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John Dillinger Goes to the Movies

Elliott J. Gorn is author of Dillinger’s Wild Ride: The Year that Made America’s Public Enemy Number One, is Professor of History and American Studies at Brown University.  John Dillinger, celebrity outlaw extraordinaire has been the subject of many films.  In the article below Gorn explores Dillinger’s film history, including the newly released Public Enemies.   Be sure to check out Gorn’s other OUPblog articles here.

In his new film Public Enemies director Michael Mann has Johnny Depp, who plays John Dillinger, smile as he watches Clark Gable go to the electric chair at the end of Manhattan Melodrama. Depp then walks out of Chicago’s Biograph Theater to his death at the hands of federal agents, just as Dillinger did seventy five years ago today. Art recreates life recreating art.

Dillinger was always big box office. After he died, film more than any other medium kept his memory alive.  Dillinger would have loved it.  He went to movies as often as he dared while he was on the lam.  Toward the end, he even thought about making his own film.  Since then, documentaries, made-for-TV pictures, and several movies have featured the Hoosier outlaw.

At first, though, Dillinger couldn’t catch a break.  The Hays Commission, established in the early 30s to police the film industry, stood guard at theater doors, protecting Americans’ morals.  They called out Dillinger by name: His story was too violent, too sexual, too demoralizing.

Still, it was hard to keep the Dillinger story out of the movies. Max Nosseck’s 1945 Dillinger, was a low-budget picture, starring the relatively unknown Lawrence Tierney.  The Hays Commission looked the other way on this one, even though the movie did very well at the box office, because Tierney depicted Dillinger as so ruthless, so craven that there was no chance anyone might identify with him.

Dillinger confirmed the “official” version of the story that J. Edgar Hoover, the Justice Department, and most newspapers had promulgated for a decade.

Director John Milius’s 1973 Dillinger was neither glamorous nor technically polished.  Rather, it had slightly shabby look, matching the era it depicted.  Melvin Purvis, the man who brought the bandit down—played by a big, rough-looking Ben Johnson—narrates the story.  At first, he seems to be the film’s moral center, but before it is over, the feds look more like executioners than law-enforcement officials, and Dillinger (played by Warren Oates with a wonderful combination of self-doubt and bravado) is the one who upholds older American ideals of honor, loyalty, and rural virtue.

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, released earlier this month, makes Dillinger and Purvis men of action, pure and simple.  We get little sense of their motivations, no character development.  Like an old English ballad the film doesn’t so much tell a story as refer to a known story.  Public Enemies is a great action film, beautifully shot.  But it refuses to take sides, explain what is at stake, or tell us why Dillinger or Purvis are the way they are.  They are simply two men locked in mortal combat.

Mann conceived, wrote and filmed Public Enemies before last fall’s economic meltdown. Financial excess and corporate greed were more on his mind then breadlines and homelessness, which is probably why Public Enemies feels more like a gangster picture than an outlaw film.  The suits, cars, cityscapes, nightclubs, and rich interiors are all gangster movie conventions.  And gangster films are less about renegades pitting their bodies against the system than about outsiders trying to get in.  Like other gangster films, Public Enemies is a parable of corruption, where violence—whether from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, Frank Nitti’s mob, or the Dillinger gang—are the way of the world.  This is allegory—Dillinger, the outsider, the little guy from the provinces—crushed between government and big business.

Which movie gets it right?  The question is a little beside the point.  The Dillinger story has always been about his public persona, and popular media like the movies shaped his legend.  More important than Dillinger’s deeds is how we remember him.

Certainly the 1945 film is the least accurate historically, but Tierney’s ruthlessness echoed J. Edgar Hoover’s conclusion about John Dillinger: “he was just a yellow rat that the country may consider itself fortunate to be rid of.”  Warren Oates’s Dillinger best captured how the outlaw was understood in the 30s.   By keeping the Great Depression in view, the 1973 film gets at the very thing that made Dillinger a hero to so many Americans, his willingness take bold action in fearful times.

Public Enemies certainly recreates the look and feel of 30s America.  But in telling such an unsentimental tale of hunter and hunted, Mann misses something essential.  Americans identified with John Dillinger not just because he was good at crime, but because, in the context of the 30s, being an outlaw was an act of rebellion.  Dillinger’s story was actually very sentimental, highly romantic.  It assumed that bold individual action still mattered.  His brief life on the open road became a fantasy of freedom amidst uncertainty and want.

John Dillinger will never go away.  A generation from now, as the hundredth anniversary of his death approaches, there will be more movies about him. Their creators will try to tell the “real” story, but the real story will reflect the temper of their times.

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