Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Triple Dillinger

"Pretty Boys and Baby Faces: The Romancing of John Dillinger"

John Dillinger had enough publicity during his short* reign on the Most Wanted List, a lot of it generated by the man himself and his way of painting himself a folk-hero (he even saved his press clippings), so it seems like gold-plating a tommy-gun to make another movie lionizing him (see below). But Michael Mann—the director who created "Miami Vice" and has made a good movie or two ("Manhunter," "The Last of the Mohicans," "The Insider," and "Collateral") felt the need to make a new telling of the Dillinger legend—this one gussied up with Mann's usual stylish flair (although on more than one occasion the stylish suits and the familiar Chicago locations made me mindful of Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables"). Let us put aside for awhile the argument that the movie is morally wrong-headed to paint Dillinger as more sympathetic than his "Public Enemy" in the FBI, Melvin Purvis. Let's just examine where the movie goes wrong.

The opening break-out from the Indiana State Pen portrayed in the film has some relation to truth—guns were smuggled into the shirt-making shop in shipments of thread—but Dillinger wasn't there. He'd been paroled early due his step-mother's imminent death and was sitting in a jail-cell at the time from a small series of robberies that had been planned with his earlier cell-mates at Indiana. He was picked up at his girl-friend's house, which was being staked out by police. That hardly fits the legend of John Dillinger that
"Public Enemies" insists on pushing forward.

But then, the movie is less an accurate crime drama than a period romance. The film makes "
Billie" Freschette (Marion Cotillard) the love of Dillinger's life—the case could be made for Dillinger's wife who divorced him while he was serving his initial stretch in prison, breaking his heart and subsequently making him distrustful of long relationships with women. The absurdity is taken to an extreme case with a coda that is completely unbelievable, considering that Dillinger was famously gunned down in the company of a new prostitute girlfriend Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski) and madam Anna Sage (Branka Katic)—the legendary "lady in red."** Still, one of the interesting stories about Dillinger is that the FBI staked out his boyhood home, hoping to arrest him the day he brought Freschette home to meet his folks. When the party broke up, three cars left the farm-house. The Feds followed the wrong one. It is true, as the movie shows, that Dillinger watched as Freschette was arrested and "cried like a baby" when he left the scene. He wasn't so broken up that he wouldn't take up with somebody else, though. And last words? Horseradish. Barbara Cartland could have written such sentimental sop.

The problems began from the beginning, when Leonardo DeCaprio was set to star as Dillinger, then when the project stalled,
Johnny Depp signed on. Neither of these boy-men make a credible Public Enemy #1. Depp's performance is fine, but wrong-headed, his Dillinger looking more dyspeptic than criminal. It's a romantic's fantasy of John Dillinger, as is the concept of Dillinger being a one-woman man.

Still, Mann does some good things. Shot on video (by
Dante Spinotti) the film is crystal-sharp, and looks great, even during its numerous hand-held sequences. The shoot-out at the Little Bohemia Lodge is completely inaccurate—the movie would have you believe that "Baby Face" Nelson died in the action as well as the two FBI agents who were killed—but the sequence is rip-roaring at times with Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis riding the running board firing a tommy-gun at the fleeing bandits.*** There are interesting cameo's—Billy Crudup does a fine impression of a young John Edgar Hoover, pugnacious, brittle and paranoid, and Lili Taylor shows up as Sheriff Lillian Holley. A made-up scene of Purvis and Dillinger taunting each other while the robber's in prison allows the two stars to have a scene together, but sacrifices the fact that Dillinger looked right at Purvis while walking out of the Biograph Theater his last night and did not recognize him.

But the film is as much fiction as fact, getting a lot of period facts wrong (there was no FDIC at the time of Dillinger's robbing career, yet a sign announcing the fact is displayed prominently, probably for comic effect, during a heist sequence) and the story a Disney version of actual events. It's a disappointment, considering a lot of the Dillinger story is stranger than fiction.

"Public Enemies" is a Rental.

There have been other versions of the story****

"Dillinger" (John Milius, 1973) Produced at a time when American International Pictures was actually putting some money into their films, it gave USC maverick director Milius a chance to direct. There's a lot of "Bonnie and Clyde" in this "Dillinger," and Milius indulges in some Peckinpavian slow-mo blood-spurting, but on the whole it's an interesting account of the Dillinger years. Milius also uses two members of the Peckinpah stock-company: Ben Johnson is too old to play Melvin Purvis, but the man lends considerable weight and history to the role and the movie which made a folk-hero out of Purvis on a par with Dillinger.***** In the title role, there could be no one better than Warren Oates, who not only looked like the real thing, but was a more pragmatic, less idealized version of the gangster. Along with Oates' better performance, Milius' film is a grittier, sparer version of things, not as glossy and feeling much more ambivalent toward both cops and robbers.

