Does the New Dillinger Movie Speak to Our Worries?

Culture Watch

Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

           It is difficult to view director Michael Mann’s new film Public Enemies, featuring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as F.B.I agent Melvin Purvis, without thinking of the classic 1960s film Bonnie and Clyde (1967).  Public Enemies probably deserves some credit for taking fewer liberties with the historical record than Bonnie and Clyde, but as a film text the 1967 picture directed by Arthur Penn tells us far more about the 1960s than it does about the depression decade in which it is set.  On the other hand, the stories of Dillinger and Purvis, as told by Mann, suggest that perhaps we could use some of the 1960s romanticism captured in Bonnie and Clyde.

            Executives at Warner Brothers did not know what to do with the 1967 crime feature starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the title roles.   Believing that the film, with its graphic violence juxtaposed to comic scenes and the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, would confuse audiences, the studio wrote off the Warren Beatty produced film as a second feature for the drive-in movie crowd.  Bonnie and Clyde, however, resonated with younger audiences and European critics, earning a second look by Hollywood.  The film eventually garnered ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and is considered today as one of Hollywood’s most influential films.

            As rendered in the Oscar-nominated script by David Newman and Robert Benton, Bonnie and Clyde are beautiful young innocents in rebellion against the establishment.  An important point is that Bonnie and Clyde are outlaws rather than gangsters.  The outlaw image is that of the individual who is rebelling against an oppressive society somewhat in the nature of Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of the primitive rebel.  The gangster, on the other hand, smacks of organized crime and lacks the romantic revolutionary symbol of the outlaw as a Robin Hood type often supported by the common people.  The historical reality of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker is certainly more complicated as is demonstrated in the recent biography by Jeff Guinn, Go Down Together:  The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde (Simon and Schuster, 2001).

            The film begins with Bonnie looking through the bars of her frame bed as if imprisoned.  The young woman is a waitress with few options in the depression-era environment of rural Texas.  A sense of adventure, however, presents itself in the guise of a small-time crook, Clyde Barrow.  The young couple begin their crime spree in a somewhat playful fashion, robbing seemingly faceless and heartless institutions such as banks--which the film reminds audiences were foreclosing upon the homes of helpless farmers who are forced to become Dust Bowl migrants.  In one scene (repeated in Public Enemies with John Dillinger), Clyde asks a farmer whether some cash belongs to him or the bank.  The overalls-clad farmer claims that the money is his, and Clyde implores him to keep the cash as the Barrow gang is out to rob banks, not common folks.  Thus, Bonnie and Clyde are depicted as outlaws in rebellion against corrupt institutions out to fleece the folks; explaining why migrants along the road are willing to aid them.

            Of course, most young people in the 1960s were not prepared to enlist as bank robbers; no matter how “cool” they perceived Bonnie and Clyde to be.  They could, however, identify with the film’s protagonists as individuals; believing that their futures were circumscribed by large impersonal forces and institutions such as the university, big business, and the military draft.  This sense of alienation among many young people was reflected in the Port Huron Statement’s call for participatory democracy as well as in other manifestations of popular culture such as The Graduate (1967).  While the 1960s did not suffer an economic collapse which threatened the livelihood of Americans, the turbulent decade shared with the depression period a sense that American institutions were failing the people and the system was not working.  Thus, the times called for some type of rebellion or individual expression against convention.

            While as primitive rebels, Bonnie and Clyde robbed banks, most of the violence in the film is initiated by the authorities.  Clyde pistol whips a grocery store owner who attacks him with a meat cleaver while the outlaw is taking food from the store at gunpoint.  An incredulous Clyde wonders why the man tried to kill him as he was only attempting to get some food.  When Clyde kills his first man, it is because the bandit panics when inept accomplice C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) parallel parks the get away car and a bank clerk leaps on to the automobile.  Rather than glorifying this deed, Clyde is remorseful and angry with Moss.  The three most violent episodes in the film are all assaults upon the Barrow gang by the establishment intent upon killing the outlaws.  The ambush in which Bonnie and Clyde are murdered is orchestrated by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle), who seeks revenge against the Barrow gang for humiliating him.  The Barrow gang captured Hamer and forced the lawman to pose for pictures with the outlaws.  When Bonnie kisses the captive, he spits in her face.  Is this simply disgust with Bonnie or is it an effort to repress sexual desire aroused by the kiss?

