During the height of the Great Depression, there was such a dramatic spasm of bank robbery, kidnapping and other major crime—all carried out by larger than life figures like John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson and more—that it swiftly evolved from news to folklore to legend to myth. As these outlaws kept making the news, art and life imitated each other as Hollywood glamorized what it saw and what was glamorized took its cues from the movies. So goes the archetypically American love affair with criminal enterprise, which has had a particular appetite for the infamous bank robber John Dillinger. There have been at least four feature films made about him since he was gunned down by the FBI in 1934, but perhaps the best of them is Michael Mann’s 2009 docudrama Public Enemies, which is less about Dillinger (and his FBI nemesis, agent Melvin Purvis) as it is about people who must pay the price for falling out of step with a swiftly changing world.
The story takes place in 1933. As the public delights at tales of dashing bank robbers knocking over places at will, J. Edgar Hoover sees an opportunity to launch his vision of a modern, national law enforcement agency. And what better way to do it than by taking down the headline-grabbing bad guys who are making a mockery of law and order itself? Enter Agent Melvin Purvis, who is set to hunt down and bring in the popular and seemingly unstoppable bank robber John Dillinger. Dillinger, meanwhile, is busy orchestrating bank jobs, jail breaks and a romantic relationship with waitress Billie Frechette, all the while knowing that the more he allows himself to enjoy life a little, the more he’s giving guys like Purvis an opening to catch him.As Dillinger and Purvis trade jabs, near-misses and internecine shootouts, it becomes clear that in their own way, time is running out for both of them.
For a good chunk of Public Enemies, we might be forgiven for thinking that we’re seeing a 1930s version of an otherwise familiar kind of cop-and-robber story: the wily crook against the relentless lawman, both of whom respect the other. But pretty early on, what emerges is something rather different. Sure, it pays attention to all kinds of historical details to give us a sense of the time, but it overlooks the hardship of the Depression itself, which formed the context of Dillinger and Purvis’ duel. It also plays fast and loose with the chain of events of Dillinger’s life in the interest of telling a more interesting story. Fair enough. This is a movie, after all, and not a documentary. But these choices in narrative focus are what help make it clear that Dilinger and Purvis aren’t really fighting against each other. They are each struggling against the expectations of the systems into which they were born. And in that kind of battle, there are only two outcomes: you either get with the program, or you become a casualty. The machine almost always wins.
That “almost” part is what drives our twin protagonists; Dillinger, who is just successful enough to believe he can get away clean and Purvis, who has just enough faith in a method of law enforcement he doesn’t fully understand to think that maybe this time, his efforts to catch Dillinger won’t result in a bunch of dead bodies. We are trained to expect Dillinger and Purvis to have a cross in confidence—our cocksure bad guy losing his bravado the end as he feels the noose tighten, and our uncertain hero seen through by steely resolve. Not so here. Here, we have two men who both have a certain way of doing things and the support structures that have helped them succeed so far just aren’t going to be there any longer. Deep down, both of them know that maybe this time, what they’ve got to give just isn’t going to cut it. Dillinger can’t survive so easily without a network of like-minded criminals willing to harbor him. And Purvis can’t keep leaving a wake of destruction behind him every time he enters the field.
The most interesting parts of Public Enemies involve Dillinger—not because he’s some charismatic anti-hero but because we see him for all that he probably ever was: a guy who was great at robbing banks and breaking out of jail and little else. The guy wasn’t anybody’s hero; he just had a criminal’s need to take what society prohibited him, and enough knack to see a blind spot in law enforcement and exploit it ruthlessly. Dillinger has a cool demeanor, and talks of going away in happy retirement after one last score, but we all know he never will. What would he do with himself once he no longer had Tommy guns to tote and bank managers to terrorize? Probably rob the bank in whatever town he retired to.
There’s a great scene when Dillinger’s organized crime colleagues explain why they can’t do business with him any more. They make as much money as his biggest bank score every day just by answering phones with their numbers operations. Why should they stick with a gun-toting desperado who is begging to be caught? Dillinger hasn’t got a comeback because he can see that the future of crime is all about the money, and money isn’t really what he robs banks for. It’s a nice setup for the moment of truth when, shortly before the FBI finally guns him down, he visits a police station and brazenly strolls around the Dillinger department to look at the photos of himself on the wall. What few cops are there don’t even recognize him. It’s the last moment when he can just dance through the cracks of a system that is still shifting gears, and he allows himself a smirk, because nothing this good can last forever. If it did, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.