Public Enemies

By on May 15, 2010

This is the story of the last few years of the depression era bank robber John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp). He loved what he did and could imagine little else that would make him happier. Living openly in 1930s Chicago, he had the run of the city with little fear of reprisals from the authorities: as long as he paid off the right people and followed the rules. It’s there that he meets Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) with whom he falls deeply in love. In parallel we meet Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the relentless FBI agent who would eventually track Dillinger down. The FBI was is in its early days and Director J. Edgar Hoover was keen to consolidate his power, prestige and influence, at the same time promote the clean cut image that so dominated the organization through his lifetime. Purvis eventually realizes that if he is going to get Dillinger, he will have to use street tactics and import like minded heavy-handed authorities who are unafraid to use any means necessary. After a few near misses, Dillinger is eventually betrayed by an acquaintance who tells the authorities just where to find him on a given night.

As a result of the writers’ strike, director Michael Mann was able to cast Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard once their respective projects had been postponed. Depp was preparing to film Shantaram (2011) with Mira Nair while Cotillard was rehearsing for Rob Marshall’s musical, Nine (2009).

Leonardo DiCaprio was initially attached to star in a leading role when this project was put into development in 2004.

In the trailer Johnny Depp says to one of the bank customers, “We’re here for the bank’s money, not your money.” This line was in a previous Michael Mann film. It was said by Robert De Niro in Heat (1995). In the finished film, this line is reversed to “We’re not here for your money, we’re here for the bank’s.”

This is the third time Johnny Depp and James Russo work together on a film. They both appeared in Donnie Brasco (1997) and The Ninth Gate (1999).


John Dillinger was actually left-handed. The gun holding by Johnny Depp is backwards.

Not only was the line, “we’re here for the bank’s money, not yours” used in a previous Michael Mann film, but an almost identical phrase was heard in Arthur Penn’s classic, Bonnie and Clyde (1967). In the latter, Clyde, upon seeing a pile of cash at a teller’s window, asks the customer if that’s his money or the bank’s.

While filming on location in Oshkosh, WI a boy aged 11 told Johnny Depp he loved his fedora hat and would like to have one like it. Depp told the boy he would see what he could do about that. After filming finished, Depp sent the boy the hat in the mail.

Contains a spoiler to the Clark Gable movie Manhattan Melodrama (1934).

Former Ethiopian Emperor and Rastafari Messiah Haile Selassie appears in an uncredited role in a newsreel.

In the scene where Baby Face Nelson kills FBI Agent Carter Baum, Nelson really did say “I know you sons of bitches wear vests, so I’m gonna hit you high and low!” Also, the gun Nelson uses in that scene, a .45 Automatic modified into a mini-machine gun, was something Nelson actually used (as did Homer Van Meter). It was made especially for Nelson by a gunsmith in San Antonio, Texas.

Although Billie Frenchette was never given “third degree” interrogation by the FBI as shown in the movie, the FBI agents did in fact perform similar tactics on Helen Nelson (the wife of Baby Face Nelson), Alvin Carpis, and an Dillinger associate in Chicago named James Probasco. In the instance of Probasco, he ended up falling to his death from a upper-floor window. Offically, it is believed he committed suicide in order to avoid further interrogation. However, some historians believe that the FBI agents interrogating Probasco attempted to make him talk by hanging him out of a window and that the agents lost their grip on Probasco.

Dillinger’s quote “we’re here for the bank’s money, not yours” is based on a real statement he made during the course of a bank robbery in Greencastle, Indiana. Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde would later use a similar quote in one of his gang’s robberies, as he reportedly idolized Dillinger.

It’s true that Dillinger enjoyed taking photographs of police officers when the opportunity presented itself, and even late in his career he would often attend Cubs games and frequent bars in Chicago, but he probably didn’t enter the offices of the Dillinger Squad, as depicted in the film. Dillinger also tended to brag about his exploits. As with many other events in his life, he would have surely related such a fantastic thing to his family, his lawyer, or his lawyer’s investigator, Art O’Leary, a man Dillinger often confided in. However, according to Burrough’s book, he did enter the same building as the Chicago police department on a few occasions, and he did accompany Polly Hamilton into the building to get her waitress’s license.

After his embarrassment before the Senate Appropriations Comitte, J. Edgar Hoover is telling his assistant to release a press statement through Walter Winchell to discredit the senator who humiliated Hoover. Walter Winchell was famous radio show host and New York news columnist who was friends with Hoover. Winchell also hung around with famous New York gangsters like “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Frank Costello.