And look at that cast!
Richard Dreyfuss (over the top as "Baby Face" Nelson), Michelle Phillips (late of "The Mamas and the Papas") as Billy Frischette (though she's present at Dillinger's death), Cloris Leachman as Anna Sage, and a wealth of character actorsHarry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, Steve Kanaly, Frank McRae, and Roy Jenson.

This is the one to see, despite (and maybe because of) the protestations of J. Edgar Hoover at the credits' end.

"Dillinger" (Max Nosseck, 1945) Low-budget exploitation film that took the Dillinger notoriety and regurgitated the legends, fictionalizing the story and changing names (winning an Academy Award nomination for screenwriting in the process!). The film starred Lawrence Tierney, Hollywood bad boy, who had a long career as a hood-type up to and including "Reservoir Dogs." But there are some good actors on hand like Marc Lawrence, Elisha Cook Jr., and Edmund Lowe. But the film is strictly of the "Calling All Cars" school, laughably simple-minded, with none of the style of the gangster movies of the previous decade, and Dillinger portrayed as a romantic figure—the female lead (Anne Jeffreys) refuses to pick Dillinger out of a line-up because she's got "the hots" for him. Not much to recommend it, other than you can watch it for free on Hulu.

Just to let you know this lionization still exists (as if "Public Enemies" wasn't enough), today is traditionally "John Dillinger Day" and members of the "John Dillinger Died For You" Society will be doing their traditional walk from the Biograph Theater, commemorating his death 75 years ago.

* Dillinger's crime career (following his prison sentence by unsuccessfully cold-cocking a local grocer) lasted all of 14 months.

** Even that story's not true—Sage told Purvis she would wear a white blouse and orange skirt—which appeared red in the Biograph's marquee lights. The trio went to the movies to escape a hot apartment and the Biograph was air-conditioned; the movie—"Manhattan Melodrama," a gangster film with Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy (she's given quite a tribute in "Public Enemies," and Marion Cotillard does resemble her).

*** Bale does a good job as Purvis, but he's a bit too dapper to portray the Special Agent. He is, however, one of the few actors who can fire a large caliber weapon without blinking. Purvis' story is an interesting one: charged by J. Edgar Hoover to "get Dillinger," when the press lionized the Agent, Hoover became jealous of the attention paid to him, making life miserable until Purvis left the Bureau a year later. Unable to find further work in law enforcement (due to alleged interference from Hoover), Purvis became a private businessman, married and fathered three sons. He died in 1960 of a gun-shot wound to the head from the revolver given to him by his FBI colleagues upon his retirement from the Bureau. Hoover's FBI ruled it a suicide (and Purvis was suffering from cancer at the time), but others have speculated he was killed accidentally trying to pry a tracer bullet out of the gun. When the legend becomes fact...

**** Not including "Young Dillinger" starring Nick Adams, sort of an "I was a Teen-Age Dillinger."

***** Milius padded Purvis' resume a great deal, having him in charge of the captures of "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Dillinger, but also "Baby Face" Nelson (as does "Public Enemies"), and "Machine Gun" Kelly, "Handsome Jack" Klutis, and Walter Underhill.


Walaka said...

I can never contend with your analyses, but I am puzzled that you call Bale "too dapper" as Purvis. IIRC, Purvis was a bit of dandy; he was portrayed as such by Dale Robertson in the biopic Melvin Purvis, G-Man, on TV on the seventies.

Yojimbo_5 said...

I remember the "Melvin Purvis: G-Man" movies! They were one-off's as a result of the Milius
"Dillinger" (Milius wrote the first one). And that portrait is as flawed as the movie's. For one thing, Purvis was a MUCH younger man than portrayed by Johnson (in the movie) and Robertson (in the TV role). He was actually younger than Dillinger! Also, J. Edgar Hoover wanted his agents young, clean-cut and professional looking, suit-and-tie men--but not dandies.

John said...

You were much kinder than me on this one too. I thought the hi-def video looked like total crap. The fidelity is impressive, but it doesn't have the same feel as film at all. I hated the "tv-ness" of it. In fact, I thought the cinematography looked dirty, cheap and ugly the whole time... which is quite a feat when you have such a cast. It looked like something high school students could have filmed.

And my two colleagues and I all agreed that it was colossally boring for an "action" film. If not for the hope that Depp would do something cool, we would have walked out on the film.

PS Still hoping you'll review The Hurt Locker... so I can tell you why I thought it was better than you did. And maybe (500) Days of Summer... so I can tell you why I thought it was so much worse. ;)

Yojimbo_5 said...

I've reviewed "(500) Days of Summer." "The Hurt Locker" is next week.

Bending the ol' hyperbole meter, aincha John-Boy?

And I didn't like "Public Enemies"-I thought it was clap-trap...and unnecessary. The Warren Oates one is the one to see, if you want to see a good "Dillinger" movie (although I thought you boycotted gangster movies).

Keep commenting, though—one does need to be kept "honest."