Public Enemies (2009)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-5 ; L-7 ; S/N-3 . Running time: 2 hours 20 min.

Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of evildoers.
Avoid it; do not go on it;
turn away from it and pass on.
For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong;
they are robbed of sleep unless they have
made someone stumble.
For they eat the bread of wickedness
and drink the wine of violence.
Proverbs 4:14-17

Dillinger s gang uses hostages to cover their escape.

2009 Universal Pictures

Director Michael Mann gives a romanticized take on bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the FBI agent in pursuit of him Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale)—though in truth, the emphasis is upon the crook, as we see nothing of the lawman’s personal life. The script stays fairly close to the facts, although there is no mention of Dillinger’s second girlfriend, whom he acquired after the capture and imprisonment of his first love, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) . On the other hand, the bank robber’s meeting and wooing Billie is told in great detail, with the gangster purportedly answering at their first meeting her objection that she does not know anything about him, “I was raised on a farm in Morrisville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn’t know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you… what else you need to know?”

Dillinger and his gang become folk heroes in the eyes of much of the public because so many banks had failed, causing thousands of depositors to lose their life savings. During one heist Dillinger, nodding his head at some money on a table, says to a nervous customer, “That’s your money, mister?” The man answers, “Yes.” “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Put it away.” A number of such incidents were reported, giving the men who did not hesitate to beat or shoot down guards the reputation of modern day Robin Hoods. Dillinger’s way in which he eluded capture, or when he was apprehended, his daring means of breaking free became the stuff of legend.

Meanwhile J. Edgar Hoover is seeking to turn his agency into a national police force, despite the skepticism of Congress. He designates Dillinger as “Public Enemy No. 1,” attempting not only to elicit public support in providing information on the whereabouts of the fugitive, but also to establish in the eyes of the public his Bureau as a powerful crime-fighting agency. He selects the photogenic Chicago-based agent Melvin Purvis as the man in charge, who becomes quite a public figure in his own right. However, at first the bungling efforts of the Feds seem like those of the Keystone Cops: at one point the agents have Dillinger and gang cornered at the Little Bohemia Lodge, a rural night spot in Wisconsin, only to foul up by shooting at a car with two men in it. The men are killed, but turn out to be two CCC workers from a nearby camp out for an evening of relaxation. The real gang members, alerted by the commotion, open fire on the agents and, during the shootout, manage to escape out the back and through the woods.

Only after Purvis improves his team by importing some gun-savvy Western lawmen does the tide begin to change. The crooks had taken advantage of modern technology with their fast cars and equally fast-shooting Tommy guns, but inexorably the noose grows tighter around Dillinger, and his men, such as Baby Face Nelson are killed or captured. Soon comes the information of the outlaw’s whereabouts in Chicago, his plans to go out to a movie, and the legendary Lady in Red (the dress which she wore as a means of identification was actually orange, but this looked red in the marquee lights), and the execution style end of the bank robber’s life (Hoover’s orders were to shoot to kill).

The film plays in the context of today’s public contempt of “greedy” bankers and financiers that have led to our financial meltdown, and even of the media’s extravagant lionization of the life of Michael Jackson following his death. It was reported that many in the crowd outside the theater, when they saw that it was Dillinger lying dead in the alley, took out handkerchiefs and dipped them in the pool of his blood, thus obtaining a macabre souvenir. Good thing there wasn’t an internet and an eBay back then.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. Why do you think gangsters become like folk heroes? because they are rebels, underdogs, or outsiders? How does the media contribute to this?

2. During the Great Depression what was the public’s opinion of banks and bankers? Compare that to today.

3. Compare this film to Bonnie and Clyde. How are the police depicted in each film? J. Edgar Hoover in Public Enemies?

4. How do we see that this was the era in which crime was becoming the dark counterpart to Big Business? Is the arrangement in The Godfather cycle the next stage?