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Gangster Hero No. 1

John Dillinger used his Midwestern sensibility to become a national celebrity in the 1930s

By Craig Fehrman · July 1st, 2009 · Movies

[Read Jason Gargano's review of Public Enemies here.]

By the summer of 1934, John Dillinger’s fame had caught up with him and his debts were getting close. Even at the tail end of a one-year crime spree totaling at least six states, 11 banks and $300,000, Dillinger remained a working-class hero.

The law saw things differently, promoting him to “Public Enemy No. 1” and increasing the reward for his capture to $15,000.

Stuck in Chicago, Dillinger tried to keep a low profile. But it proved costly — in bribes to nightclub owners and corrupt cops, in salaries to his gang and in payment to a hack plastic surgeon who lifted his face and melted off his fingerprints.

Dillinger tried selling an “exclusive” interview to a newspaper and tried writing a memoir. When neither panned out, he decided to direct and act in an autobiographical movie.

Dillinger already starred in the weekly newsreels — he often earned more applause than the feature movie — so this new career seemed like easy money. He planned to buy his own cameras and shoot in a remote location just south of Cleveland. He and a fellow criminal would trot out their machine guns and bulletproof vests and describe a past robbery, preferably with no casualties.

“We just want to tell them,” Dillinger said, speaking of America’s youth, “that crime does not pay.”

The movie deal soon fell apart, and Dillinger returned to a method with proven earning potential. On June 30, in what would be their final act together, the Dillinger gang robbed the Merchants’ National Bank in South Bend, Ind. They made off with almost $30,000, leaving behind a dead cop, wounded civilians and a street’s worth of shot-up storefronts. Perhaps Dillinger should have made his movie about that escapade.

In the last 75 years, of course, directors have done precisely that — most recently Michael Mann, whose Public Enemies opens this week and stars Johnny Depp as Dillinger. But the fact that Dillinger tried to make his own movie reveals how, from the very beginning, his legend has depended on both star power and small-town authenticity.

What’s so powerful about Dillinger is that he’s always been both “Midwestern” and “Hollywood.”

Hiding out in Hamilton

You can tell the story of John Dillinger many different ways: as an Indiana story (where he was born and raised), as an Illinois story (where he died), even as an Ohio story (where he got his start). Few opt for this last version, but the state of Ohio provided Dillinger with his first bank robbery and his personal moment of truth.

In 1924, when he was 21 and quite drunk, Dillinger tried (and failed) to rob an elderly grocer in his hometown of Mooresville, Ind. The local prosecutor suggested that Dillinger simply apologize and plead guilty. It seemed like sound advice, until the judge decided to make an example of Dillinger by sentencing him to 10-20 years.

When Dillinger finally was paroled in 1933, he must have been bitter. Whatever he felt, he wanted to free some real criminals he’d befriended in jail, and for this he needed money.

So on June 10, just as the National Bank in New Carlisle, Ohio, was opening, Dillinger and two others marched in. “All right, buddy,” Dillinger said — and one can almost hear the tremor in his voice — “open the safe.”

As the robbery moved along, Dillinger became more comfortable, grabbing people as they came in (“You hadn’t ought to come in the bank so early”) and even laying a smock on the floor for a female hostage. Still, he had a lot to learn.

At his next robbery, that same night in Indianapolis, the getaway driver parallel parked their car. Then Dillinger was arrested while visiting a girl in Dayton.

Four days later, Dillinger’s friends broke out of jail using guns he’d smuggled them. After setting up a hideout in Hamilton, Ohio, the group headed up to Lima, where Dillinger had been transferred, freeing him and killing the town’s sheriff in the process. The gang had to evade roadblocks and armed vigilantes, but they made it back to Hamilton that night.

At this point, Dillinger could have slipped back into normal life. He was still a nobody, and he and his friends were even: He’d freed them, and they’d returned the favor. Instead, Dillinger opted for the brief and heady life of high crime.

It wasn’t a glamorous life full of fancy hotels and high-speed chases.

(Indeed, the most surprising thing about this era is how many criminals died or were captured because of bad driving; they wrecked cars with the frequency of a GTA gamer, though finding a replacement was equally easy.)

But as Dillinger got better, he got noticed. The next time he went to jail, newspapers speculated about “a nationwide campaign, largely female, to prevent his frying in the electric chair.”

