Public Enemies

It’s enemies plural because there are several of them — and you may even have heard of Pretty Boy Floyd, for instance, though you have to look fast to see him in this movie — but it’s really all about Public Enemy #1, of course, Mr. John Dillinger himself. You can tell he’s the important one, not to mention the charismatic one, because they got Johnny Depp to play him. (And let me just add here how incredibly relieved I am that they didn’t let Leonardo DiCaprio play him. He has such a hard time looking mean.) He doesn’t really look like Dillinger, but he does pretty well with the attitude, which is sort of becoming his standard attitude. But hey, stick with what works.
This is based on a book called Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, but no one really cares about that, clearly, because as expected it ends up being more of a general outline. Most of the things that happen in the movie did happen, but some happened in a different order or in a different place, and lots of them have a slightly different spin on them. It’s Hollywood! We have to jazz it up for the ticket buyers!
Movie plot: Charming outlaw John Dillinger leads a daring escape from the very beginning of his second jail term, embarks on a life of crime, part two, and wins over the public with his polite ways (he offers his coat to a chilly hostage), care not to shoot anyone who isn’t already shooting at him, and crooked little smile. He meets a pretty girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), falls in love, robs more banks, falls in with a bad crowd — a worse crowd, I mean — and finally proves that Crime Doesn’t Pay.
Real story: Dillinger gets rescued by his friends at the beginning of his second jail term and actually does win over the public (see above), but not his wife, who divorced him while he was still in prison the first time around. But he still meets a pretty girl and falls in love, but her name is Evelyn Sparks, born Frechette, who sometimes used the alias Billie — Mrs. Evelyn Sparks, to be precise, but neither of them lets that little detail get in the way, as the unfortunate Mr. Sparks was in prison anyway. She apparently liked bad boys. And he was bad — John apparently also still had a favorite brothel, and later a favorite lady of the evening, but he was still very upset whenever he and Billie/Evelyn couldn’t be together.

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Twins! Okay, maybe not, but the attitudes match.
That all had to be tidied away for this, of course, but honestly, films like this just about have to ignore stuff like that. It was almost two and a half hours as it was. There was a good crowd, though — parts of it were filmed not very far from where I live, which makes sense, since John did spend most of his life and criminal career in the upper midwest. Little Bohemia Lodge, for instance, where Dillinger and “Baby Face” Nelson had a massive shootout with federal agents, is in northern Wisconsin. You can still go up there and find cartridges and see bullet holes and some luggage the gangsters left behind, because the owners of Little Bohemia know a good tourist-attracting scheme when they see one. Anyway, lots of people who live around here were extras for some of the street scenes. The two bank robberies that actually took place in in Racine, WI, and Sioux Falls, SD, were filmed in Oshkosh, WI, which isn’t terribly far from where I’m sitting right now. Several people in the audience could be overheard pointing out buildings they recognized.
Now, because I write these, I always try to avoid other people’s reviews. I don’t want to be influenced one way or the other, though I suppose I just end up looking silly if I disagree with absolutely everybody. So I usually don’t read reviews after I write mine, either. Anyway, the point is, this time I’m borrowing the overheard assessment of the other two people who stayed behind to watch the credits with me: Not great.
That translates to three idols. Not a sad score by any means, but a lot less than I was hoping to give. Like a lot of biopics, it was a little too long, and a little too twitchy sometimes, which will happen when you have to cut out large chunks of your subject’s life to avoid making a four-hour movie, but is still kind of a shame, and kind of annoying. Because they all worked hard on this. They used Little Bohemia, and the movie theatre where Dillinger was shot, and everything looked wonderful. But in the end, there wasn’t really a character who I could sympathize with. Johnny Depp and Christian Bale as determined FBI agent Melvin Purvis both act up a storm, but the agent is too distant and the character not developed as much as I would have liked, and Dillinger was, well, Dillinger. He may have been a gentlemanly crook, but he was still a crook, so there’s only so much you can do with him.