In the movie, John Dillinger and other bank robbers are seen having friendly relations with the Chicago Mafia. Specifically with Phillip D’Andrea, a top lieutenant in the Al Capone mob. In real life, Al Capone was said to admire bank robbers and would often allow bandits safe haven in Chicago under the mob’s protection. However, as also shown in the movie, after Frank Nitti took over the mob following Al Capone’s conviction for tax evasion, he cut off such resources to outlaws like Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Alvin Carpis because of the “heat” that was being brought down on the mobs because of the FBI’s furious hunt for these men.

John Hamilton was actually mortally wounded in a gun battle with police near Hastings, Minnesota, hours after leaving Little Bohemia. Hamilton died three or four days later, depending on the source, at the apartment of Barker-Karpis gang member Volney Davis in Aurora, Illinois. Dillinger and Van Meter, along with members of the Barker-Karpis gang, buried Hamilton in a gravel pit in Oswego, Illinois. In an attempt to prevent identification of the body, 10 cans of lye were poured on the corpse and the right hand was cut off. Agents recovered the body on August 28, 1935. The Bureau was able to identify Hamilton by his teeth. Hamilton’s teeth were later exhibited at the 1939 midwinter meeting of the Chicago Dental Society. Where Hamilton’s choppers are presently located is unknown. A gruesome FBI photo of the recovered body can be seen in the photo section of Dary Matera’s “The Life and Death of America’s First Celebrity Criminal.”

Billie Frechette (real name Mary Evelyn Frechette) was actually married to one Welton Spark at the time of her relationship with Dillinger. She married Spark in July 1932. He was convicted shortly thereafter for mail theft and received a 15-year term in Leavenworth, with a transfer to Alcatraz in September 1934. Her divorce from Spark wasn’t finalized until the early ’40s. She later married a man named Wally Wilson, the name she took to the grave. Wilson died unexpectedly, cause unknown, date unknown. Billie married Art Tic in 1965, a state game warden and barber from Shawano, Wisconsin. She died January 13, 1969, of mouth cancer. Mysteriously, her grave marker lists her name as Evelyn Tic (apparently against her wishes) and has the incorrect date of death as 1970.

Dillinger’s lawyer at Crown Point, Louis Piquett (pronounced “pick it”), never went to law school. He passed the bar on his fourth attempt, receiving his license to practice in 1920.

For John Dillinger’s famous escape from Crown Point Jail, the film makers decided to film at the real jail which had been closed and left in ruins for years. They restored the jail to it’s original condition as it would’ve appeared in 1934. They also filmed the Little Bohemia shoot out at the real lodge. Johnny Depp was actually staying in the same room the real Dillinger stayed in.

When Melvin Purvis shoots down “Pretty Boy” Floyd, he asks Floyd for info on the whereabouts of Harry Campbell. In reality, Floyd was never associated with Campbell who robbed banks with Alvin Karpis and “Ma” Barker’s sons. The reason for this question may’ve been to simplify the narrative of the story. In real life, “Pretty Boy” Floyd was wanted by the FBI for his alleged part in the “Kansas City Massacre” on June 17th, 1933 in which an FBI agent, two Kansas policemen, a retired Oklahoma sheriff, and their captive Frank “Jelly” Nash, were ambushed and killed. This was the crime that set into motion the rise of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI and the start of the “War On Crime”. Since this fact would (or could) possibly make the story on film more convoluted, the film makers instead have Purvis question Floyd about Campbell rather than the massacre as he did in real life.

While at the horse track in Florida, Frank Nitti asks Phillip D’Andrea whether or not it’s hot outside, saying “Ever since those pricks shot me, I can’t stay warm.” This is an allusion to a failed attempt on Nitti’s life by a corrupt cop named Harry Lang who tried and failed to murder Nitti during a police raid.

In preparation for his role as Melvin Purvis, Christian Bale met with Purvis’s son, Alston, and several close friends of the real Melvin Purvis in order to learn his attitudes, mannerisms, and speech patterns. By the same token, Johnny Depp went to the John Dillinger Museum in Indiana and was allowed to read some of his letters. According to Depp in the DVD documentary, he even tried on the pants Dillinger wore the night he was shot. With a laugh, Depp says the pants fit him perfectly.

The melodramatic dialog between Dillinger’s lawyer Louis Piquett (pronounced “Pickett”), prosecutor Robert Estill, and Sherriff Lilian Holley concerning the removal of Dillinger’s shackles and Piquett’s request to keep Dillinger at Crown Point are virtually word for word the interaction between them in the court records. This includes Sherriff Holley’s affirmation (which later proved a regretful statement) that Crown Point was “The safest jail in Indiana.”

