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Friday, April 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Fair
The Daily

PUBLIC ENEMIES

Bryan Burrough brings the Dirty Thirties to life in Public Enemies
A review of the cops versus robbers book that inspired the movie


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Don't let anyone tell you criminality means sloppy dressing. According to Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough, legendary gangster John Dillinger was the nattiest of bank robbers.

"Like generations of farm boys before him, Dillinger was a bit of a clothes horse," writes the author and Vanity Fair correspondent, "keeping his suits pressed and his hats blocked." Dillinger's neat fashions were part of his mystique, along with his athletic penchant for leaping over bank rails during holdups. Both helped make him a national folk hero during the crime spree that ended on July 22, 1934, when he was killed by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre.

Dillinger's story is told, and told well, by Burrough in the 2004 book, which is the basis for the movie opening July 1. If you haven't heard, that movie stars Johnny Depp as Dillinger. I was reminded of that fact by the Penguin movie tie-in edition I bought, the cover of which features a glowering, hat-wearing Depp. He looks as pallid playing Dillinger as he did playing Sweeney Todd.

Given the forcefulness of that cover image, you might think Burrough's Public Enemies is a biography of John Dillinger. It isn't, quite. Burrough very expertly weaves together the stories of various of the era's outlaws, who committed a series of sensational crimes across the nation's midsection. Public Enemies' famous miscreants include Bonnie and Clyde, Lester Gillis (aka "Baby Face Nelson") and Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd -- as well as the Barker gang, which FBI director J. Edgar Hoover said was led by elderly Kate "Ma" Barker, as a justification for having her gunned down. (It seems he lied.)

Binding the criminals' stories together is another fascinating yarn, about the early years of the FBI itself. Hoover declared a War on Crime in the wake of the Kansas City Massacre, which saw law enforcement officials shot down on June 17, 1933 by a group that supposedly included "Pretty Boy" Floyd, though that is disputed.

What isn't disputed is that the FBI as we know it today emerged in the wake of the massacre, as Hoover assembled the team of young law-school graduates that became the bureau's agents. The bureau fumbled in some of its early efforts. Those included the notorious 1934 shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish, Wisconsin, when Dillinger and his gang slipped away from federal agents, who meanwhile shot innocent locals. One agent also was slain.

The violence of the Little Bohemia incident speaks to the sheer ruthlessness of the era's criminals. One of the most brutal was Chicagoan Baby Face Nelson, who killed that lawman at Little Bohemia. "At his worst," Burrough writes, "Nelson was a caricature of the public enemy, a callous, wild-eyed machine gunner who actually laughed as he sprayed bullets toward women and children in at least two of his robberies."

Burrough also paints striking portraits of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who became truly famous only in the wake of Arthur Penn's 1967 film about them. In his bank-robbing exploits, Barrow seemingly adopted Dillinger as a role model, Burrough writes, and "at the very least he was aware of Dillinger's exploits and was attempting to emulate his successes." Parker, meanwhile, was "a bored waitress, a drama queen with a failed marriage who viewed Clyde as a ticket out of her humdrum existence."

But it was indeed Dillinger who emerged as the era's most affecting criminal. That was due in no small part to the promotional skills of Dillinger, who, Burrough notes, coached his victims on how best to tell their stories to the newspapers. Handsome, blithe, funny, smart with reporters, Dillinger was a prototype for a particular kind of American celebrity.

Of course, no less interested in publicity was Hoover himself, who carefully controlled the FBI's press relations and objected to Hollywood's depiction of federal crime-fighting only until the films became box-office smashes. Burrough reports that Hoover held a grudge against Melvin Purvis, the agent responsible for killing Dillinger, because Purvis took too much credit in the press for his successes.

Although there is visceral excitement in the scenes of Dillinger and the others committing their crimes, their lives more often seem suffused with restlessness, boredom, dread. When they were not holding up banks, the criminals moved aimlessly about the country, camping by roads, staying in the homes of friends for a night or two, then moving on.

Always they lived in fear of getting nabbed. (To help escape capture, Dillinger had plastic surgery to remove a chin cleft and several tell-tale moles.) Always they planned more crimes, for the day the money ran out. Finally, one by one, Hoover's FBI killed or captured them -- including the Barker gang ringleader Alvin Karpis, whose tropical flight from justice from Cuba to Florida and finally to New Orleans takes up much of the latter part of the book.

Although the era of these notable criminals is long past, its vivid legacy is the FBI. "The manhunts for Dillinger and his peers introduced America to an idea that we take for granted today," Burrough writes, "that the federal government bears the ultimate responsibility for the nation's law and order." As Burrough has it, the emergence of Hoover's FBI was another element in the federal government's multi-pronged expansion of the 1930s. "It served as powerful evidence of the Roosevelt administration's New Deal policies, boosting faith in the very idea of an activist central government."

But does the FBI retain its interest in dressing well? Burrough describes how the notoriously fussy Hoover required his agents to keep neat appearances. There's even mention of one prominent agent, Samuel P. Cowley, whose written performance review cited "thoughtlessness or carelessness in the selection of his tailor."

For all their differences, then, John Dillinger and J. Edgar Hoover apparently shared one value: having a good tailor.

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