From now on, when the American public thinks of John Dillinger, they'll think of Johnny Depp. Whoever Dillinger was in real life is going to be subsumed by the Johnny Depp version--which, in a way, is the best thing that could have happened to John Dillinger.
-- Paul Maccabee, author of John Dillinger Slept Here
Meet Public Enemy #1.
Can we put this guy in jail instead?
Even though gangster movies are not my favorite, I couldn't wait to see Public Enemies, probably because Johnny looked so dapper in the previews. Weeks before its release, I got an email from Fandango that opened with this photo:
Against my better judgment, I went to the theater on a Saturday night the weekend that Public Enemies opened. It was July 4th and I thought everyone else would be outside watching fireworks, but apparently everybody in my neighborhood opted for gun fire. The theater was packed and, as excited as I was, I knew immediately this was a mistake.
I got there early enough to find a good spot, but just when I thought I was in the clear, a huge guy came in, fumbled in the dark during the last preview, and decided to sit next to me. Because I didn't want to be rude, I didn't move over to the empty seat next to me, and instead I suffered.
This guy bought a $10 movie ticket and at least $30 worth of greasy, smelly food, of which he only ate a few bites before falling asleep 30 seconds later and snoring! While he slept, his cellphone rang at full blast multiple times for multiple calls to no avail. Maybe gangster life was rubbing off on me as I tried to watch Public Enemies, but I really wanted to punch this guy awake. Instead, he woke up on his own in the middle of the movie and left!
The best part of this experience was getting this free Public Enemies lobby poster (left) from a pile outside the theater. It's too bad Johnny's holding a machine gun, but I took it anyway after what I'd just been through.
How can anyone sleep through this?
It's in the stars!
What really makes this movie great for me is the performances by its stars: Christian Bale, Johnny, and Marion Cotillard. The entire cast is great and full of surprises: you'll even find Channing Tatum and Carey Mulligan in there for a bit. But these three main characters, with their different dynamic personalities, keep me captivated.
Christian Bale researched his role with typical precision--reading, watching footage, and even asking the Purvis family endless questions. Purvis is portrayed as a methodical man of few words, who was ahead of his time. In this movie, he's like a quiet terminator on a mission, like the tortoise after the hare.
Funnily, because Purvis is always a step behind Dillinger throughout this movie, Christian Bale and Johnny were only in two scenes together. These two great actors met during a script reading but barely saw or spoke to each other while filming.
Unlike Purvis, Dillinger was a charismatic people person. He understood how to work the press, which at the time glorified outlaws and their seemingly glamorous lifestyle. "He exploited the good press he got and knew how to manipulate the media to continue to get good press," Michael Mann says. "That was a great defense that meant that even though there might be a reward for him, people really kind of liked him and would think twice about betraying him. Dillinger was a folk hero to the majority of Americans."
During the Depression, most people blamed the banks for their financial woes and felt that Dillinger was acting out on their behalf. Everyone was also angry with the government for not coming to the aid of areas ravaged by dust storms and drought, fixing the financial crisis, and taking care of the homeless. They appreciated Dillinger's talent for making fools of those in charge. "He built himself into a legend," Johnny says. "I think Dillinger had some idea of what he was doing. I really believe he was at peace with the fact that it wasn't probably going to be a very long ride, but it was going to be a significant ride."
Jail time back then meant being completely cut off from the outside world. There were no TVs, radios, or other forms of contact to keep prisoners up to date. So, when Dillinger got out of jail, it was sensory overload just to be sitting in a modern car. What he knew about life on the outside came from watching movies. And, by that time, Dillinger was so popular that his lifestyle had become a theme in gangster movies. He was killed outside Chicago's Biograph theater, where he had just watched Manhattan Melodrama, a gangster film starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Clark Gable. Apparently, Clark Gable's gangster character is loosely based on Dillinger.
When preparing for any role, Johnny always finds music that helps him connect to his characters. While working on Public Enemies, he constantly played "Nightmare" by Artie Shaw to stay in the mood. When I heard it, it seemed to be a perfect match to the feel of the movie. What do you think?
The John Dillinger Museum, where he read Dillinger's letters and discovered that he fit into his own clothes. Dillinger is also one of those people that Johnny was fascinated with as a kid, so he already knew a lot about him. "Some people might disagree, but I think he was a real-life Robin Hood," Johnny says. "I mean, the guy wasn't completely altruistic, but he went out of his way not to kill anybody. He definitely gave a lot of that money away. I got a sneaking suspicion that he was probably a very lovable character. His choice of occupations was potentially questionable, although during that period, he was a man of the people."
Some of my favorite scenes in Public Enemies are those Johnny shares with Marion Cotillard. Billie Frechette was Dillinger's girlfriend for about six months before she was arrested for harboring her criminal boyfriend and sentenced to two years. Dillinger was killed while she was in jail. She was a waitress and singer since an early age. Of Native American and French descent, most of society looked down on her because of her Native American roots. But Dillinger saw what he liked and took it: As Michael Mann says, "Dillinger had no thoughts about the future until he meets Billie."
Hot off the presses: Dillinger is caught!
What surprises me about the '30s is how glamorized gangsters are, but I can see why, given the hard times everyone was experiencing. Dillinger was the leader and most liked among them all. Even Will Rogers joked about how Dillinger kept a step ahead of the FBI. When Dillinger is arrested, the media swoops in to capture his arrival for more jail time in Indiana.
Here, he addresses the press before heading to his cell. Reporters hang on every word he says, and the policemen seem just as pleased to host their new guest. (You'll find Norman, B.J., Simon, and Comet among them.) Sheriff Holley (Lili Taylor/Ashes), however, is having none of it. In the movie, she never actually makes the face that Ashes is making in this drawing, but I'm sure she's thinking it. Now, that's good acting!
Let's lighten things up a bit.
Johnny makes time to pay tribute to a dear friend in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Image/music credits: Public Enemies images © Universal Pictures, John Dillinger's Wanted poster © unknown; "Nightmare" © Artie Shaw; SpongeBob SquarePants image © Nickelodeon, Melissa's Kitties iillustration © Melissa Connolly