The gunfight at the lodge in the woods was filmed at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, WI which is the actual location where the gunfight between Dillinger and the FBI took place in 1934. In fact, shell casings from the 1934 gunfight can still be found in the woods surrounding the lodge.

Channing Tatum (Pretty Boy Floyd), Billy Crudup (J. Edgar Hoover), David Wenham (Harry Pierpont) and Christian Stolte (Charles Makley) are the only actors in the film playing characters their own age. All of the other actors in the film play characters much younger than themselves. Melvin Purvis was 28 years old during the events in the film and Christian Bale was 35 during the shoot. John Dillinger was 31 at the time of his death, while Johnny Depp is 45 in the film. 35-year-old Stephen Graham is playing a 25-year-old Baby Face Nelson, Stephen Dorff, also 35, plays a 27-year-old Homer Van Meter, and Giovanni Ribisi, 34, plays 27-year-old Alvin Carpis.

The portrayal of the death of gangster George Baby Face Nelson in this film is completely fictionalized. Nelson died in bed having been mortally wounded in a shootout with federal agents months after the death of John Dillinger.

When Dillinger’s body was lying in the street outside the Biograph theater, many by-standers dipped handkerchiefs in his blood to keep as a souvenir.

Just before John Dillinger goes to the movies the night he is killed, when John is washing and shaving, the camera pans across a table where we see his pocket watch, gun, glasses, and a money belt. According to Anna Sage (aka “The Woman In Red”), Dillinger was wearing a money belt with $3,000 inside. However, when Dillinger was killed, the money belt was nowhere to be found. Historians have speculated that Sgt. Martin Zarkovich, who was a part of Purvis’s posse at the theater, stole the money.

At one point, Alvin Karpis is seen planning a federal reserve train robbery with John Dillinger. In real life, the robbery was set up by an underworld associate of Dillinger, Karpis, and “Baby Face” Nelson named William Murray. Interestingly, Murray had set up the exact same robbery back in 1925 with the Newton Brothers (as seen in the film The Newton Boys (1998)). Although John Dillinger was killed before he could take part in the robbery, Alvin Carpis did pull it off on November 7th, 1935.

John Dillinger was shot to death by FBI agents on the night of July 22, 1934 while exiting Chicago’s Biograph Theater, where he had attended a screening of Manhattan Melodrama (1934). While the Biograph Theater was still operating at the time of the production of ‘Public Enemies,’ the interior had been converted into a number of smaller venues, and no longer resembled the Depression-era movie palace it had been at the time of Dillinger’s death. Production scouts for ‘Public Enemies’ found that the Paramount Theatre in nearby Aurora, Illinois resembled the Biograph Theater of 1934 enough to double as that venue. For that reason, the interiors for two scenes were filmed there: The scene in which John Dillinger and his cohorts attend a movie and are alarmed to see themselves and their photographs featured during a newsreel, and the scene taking place immediately prior to Dillinger’s death. The exterior of the Biograph Theater during the latter scene, however, depicts that actual historic venue, ‘dressed’ to appear as it did in 1934.

Pretty Boy Floyd was killed after Dillinger, not before, as depicted in the film. He was shot and killed on October 22nd, 1934. Three months to the day after Dillinger.

Due to the concern of grave robbers, officials at Crown Hill Cemetery persuaded Dillinger’s father to have his famous son’s grave re-opened so as to place staggered concrete slabs, along with poured concrete and chicken wire, in and around the grave as a permanent deterrent. He’d already been offered $10,000 from a Wisconsin carnival man to “borrow” Dillinger’s body for his show, an offer that was fiercely rejected. The grave work was done within a day or two of the initial burial. The identity of who paid for this expensive preventative measure is unknown.

Most accounts have Dillinger dying within moments of getting shot outside of the Biograph. According to Special Agent Robert Gillespie, who was right beside the outlaw after he fell, it was approximately three minutes before Dillinger took his last gasp of air.

After ratting Dillinger out to the Bureau in exchange for assurances that she be allowed to stay in the U.S., Anna Sage (real name Ana Cumpanas) collected a $5,000 reward and was duly deported back to Romania 21 months after the Biograph shooting.

The film has a similar structure to Michael Mann’s _Heat (1995)_. In that film, criminal Robert De Niro and cop Al Pacino engage in a chase. They meet briefly at the halfway point, and it ends in a bloody confrontation with De Niro dead. Criminal Johnny Depp and FBI agent Christian Bale go through the exact same chain of events.

Stephen Lang revealed that it took 221 takes to get it right where Winstead fires point blank at Dillinger when leaving the theater.



About Thomas DiSanto

Thomas DiSanto is an award winning author and one of the world's top bloggers.