Public Enemies: Michael Mann’s Motive to Make John Dillinger Picture

Few filmmakers have explored in-depth the psychology of individuals, often law-breakers and criminals, caught in extreme circumstances, with the cinematic power of Michael Mann.  This view was evident in Thief, Manhunter, Ali and Heat to The Last of the Mohicans, Collateral, and Miami Vice.  His work has brought to the screen a series of iconic figures, embodied by the most commanding actors of our time, Pacino and de Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell.


In one of his most ambitious projects, the gangster saga “Public Enemies,” Mann directs one of our most gifted contemporary actors, Johnny Depp, in the story of the short, dangerous life of John Dillinger.


Mann examines the man whose criminal exploits captivated a nation besieged by financial hardship and ready to celebrate a mythic figure who robbed the banks that had impoverished them and outsmarted the authorities who had failed to remedy their hard times, who inspired the first nationwide war on crime, who led a band of accomplished armed robbers on a cascade of dazzling heists and improbable breakouts, and whose dashing manner and charisma entranced not only a special woman but an entire country: legendary Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger.


Dillinger’s bank robberies made him the number-one target of J. Edgar Hoover’s (Billy Crudup) fledgling FBI and its top agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).  No one could stop Dillinger and his gang. No jail could hold him. His charm and audacious jailbreaks endeared him to almost everyone—from his girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) to Americans who were looking for a symbol to divert them from their everyday hardships. They found it in the man who took from the banks the monies they felt the banks had wrongly taken from them.


Though many essays, books, songs and films have told fascinating stories from the Great Depression, Mann has long been interested in examining this turbulent era through the experience of a criminal who became a folk hero for a generation. For Americans in the early 1930s, who watched their life savings vanish and became jobless and hungry, they found a hero in a man who robbed and challenged the banks that caused the collapse and the government that could not fix it: John Herbert Dillinger.


Mann, who had previously written a screenplay about the era—about the famed train robber and bank robber Alvin Karpis—explains Dillinger’s appeal: “Dillinger, probably the best bank robber in American history, only lasted 13 months. He was paroled in May of 1933, and by July 22, 1934, he was dead. Dillinger didn’t ‘get out’ of prison; he exploded onto the landscape. And he was going to have everything and get it right now. In assaulting the banks, and outwitting the government, it’s as if he spoke for the people battered by the Depression. He was a celebrity outlaw, a populist hero.”


“Their mobility and use of technology made them almost invincible,” says Mann. “This was happening at a time when massive forces conspired against Dillinger: what Hoover built with the FBI—the first national police force, the first interstate crime bill, the use of very progressive, modern technology and data management. They were doing what is routine in law enforcement now, but what had never been done before in this country.”

“Deep in the core of Johnny there’s a toughness,” commends Mann. “When we started talking about it, he said that he had been interested in Dillinger for a long time and that Dillinger reminded him of some people from his past. He had Dillinger in him; that’s something I sensed. Everybody has these dark currents inside of us, but to be able to reach down in a movie and plumb those depths and bring that up, that’s courageous.”

A keen historian, the writer-director gives an example of just how easy it was for Dillinger and his crew to get away with it all as they robbed. “Indiana State Police had 27 officers for the whole state of Indiana,” Mann offers. “Law enforcement was local, underpaid, poorly supplied, and they didn’t talk to anybody else. They didn’t know what was going on in the next county, unless it was anecdotally in a bar or in a café. If you’re a crew of bank robbers, you could commit a bank robbery in Indiana, go across the border into Illinois and be home free. There was no law against interstate crime and no federal police force at all.”

Mann explains why the gangster felt comfortable mingling in the open: “Dillinger’s natural charisma, his savvy about public relations, made him popular and charismatic, and he hid out in public. There were people who spotted him, saw him, and they didn’t turn him in.” Until the “Lady in Red.”

To understand Billie Frechette, Mann spent a good deal of time uncovering the history of the woman who became the singular love of Dillinger’s life. “I tried to figure out the life of Billie: what she was about, what she was doing and how she got by in the Depression,” he states. “She worked as a hatcheck girl at The Steuben Club; she was an ambitious young woman from a small town making her way in Chicago. What also is very significant is her upbringing. As a Menominee Indian,
she was very much a second-class citizen, an outsider.”

For Mann, the challenge of preparation is “trying to make 1933 come alive. And be alive just the way it’s alive for you right now in 2009. And that meant not just how things looked, but how people thought. How men courted women in 1933. How ex-convicts thought about life and their fate in 1933. What the material world meant to those who were hungry and denied. The desperation on the streets.”

“We were able to shoot not just in the actual place where this happened, but in his actual room,” reveals Mann. “As you can imagine, there’s a certain kind of magic, a kind of resonance, for Johnny Depp to be lying in the bed that John Dillinger was actually in. When he puts his hand on the doorknob and opens the door, it’s the same doorknob that Dillinger put his hand on and opened.”

As the team reconstructed events, Mann was most exacting. He explains the process: “We rebuilt the street front of the Biograph. We engineered it so that we were able to stage exactly where Dillinger was when he died—the same square foot of pavement that he died on—so that when Johnny looked up he saw the last thing Dillinger saw. That means a lot to an actor and to a director, to find yourself in those environments where you can suspend your disbelief and give yourself the magic of the moment.”