Hollywood goes gangster

 

When Anna Sage, the Romanian prostitute who became known as the Woman in Red, phoned police about Dillinger's whereabouts on the afternoon of July 22, 1934, she named two Chicago movie houses where they might be seeing a film: the Marbro or the Biograph. She needn't have hedged. The Marbro, which was halfway across town from Dillinger, was showing a Shirley Temple film, Little Miss Marker. But the air-conditioned Biograph was showing what passed for a gangster film in 1934, MGM's Manhattan Melodrama.

Dillinger was said to be a fan of gangster movies, and if one considers newsreels to be films of a sort, he starred in a few pictures himself, a handsome, lean Midwestern man playing a relaxed, jokey figure whose attitude suggested that no prison walls could hold him. And, in a publicity stunt that anticipated the multimedia oeuvre of Osama bin Ladin, Dillinger began planning a film (and autobiography) about himself and his gang just before his death.

According to G. Russell Girardin's Dillinger: The Untold Story, Dillinger and his associate Homer van Meter conceived of a film showing them exhibiting their guns and detailing a bank robbery, then delivering a "crime doesn't pay" sermon. The "message to the youth of America" would urge the audience to follow a different path, because despite some obvious benefits of being a bank robber, the gang was "hunted like rats, and driven from one crime to another simply to raise the money needed to buy another day's protection." The film, which would have closely hewed to the spirit of Hollywood gangster films in glorifying the criminal lifestyle and then reminding the audience that crime doesn't pay, never came to fruition.

One presumes that Dillinger was looking for a shoot-'em-up when he went out to the movies that day, but while Manhattan Melodrama depicts a couple murders and a few minutes in a high-class gambling parlor, the film is caught in a post-Code schizophrenic limbo; made at a time when Hollywood was cleaning up its image, it offers the pleasures of violence, sexual tension and witty repartee leavened with weighty moralizing and a gangster who begs for his own punishment.

The plot is familiar: Two orphans, Blackie (Clark Gable) and Jim (William Powell), grow up on either side of the law with Eleanor (Myrna Loy) caught between them; first attracted to Blackie's rather muted flash, she ends up preferring Jim's conservatism and moral rectitude, accepting his offer of marriage. Blackie and Jim remain friends into adulthood, but their conflicting ways of life eventually come into conflict, and District Attorney Jim tries and convicts Blackie for murder. Jim, who becomes governor of New York while Blackie is waiting on death row, cold-bloodedly turns down Blackie's request for commutation (reasoning that friendship should not factor into such decisions), but then, visiting Blackie at Sing-Sing hours before the scheduled execution, offers his friend a reprieve. But this is Hollywood in the mid-'30s, and filmmakers were making up for those years when gangsters and sexpots were all the rage, so Blackie refuses Jim's offer with a smile, insanely accepting his sentence for the good of the state.

Would Dillinger have noticed some parallels between Manhattan Melodrama and his own life? We certainly can't miss them. In the melodramatic version of Dillinger's life, two men on either side of the law fought to the end. In the one corner, Melvin Purvis, the G-man, vaulted to his own stardom as he chased down scofflaws under the auspices of the newly created FBI. And in the other corner, Dillinger, the romanticized bank robber whose exploits were the stuff of newsreels and tabloids throughout the early '30s.

1945's Dillinger depicts the gangster as a cold-blooded killer (mowing down an elderly couple when they try to ring up the police), and something of a psychopath, communicating his bloodlust through thousand-yard stares and sinister eyebrow lifts, a heavy driven by revenge, stupid and devoid of humor. The picture, a cheapie made by the B-movie factory Biograph, is a generic gangster film with a few elements lifted from Dillinger's bio. What isn't invented for the film is misrepresented. For instance, the grocery store that Dillinger knocks off is on an urban, New York set, and Dillinger seems to hide out by himself in the city, slowly going insane, for months on end.

It may seem obvious that a figure like Dillinger was a headline-grabber forging his own myth, but Hollywood didn't grant him (or any other gangsters) that level of sophistication and media savvy much before the revisionist gangster movie Bonnie and Clyde rolled along in the late '60s.

By hewing closer to Dillinger's life - acknowledging the grey area between crime and the law, depicting both violence and humor - Dillinger, the 1973 directorial debut by John Milius (a co-screenwriter on Apocalypse Now), ends up seeming countercultural, fresh and a little dangerous, revisionist only because it seemed to come closer to the truth than Hollywood had previously allowed. Played by Warren Oates, Dillinger is self-conscious about his image - he resents being compared to a more famous movie star, Douglas Fairbanks - and more consumed by his fantasy of becoming a movie star than he knows - he's said to "treat all the girls like movie stars" as if it were his tragic flaw.

But his nemesis, Purvis (Ben Johnson), is also very attentive to his image, pursuing the headlines and playing the hero by ambushing gangsters without any backup. Sex and violence go a long way towards accomplishing verisimilitude: Purvis's omnipresent cigar puts him in an oral stage as he pursues his idée fixe; Dillinger slaps around his girl, urging her to call herself a "whore" in the same honest fashion that he calls himself a bank robber. Location scouting also accomplished quite a bit: Dillinger and his gang travel down dusty roads, driving beside abandoned gas stations and silos, holing up in ramshackle houses in the middle of cornfields, moving through a degraded landscape where the people sometimes side with the gangsters, sometimes with the law, depending on who's watching.

A B-movie produced for American International Pictures, Dillinger transcends its marginal status but isn't quite as sophisticated or well-crafted as Bonnie and Clyde, and there is still much to explore at the close of the film - Johnson's Purvis isn't given enough material or screen time to effectively go mano-a-mano with Oates' excellent Dillinger; and the shootouts are overlong and stylistically inconsistent (too light and comedic, often). If a remake of Bonnie and Clyde would have to escape from the influence of its well-known precursor, there's still plenty of opportunity for a film like Public Enemies to reinvent the Dillinger story on its own terms.

The New York Times reports that Michael Mann had been working on a script for what became Public Enemies since the late '70s, becoming interested in Depression era crime after seeing art films at the Biograph (that same Biograph where Dillinger was killed). He started working on a screenplay about Alvin Karpis, but moved his attention to Dillinger in the '80s. After several false starts, Mann and a studio executive bought the rights to Bryan Burrough's book Public Enemies in 2004, cut out all the parts not about the FBI and Dillinger, and after several drafts, hurried into production in 2007. Mann shot quickly, mostly on locations in the Midwest.

If no prior film version of Dillinger's story has been entirely successful, it might be because of a failure to bring Dillinger and Purvis to life, to adequately characterize people who were both flesh and blood and the repository for so many fantasies. Mann told the New York Times that one of his goals was to film a more thorough biography of his two main characters.

"You know John Dillinger is going to die in front of the Biograph," he said in a 2009 interview. "So by then the story has to have hijacked the show-and-tell nature of the plot. The story has to be about the inner experience of the guy, so that by the end, it's not about him getting shot. Do you understand his inner experience? Is your heart with him? Do you know him? That's the battle."

All films discussed are commercially available in one format or another. Manhattan Melodrama airs July 1 at 8 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies.

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