THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

As Dillinger, Depp takes on a role and a legend

‘Public Enemies’ gives actor a shot at telling infamous figure’s story

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 28, 2009
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Michael Mann has a thing for American renegades.

Some of them were created by others (Hannibal Lecter, in “Manhunter,’’ Natty Bumppo, in “The Last of the Mohicans’’). Some of them Mann created himself (Crockett and Tubbs, in “Miami Vice,’’ Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s cat-and-mouse cop and crook, in “Heat’’). At least one created himself (“Ali’’).

The population of that last category is about to double: Mann’s “Public Enemies,’’ with Johnny Depp as Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger, opens Wednesday.

Dillinger isn’t the only famous historical figure in “Public Enemies.’’ The law-enforcement side boasts J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Criminals include Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Alvin Karpis.

So far as Hollywood’s concerned, though, Dillinger (1903-1934) is in a real-life class by himself. For one thing, the circumstances of his death made him one of the most famous moviegoers in film history. It was outside a Chicago theater where he’d just seen a Clark Gable crime picture, “Manhattan Melodrama,’’ that FBI agents gunned him down. His death was the closing credit to end all closing credits.

Dillinger had become a pop-cultural sensation months before that. At one point in 1934, the FBI was devoting a third of its budget to chasing Dillinger. An updated Jesse James or Billy the Kid, he was the 20th-century outlaw, par excellence.

There was the frisson of his surname, for starters, with its similarity to Derringer, the celebrated make of pistol. There was his handsomeness, for another: dimpled chin, dapper mustache, deep-set eyes, and, in the words of film historian Carlos Clarens, “a lopsided grin not unlike Gable’s.’’ If movie-star looks weren’t enough, there was movie-star derring-do to go with them: leaping over bank counters (an idea he said he got from the movies), last-minute getaways, a pair of successful jailbreaks.

Dillinger had an inventiveness worthy of a screenwriter. On several occasions, he learned the details of banks’ security systems by pretending to work for a company that made alarms. Another time, he had his gang masquerade as a film crew scouting locations for a bank heist scene.

How could Hollywood not love Dillinger? He was practically one of its own.

In fact, it took nearly a dozen years before the first Dillinger movie was made - and that cooling-off period didn’t happen by chance. Hollywood was all too aware of the criminal’s potential screen appeal.

Shortly after Dillinger was killed, on Sept. 22, 1934, Will H. Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America, sent the following telegram: “No motion picture on the life or exploits of John Dillinger will be produced, distributed, or exhibited. . . . This decision is based on the belief that the production, distribution, or exhibition of such a picture could be detrimental to the best public interest. Advise all studio heads accordingly.’’

That didn’t keep Hollywood from making gangster pictures. Films like “Little Caesar’’ (1931), “Scarface’’ (1932), and, of course, “Manhattan Melodrama’’ preceded Dillinger’s demise; and films like “Dead End,’’ “The Last Gangster’’ (both 1937) and “Angels With Dirty Faces’’ (1938), among many others, followed it. But none of them were Dillinger pictures.

Yet even as his image grew less dangerous, his fame lived on. (Dillinger, in that respect, is like Al Capone, another eventual Hollywood mainstay.) More than a dozen actors have played Dillinger in films or on television. They include Martin Sheen (“Dillinger and Capone,’’ 1995), Mark Harmon (“Dillinger,’’ 1991), Robert Conrad (“The Lady in Red,’’ 1979), Warren Oates (“Dillinger,’’ 1973), and Ralph Meeker (“Dillinger,’’ 1960).

Oates bore the strongest physical resemblance to the real-life Dillinger, and the period of that film’s making - the late ’60s and early ’70s - demonstrated a marked affinity to Dillinger’s era. It’s there not just in movies like “Bonnie and Clyde’’ (1967) and “Thieves Like Us’’ (1974), but also “Paper Moon’’ (1973).

It would come as no surprise if Depp proves to be top gun among screen Dillingers: Jack Sparrow on dry land, minus the clowning and kohl-lined eyes. There’s no question, though, who’s been the most memorable screen Dillinger up to now: Lawrence Tierney, in “Dillinger’’ (1945), the film that ended Hollywood’s self-imposed ban.

Lawrence Who? Actually, even if you don’t recognize the name, you likely know him. Tierney played Elaine’s father on “Seinfeld.’’ It was an episode called “The Jacket.’’ Jerry’s so intimidated by Tierney’s tough-guy manner he feels compelled to wear his expensive new suede jacket in the rain, and ruin it, rather than turn it inside out and reveal its effeminate-looking lining. And in “Reservoir Dogs’’ (1992), Tierney is criminal mastermind Joe Cabot, the man behind the robbery. He’s easily the toughest guy in the movie (which is really saying something).

Still, Tierney’s toughness as Cabot is near beer compared with his Dillinger. This Dillinger is such a thuggish bruiser he actually uses an ax to kill someone (shades of De Niro’s Capone using a baseball bat, in “The Untouchables,’’ 1987). Unlike Depp, Tierney doesn’t look at all like Dillinger. He has the bulk, and manner, of a ’roid-rage Robert Mitchum. But that discrepancy underscores the power of the Dillinger mystique. Just the man’s name on a marquee was enough to make the connection for audiences in 1945.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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