July 14, 2009
Not-So-Family Film Blogging: Public Enemies
Posted by Christine Hurt

The Boardman Art Theater in downtown Champaign is showing Public Enemies, a movie (loosely) based on Vanity Fair's Bryan Burrough's book of the same title about 1930s criminals such as John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, the Barker Gang, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson.  The movie focuses almost entirely on John Dillinger, so the art theater hung up signs on the outside advertising "Refrigeration" to mimic the outside of the Biograph in Chicago, where Dillinger was shot after escaping the summer heat with a Clark Gable film.

The movie wants to create a tension between FBI agent Melvin Purvis and gangster Dillinger that parallels the Javert/Jean Valjean pairing in Les Miserables.  Purvis/Javert is a two-dimensional character, with very little personal information given and no background at all.  Dillinger/Valjean is the criminal with a heart, who turned to his fugitive life after an unjust imprisonment.  The end even tells us that Purvis died of his own hand, echoing Javert's throwing himself in the river to drown after facing Valjean in the sewer.  This could make for great cinema, I guess, except creating that parallel is quite a stretch.

Burrough's book is pure nonfiction (not historical fiction, etc.).  It has a lot of endnotes and seems (to the nonhistorian) to be well-documented.  When items are rumored, he puts down a footnote to tell you why the rumor is probably true or false.  But the movie takes some liberties with the facts, and not just disputed facts or rumors.  However, Burrough said he saw the script and thought it was the best one could hope for from Hollywood.  Since filming, he's repeated this.  (Maybe he has another book/movie deal in the works?)

But to me, one of the most interesting aspect of the book was its portrayal of the 1930s FBI.  The birth of the FBI seems as well-thought out as going over to the DOJ and handing all the U.S. Attorneys guns (or not handing them guns) and telling them to go arrest a group of suspected armed and dangerous terrorists holed up a few blocks away.  The book shows all of the goofs and gaffes and poor detective work in hunting down Dillinger, et al., and in particular shows the rise and fall of Melvin Purvis.  Although the movie seems to show Purvis at the top of his career the night Dillinger is gunned down at the Biograph, in truth he had been demoted by J. Edgar Hoover, who wouldn't even speak to him because of what he saw as the failure of the Chicago office to catch Dillinger.  Hoover was enraged that Purvis was there when Dillinger was stopped and really, really enraged that he got the credit.  I'm not sure if anyone knows why Purvis committed suicide, but it's more likely because Hoover wrecked his life, not because he felt remorse for being there when Dillinger died.  (Most people agree, according to Burrough, that Purvis did not shoot Dillinger.)

The turning point between Hoover and Purvis was the shoot-out at Little Bohemia, Wisconsin.  And yes, director Michael Mann shot at the actual site, but he makes it look like a tie between Purvis and Dillinger, when the FBI lost big time.  In the movie, Baby Face Nelson is shot and killed, although Dillinger gets away.  In reality, both gangsters got away, and two innocent bystanders were killed because FBI agents were so spooked in the dark woods that they shot at the first people they saw.  The movie does not make it seem like those two bodies were bystanders.  The movie also suggests that the FBI knew Dillinger was there because they brazenly tortured an accomplice who was dying in jail.  Although the FBI was "taking the gloves off," the FBI was clued into Dillinger's presence because the owner of the Little Bohemia resort contacted them.  So, the FBI knew Dillinger's gang was there, had the drop on them, but at the end had only dead bodies of FBI agents and bystanders to show for it.  This is definitely not reflected in the movie, mostly by falsely showing Nelson to have been killed there.

Of course, I ruined the movie by reading the book; I know that.  So, see the movie -- then read the book!

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