, Dillinger doesn’t aspire to the poetic and radical acts of genre revisionism of Badlands or The Long Goodbye, released the same year.

Warren Oates plays John as an imp with the same air of mustachioed sleaze given off by the criminal’s mugshots. It’s great casting. On paper, this Dillinger is the still a principled anti-hero, sparing married guards first and robbing institutions only (never bank patrons), but he’s also Warren Oates — sweaty, a little wormy, but fun to shoot guns with. Perhaps the most interesting quirk of the Milius Dillinger is that Purvis, young and diminutive in the real, is the one canonized. He’s played by Ben Johnson as a bullheaded cigar muncher who slays Dillinger singlehandedly (in fact, three other agents did the firing, and it’s largely agreed that the fatal shots came from Charles Winstead).

Since his accomplices were so varied, Dillinger pops up in satellite movies. Don Siegel’s vicious Baby Face Nelson (1957), starring Mickey Rooney (also inspired casting), features Leo Gordon as a particularly menacing Dillinger. In 1960’s trashy Ma Barker’s Killer Brood, Ma, Fred, and Doc run into John at a party, where he comes off as a slick European celebrity (and compared to the hayseed Barkers, he was a sophisticate). In The FBI Story (1959), a piece of claptrap cornball propaganda that attempts to cover 30 years of Bureau lore, the Dillinger segment skips artlessly to the fatal shooting outside the Biograph Theater. Emphasizing the role of Anna Sage, the Lady in Red (though she actually wore orange), it’s a reminder of how eagerly the FBI fed into the Dillinger myth — bigger villains need a bigger-budgeted opposition.

We know that John Dillinger killed at least one innocent man, and his cohorts several more, but it’s too late to expect the simple fact to cloud clinging perceptions of him as a gentleman thief in a crisp suit righting society’s wrongs with a Tommy gun. With his partners, Dillinger in 1933-34 burgled hundreds of thousands of dollars from federal banks to the thrill of a Depression-battered populace starving for a hero. Details of his peculiar chivalrousness and his gang’s remarkable prolificacy turned the legend of the smirking, dapper Dillinger into something epically bigger than the actuality of the cop-killing robber. Parties with manifold agendas, from the press and the FBI to Tierney and Mann, have proven the fable frutifully exploitable.