Public Enemies, action auteur Michael Manns latest, is set to revive interest in John Dillinger following its premiere in Chicago next Thursday. From what has been seen of it so far the movie promises to be a gem, but its hardly charting new cinematic territory. OWF thought it might be a good idea to put the picture into perspective by casting a glance upon previous cinematic takes on the Depression eras most famous stick-up man. By the time John Dillinger met his maker outside a Chicago cinema in 1934 it must have been clear to all and sundry that he was on track to become a future icon of the silver screen. The grandiloquence of his criminal exploits made it virtually impossible for Hollywood to ignore him. All that remained to be decided was the slant of the forthcoming portrayals. Would Dillinger be shown as a Robin Hood figure or as a rogue raider with a violent thirst for other peoples money? The very first movie to deal with the Indianapolis-born bandit was a B-flick named Dillinger, directed by the now obscure Max Nossek and released in 1945. Nossek clearly had no doubt which take on the Dillinger myth he was going with. As David Mamet has pointed out, the traditional cleansing reduction of the American gangster film is the rather repetitive crime doesnt pay and Dillinger falls firmly within such classical parameters. In order to achieve the required condemnatory tone Nosseck and his scriptwriter Philip Yordan opted for a mere caricature of Dillinger the historical figure. There is barely a trace of the actual facts and the characters that played a part in them. Real life protagonists such as Melvin Purvis and his trigger-happy FBI G-men and colourful Dillinger sidekicks like Baby Face Nelson are nowhere to be found. Moreover, Dillinger himself is cast as a cold-blooded killer, with several murders which never happened attributed to him. The charm and charisma that clearly characterised the flesh and blood man is practically discarded out of hand and replaced with a combination of cowardice and viciousness. The result is that, while several of the most hackneyed of Dillingers exploits are employed to move the story forward, the film has very little to say on the actual history of Depression-era gang violence. That is not necessarily a terrible thing. Personally, I do not hold a lack of historical accuracy as an argument against any film. If you want nothing but the bare facts read a history book or watch a documentary. A films first duty, above all others, is to entertain, not to inform. And on that count Dillinger doesnt do too badly. The storys alternate history is a fairly typical rise and fall of an American gangster yarn, but it at least manages to use the conflict between original gang leader Specs Green (Edmund Lowe) and Dillinger to create a decent amount of dramatic tension. The films set pieces, such as a prison breakout orchestrated by Dillinger from the outside, tend to stretch suspension of disbelief without entirely destroying it. The script seems dated now, especially in terms of dialogue, but it was decent enough to get it an Oscar nomination in 1946. Nonetheless, the films greatest asset is the cast rather than the story. While certainly not start-studded, it reads as a whos who of classic American heist/gangster movies. Lawrence Tierney, now mainly remembered by film fans as the bald and grumpy ringleader Joe Cabot in Quentin TarantinosReservoir Dogs, does a solid job as the titular character. The nastiness that the script attributes to Dillinger clearly came natural to Tierney, who had several run-ins with the law and once claimed to have thrown about seven acting careers away due to drink. His backup is equally convincing. The fictional gang members are sketched by legendary bit players such as Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Killing) and Marc Lawrence, who earned a spot in film history with his marvellous performance as Cobby, the cowardly bookie in John Hustons noir masterpiece The Asphalt Jungle. Together with Anne Jeffreys as Dillingers moll, they offer believable characters which fit right into the genres archetypes without feeling too clichéd.
This lack of too much cliché, reinforced by some better than average performances and an ok script is pretty much all anyone can ask of an ancient B-movie, so the film should still be of interest to devotees of the gangster genre. Just dont expect it to teach you much about the man who Johnny Depp plays in Public Enemies.