John Dillinger. Baby Face Nelson. Pretty Boy Floyd. And Melvin Purvis.
It’s telling that more than seventy years after the early 1930s’ crime spree that transfixed the nation, the names of that era’s gangsters resonate far more than those of the FBI agents like Purvis who brought them down.
Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s new film, illustrates that gangster infatuation of ours. Though ostensibly a story about both the robber and the cop, it’s the roguishly charming Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and not the upstanding-but-dull Purvis (Christian Bale) who commands most of the screen time.
And yet, historically, this may be just about right. The movie’s portrait of Dillinger sticks fairly closely to the facts. As for the now-forgotten Purvis? The film may give him more time and credit than he deserves.
Read on for more on what the film gets right, and where it fudges the facts.
Q. Depp plays Dillinger as the crook with a heart of gold. How true is that?
A. Partially true. Affable and handsome, Dillinger charmed the public. The press celebrated his daring bank robberies, spun anecdotes about his chivalry towards women during his heists, and made him into a sympathetic character by emphasizing his difficult childhood.
Public attitudes towards Dillinger were also shaped by the widespread anger against bankers in the early 1930s. Many Americans blamed the Great Depression on monied interests, and thus bank robbers like Dillinger or Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd became folk heroes, Robin Hood figures for a people in dire economic straits. Woody Guthrie penned a sympathetic ballad about Pretty Boy Floyd. Movie audiences cheered when John Dillinger’s face appeared in newsreels.
But not all bank robbers were chivalrous heroes. Many were like George “Baby Face” Nelson, who joined forces with Dillinger for a few months in 1934 (though contrary to the film, Nelson died after Dillinger, not before.) A sociopath with an explosive temper, Nelson shot police and bystanders indiscriminately. And though disgusted by Nelson’s rampages, Dillinger himself could be ruthless, killing at least one cop during his crime spree, and wounding many others.
Q. How accurate is the portrayal of Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent played by Christian Bale?
A. Purvis’s unit in Chicago became famous after killing Dillinger (and later Floyd and Nelson) and Purvis himself became the most celebrated G-man in the country. Bale portrays him as a competent and steely lawman, hampered by incompetent agents and an impatient J. Edgar Hoover.
But historian Bryan Burroughs argues that Purvis was actually woefully incompetent. He once “forgot” to arrest George “Machine Gun” Kelly, despite iron-clad intelligence from other FBI agents of a meeting Kelly had planned at a Chicago tavern. And under his leadership, the Dillinger manhunt became a comedy of errors. For months, Purvis inexplicably neglected to order a watch kept on the homes of Dillinger’s family and associates, allowing the outlaw to hide out in ease. Purvis ordered raids on the wrong houses, and arrests of the wrong people. And he and his men lost Dillinger’s trail countless times. They were finally able to corner him only because an informant, Anna Sage (the fabled ‘woman in red;' though she actually wore orange, as the film shows’) contacted the Chicago police with information on Dillinger’s whereabouts.
Q. Did Dillinger really escape from the Crown Point, Indiana prison by using a fake gun?
A. Legend has it that he did it with a gun carved in soap and covered in shoe polish. The film shows instead a wooden gun, which Dillinger always claimed to have used. Some evidence emerged later to suggest that Dillinger’s lawyer had bribed a guard or two to facilitate his escape. But the fact remains that Dillinger’s prison break in March of 1934 was breathtakingly audacious. Facing a trial which could lead to the electric chair, Dillinger used the “gun” to lock up or take hostage more than a dozen lawmen, and then fled the state in the sheriff’s personal car. Soon after, the FBI officially branded him its first “Public Enemy #1.”
Q. The emotional heart of the film is the relationship between Dillinger and Billie Frechette. Did they get that story right?
A. Partly. Dillinger and Evelyn “Billie” Frechette got together in the fall of 1933, meeting in a nightclub, as the film shows. But while Marion Cotillard portrays Frechette as a sweet, fragile innocent, the real Frechette had worked in nudie nightclubs for a while, and had developed an affinity for the wrong kind of men.
By all accounts, Dillinger and Frechette grew very close for the six months they stayed together, and talked of marriage. But she was arrested in April, 1934, and though Dillinger spoke at first of trying to rescue her, he soon moved on. Just two months later, he was living with a new girlfriend, Polly Hamilton. Polly would be with him the night he died.
Q. Did FBI agents really beat Frechette to get her to reveal Dillinger’s hiding place?
A. Certainly they treated her badly – handcuffing her to a chair under bright lights, and interrogating her relentlessly for over twenty-four hours straight, while she begged to be allowed to sleep. But contrary to the film, the agents don’t seem to have slapped her around.
Q. Did Dillinger actually wander into the FBI’s Chicago offices on a whim?
A. I was skeptical of this scene, but it turns out to be fairly close to the truth. In May of 1934, Dillinger had plastic surgery done on his face. Confident that his altered looks would keep him safe, despite being the subject of the largest manhunt in the country and carrying a $15,000 price on his head, Dillinger got careless. Over his friends’ objections, he went to nightclubs, amusement parks, and Cubs games. He even tempted fate by repeatedly taking Polly to a medical office in the same building as the FBI offices.
And Dillinger loved going to the movies, which led to the fateful encounter outside with the FBI in July, 1934.
Q. Where can I find more information?
A. Check out the entertaining book that inspired the film: Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934.
Joliet Herald News, July 8, 2009.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films.