            Sexuality is a key element in the film.  Clyde is impotent through much of the narrative and unable to consummate the relationship with Bonnie.  In fact, he seems to sublimate sexuality with violence and the gun—an indictment of American society which is also made in Dr. Strangelove (1964).  Before one failed love-making effort, Clyde has to sweep a pile of guns off the bed.  The couple, however, is finally able to engage in sexual intercourse.  But it is shortly after this act of consummation that Hamer leads an ambush in which Bonnie and Clyde are brutally murdered.  The timing of the scene, as well as Bonnie offering Clyde a taste of fruit before their deaths, raises the question whether they must be killed for their crimes or the threat of youthful sexuality.  Those identifying with Bonnie and Clyde as the embodiment of making love not war in 1968 were, thus, able to perceive the protagonists as romantic revolutionaries challenging the violence of the establishment at home and abroad with the sexual revolution.

            Arthur Mann’s Public Enemies lacks the element of romanticism found in Bonnie and Clyde.  It is, in many ways, the more pessimistic film, suggesting that the actions of the individual, whether outlaw Dillinger or federal agent Purvis, is unable to thwart the rise of a more corporate society over which the people have little influence or control.  Although there is a love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), the real focus of this film is upon Dillinger and Purvis, whose destinies are controlled by forces beyond their control.

            Public Enemies is certainly more true to the historical record than Bonnie and Clyde, but one seeking a historical account of Dillinger’s life would do better to consult Elliot J. Gorn’s Dillinger’s Wild Ride: The Year That Made America’s Public Enemy Number One (Oxford University Press, 2009).  Mann also seems less interested in perpetuating the image of the 1930s outlaw as a Robin Hood figure—which is a more collective symbol for a film bemoaning the loss of individualism—although there are aspects of romanticism in the film.  Purvis sometimes seems like the soulless Inspector Javert of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  But Dillinger is hardly a victim or hero in the nature of Jean Valjean.  Mann’s film provides little motivation for Dillinger’s 1933-1934 crime spree.  Dillinger mentions once that his father beat him, but this is not a topic upon which the film dwells.  Nor does the film develop the depression era milieu to the same extent as Bonnie and Clyde, failing to provide a historical context for the bank robberies.  Dillinger’s exploitation is simply that he wants to have fun.  Although Bonnie and Clyde are not mentioned in Public Enemies, other outlaws of the era are not glorified as champions of the people.  Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) is depicted as a trigger-happy gunman, while a fleeing Pretty Boy Floyd is gunned down by Purvis.  There is no suggestion of the romantic outlaw image contained in Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd” with its refrain that “some will rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen, but as through your life you’ll travel, wherever you may roam, you won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.”

            While displaying few of the vulnerabilities associated with Beatty’s portrayal of Barrow, Johnny Depp is still able to present Dillinger as somewhat of an enigmatic figure.  While he is often violent and ruthless, Dillinger is also quite charming and devoted to his friends and Billie Frechette—whose motivation to escape her dead end job as a hat-check girl is similar to that of Bonnie.  But Dillinger’s independence as an outlaw menaces the development of organized crime.  The media publicity given to Dillinger’s bank robberies provides justification for those seeking a large federal organization to fight lawlessness.  Organized crime, which was making far more money in the lucrative number rackets than Dillinger did with his bank jobs, was threatened by a federal crime bureau.  And Public Enemies intimates that crime boss Frank Nitti cooperated with federal authorities to arrange for Dillinger’s assassination.

            The accomplishments of Purvis are tied to the growth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup).  Public Enemies provides viewers with no background information on Purvis, who is simply presented as an honest man intent upon fighting crime.  Yet, Purvis is pushed relentlessly by Hoover, who is intent upon using the Dillinger case as an opportunity for gaining Congressional support to expand the powers of a national police force.  Purvis gets his man, but in the process he tends to lose his moral compass.  In pursuit of Dillenger, Purvis allows the application of force in which innocent civilians are killed and torture is used against gang members—although he does draw the line at the torture of Billie Frechette to extort information.  The film’s postscript notes that Purvis later died by his own hand; seemingly suggesting a degree of guilt for his actions.

            The film ends on a depressing note with Frechette in a jail cell being informed of Dillinger’s death.  In this final scene, Frechette is photographed against a brick wall background which dominates the screen space, and the film fades to black when the jail cell is closed upon her and the audience.  Albeit they operated with different motivations, Dillinger and Purvis were both individuals who attempted to follow their muses.  But in the final analysis, they, like Frechette, were destroyed by larger forces intent upon limiting the power of the individual.  The rise of the national security state has certainly led to the abuse of civil liberties, while the more recent economic crisis, despite the campaign rhetoric of Barack Obama, seems to have fostered a sense of pessimism and frustration regarding the power of corporations and politicians over which the people have little influence.  If the 1960s offered the romantic rebellion of cinematic outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, the current depiction of Dillinger and Purvis as symbolizing the loss of individualism is far more fatalistic in its approach.  And a proposed remake of Bonnie and Clyde, with Hillary Duff and Kevin Zeppers in the title roles, would seem to offer little cultural insight into a way out of this malaise.           

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