The Three Faces of John Dillinger, by Alexander Miller
We have a longstanding love affair with gangsters and criminals on screen, and the evidence lies in the decades of crime cinema. Despite the influence of German expressionism on the noir genre gangster movies, they are (like westerns) are a distinctly American facet of moviemaking. Shadows and light might illuminate the scene but derby hats, Tommy guns, G-men, and wiseguys aren’t likely to turn up anywhere else in the landscape of world cinema, and Depression-era bank robbers are pure Americana.
There was a crew of these guys, and in one way or another they have been vilified in our media, but none other than Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger has enjoyed such a diverse and specific career in the movies. With three titles from major directors devote entirely to the Robin Hood bank robber, from heyday of film noir in 1945 with Lawrence Tierney in the lead (Dillinger), followed by John Milius’s 1973 film with the same name, and concluding for our purposes with Michael Mann’s 2009 Public Enemies. Each film picks and chooses the realities and fictions of his criminal life in their architecture of their narrative, and yet the selective authenticity contain unique characteristics of quality regardless of what path it decides to follow.
In the hyperbolic fashion of the times, Dillinger’s 1945 tagline reads “his story is written in bullets, blood, and blondes”. It seems like the combination of the Productions Code’s strict guidelines in showing that “crime doesn’t pay” and Lawrence Tierney’s assholish acting style (not much of an act from what stories indicate) play off each other well, and the final message in Nosseck’s Dillinger is that the famed robber was a jerk.
Dillinger might not rank alongside the noir classics of the era, nor does it fall in line with the upper echelon of Warner’s capital on gangster films. The Monogram production proudly wears its B-level movie credentials. Dillinger falls into noir territory and less in the burgeoning gangster genre. Making no bones about feigning historical detail, Nosseck and Tierney are faithful in recording two glimmering certainties – one, John Dillinger was a criminal; and two, he eventually got shot. While I can’t fault a movie for veering from the truth, it’s still somewhat bewildering that the truth or the stories around Dillinger’s exploits (wooden guns, life on the lam) couldn’t find their way into the films stratosphere. Still, Dillinger is good, if not great fun with a commanding lead performance and well-plotted story.
As American cinema received a makeover in the late sixties and early seventies at the hands of the rancorous new Hollywood movement, one of its most boisterous was John Milius. His 1973 film Dillinger deftly wove fact, fiction, and mythic grandeur, standing as an arguable contender as one of the best imaginings of the infamous outlaw.
Milius didn’t have a Rolodex of prospective actors for his lead, knowing that Oates, in concert with his uncanny resemblance to the gangster, was cut from the same unabashedly masculine old guard cloth of Sam Peckinpah and his repertory company. This was also true of Ben Johnson, giving the film its dimension of rivalry as the coined G-man (upon the arrest of Machine Gun Kelly). Milius saw that Oates had the quality of a leading actor, and much to Milius’ benefit, Oates’ old timey swagger is stylish, charming, and at times dangerously volatile.
Dillinger was Milius’s debut feature, and it’s remarkable on its own terms. As a first film it’s a minor marvel, notably ambitious and remarkably assured. Milius comes out shooting and hits on target. The Nosseck film faltered in relying so heavily on its titular character, who came off as a hard-nosed dick. Milius and Oates forge their own yarn while chronicling the real exploits of John Dillinger, with plenty of massacring and blowing shit up along the way. Violence was on the upswing after Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch, and Milius isn’t shy about following suit. His explosive eye and ear for action are equally mature and playful. Milius, a noted gun enthusiast (or self-proclaimed ‘Zen Anarchist’ whatever that means) borders on fetishizing weaponry (as he would later succeed in doing in writing the script for the second Dirty Harry installment Magnum Force) but each weapon is period correct and consistent with each character.
It may surprise some to know that Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) is actually the real lead of the film. His voiceover narration guides us. The cat-and-mouse story would be echoed years later by Michael Mann, but Johnson’s interpretation of Purvis excels Christian Bale’s straight-laced, plain speaking iteration in 2009 by sidestepping any reliable historical purview and making Purvis a somewhat sadistic, cigar-chomping avenger. As it’s impossible to bypass the Peckinpah connection with so much shared DNA, but their relationship isn’t dissimilar to that of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, another one history’s venerated outlaws explored by Peckinpah that same year.
John Dillinger knocked around our collective celluloid imaginations from 1973 on – there was another TV movie (following Meeker’s) starring Mark Harmon in 1991, John Sayles’ penned a script for The Lady in Red – but Michael Mann’s massive undertaking in 2009 with Public Enemies might be the most ambitious, and detailed examination of John Dillinger. But does that make it the best?
Public Enemies has a lot to boast. At the forefront, there’s Mann’s direction, which as always is about as close method directing as can be, with painstaking detail to everything on and around what’s on screen. It seemed like his genesis for the film was in some parts objective in being the “best” movie about Dillinger. There’s also a certain inevitability to the Chicago native director known for procedural realism in crime cinema directing a film about the most famed outlaw whose legacy is in part due to the meticulous nature of his work. Public Enemies is in many ways the film Michael Mann has been working his whole career toward making.
It’s a big film, with every historical detail imagined, recreated and transplanted to the screen. Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotillard steep themselves in their characters so much, so it almost seems like they got a little too lost in their own ethos. What’s on screen is moody, brooding, and almost too removed, depriving them of any semblance of fun or enjoyment in their actions. Mann’s rigorous temperament lends to what is one of the great theoretical gangster films that only suffers from one fatal flaw. Public Enemies has every hallmark of a great epic gangster movie, except any warmth, character or charm.
Mann’s penchant for the crisp lamination of digital video has worked wonders for him and it immerses you in the atmosphere (this is a former point of contention I’ve reconciled), but the definition obscures the painstaking efforts in recreating the 1930’s. Mann is clearly gunning for us to get swept away in the period, but every time the rising tide is about to wash away, my modern context the the stinging gloss of the cinematography jolts me back into 2009. Public Enemies has action and style to spare.
At times it evokes the punchy wordplay of its forebearers, and Mann expertly weaves us through some truly memorable and dynamic action sequences. We can watch them with the requisite knowledge that Mann’s cinema is less narrative fiction and more million dollar cosplay for all of his historical loyalty. However, it feels like if Depp, Bale, and Cotillard weren’t spending all their time in development visiting childhood houses and wearing the clothes of the characters they played, they might have brought some more personality to the screen.
Mann elaborates the significance of everything in the recreating of Public Enemy No.1, and Melvin Purvis is a formidable anti-antihero as acting hand to J. Edgar Hoover. Christian Bale, like Depp, is cold, calculating, and convincing, if never all that engaging. It’s the political diatribes lending to the creation of Hoover’s scientific advancement in crime fighting where Mann is most at home, and next to the characteristically blaring firefights is some of the strongest elements of the film.
These three pictures each mark a pivotal change in the movie industry – the forties-era film noir, seventies new wave, and modern HD procedural epic. Each focus on the same person with gulfs of contrast to the treatment of its subject, that are all in some ways out of their time.
Max Nosseck’s lean and mean film noir seems to be the successor to Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, but arrives 10-12 years too late. The implacable Milius, too crazy for the countercultural side of the new Hollywood, certainly subscribes to the Fordian “print the legend” ethics of storytelling with a flair for grit and stylistic preface. Michael Mann, a genre-revising auteur of all things criminal invested so much energy into the reality of John Dillinger forgot to fluff the narrative with some more confectionary fiction. Each film is special in their unique way for being widely different iterations on the same gangster. Dillinger and genre that suit his exploits distinctly American, and what’s more American than a creative distillation of the truth?