Ohio also hosted Dillinger’s pursuers, the still-new agency known as the FBI. Compared to the centralized, many-armed machine of today, the agency was ineffective and overworked. Agents couldn’t carry guns until 1933, and the FBI’s Cincinnati office — 12 men packed into a downtown space — had to cover not just Ohio but also Dillinger’s central Indiana stomping grounds.

Slowly, though, the FBI got better. And on July 22, 1934, on one of those impossibly humid Chicago summer nights, they killed John Dillinger as he exited a movie theater. He’d just seen Clark Gable’s Manhattan Melodrama, and it became the first of many movies closely associated with Dillinger.

Dillinger as movie star

People rarely die while doing something for the first time, and so it was with John Dillinger. Movies with sound didn’t catch on until well into his original 10-year sentence, and it makes sense that, once free, he’d love going to movies.

The movies loved him back. Dillinger had a gift for delivering film-quality dialogue in even the most stressful situations. As a Wisconsin robbery transitioned into a bloodbath, he waved his gun at a cop walking in: “Come right in and join us.”

During another robbery, he urged a panicky customer, “Go ahead and take your money. We don’t want your money. Just the bank’s.”

After his third capture, a reporter asked him if he was “glad to see Indiana again.” “About as glad as Indiana is to see me,” Dillinger replied.

It’s not surprising, then, that one witness described Dillinger as someone who “resembled a movie gangster.” Indeed, a few days after his most infamous stunt in Crown Point, Ind. — more on that in a moment — Paramount Studios announced a movie based on his life, with the working title A Man Without a City.

Again, the movie was never made, as Will Hays, the first president of the MPAA, quickly sent a telegram ordering that “no motion picture on the life or exploits of John Dillinger will be produced, distributed or exhibited. … The production of such a picture could be detrimental to the best public interest.”

Hays had nothing to worry about. The first movie to challenge his order was the 1945 B-movie Dillinger, starring Lawrence Tierney in his first leading role. Like the other adaptations of Dillinger’s life, it doesn’t live up to its source.

Dillinger’s promotional poster captures its attitude toward history: “His Story Is Written in Bullets, Blood and Blondes!” If that sounds like a potentially corrupting plot, it isn’t. Tierney’s Dillinger turns out to be more Othello than Robin Hood, an irrational, untrusting character with none of the real Dillinger’s quips and charm.

By 1973, when a second Dillinger came out, this time starring Warren Oates, Hollywood had moved past the strictures of Hays’ moral code. Oates also bears the best resemblance to Dillinger, who, with his heavy brow and lopsided quick-fire grin, was never handsome as much as beguiling. Still (and again), the movie goes out of its way to portray Dillinger as an antihero, insecure and crude.

Like the 1945 Dillinger, the movie became a surprise box-office hit. But in both — the two major attempts at portraying his life to date — Dillinger keeps his many flaws while forfeiting his populist appeal.

In other words, we’re still waiting on a positive “Dillinger” and an accurate “Dillinger,” regardless of whether those two overlap.

Back home in Indiana

On March 24, 2008, just before 11 a.m., a Ford Expedition eased into the small town of Crown Point, Ind., navigated through a long line of road blocks and parked in front of an old brick building on Main Street. Out popped Johnny Depp.

A crowd of more than 100 people — many of whom had waited overnight in below-freezing temperatures — exploded into cheers as Depp, looking a little tired and a lot out of place in his purple sunglasses and caramel-colored leather jacket, quickly ducked inside.

Over the next three days, Depp would spend hours shaking hands, posing for pictures, signing whatever. Mostly, though, he’d work on filming the most celebrated scene of Dillinger’s career.

After getting captured again — this time in Arizona — Dillinger was transferred on Jan. 30, 1934, to what Crown Point Sheriff Lillian Holley called her “escape-proof” jail. For about a month, it seemed to be exactly that. But on March 3, Sam Cahoon, a 64-year-old janitor, had to clean the jail’s criminal cells, 15 in all, so a guard let Dillinger into the narrow hallway.

Dillinger leaped forward, pressed a pistol into Sam’s stomach, and said, “Come on, Sam, we’re going places.” One by one, Dillinger cowed the guards and locked them in his old cell. Only at the end, just before driving off in Holley’s sparkling new Ford V8, did Dillinger reveal that his gun was a hand-carved fake, darkened with shoe polish.

For many towns, being robbed by Dillinger remains the high point in their municipal history. For Crown Point, at the very least, his escape created the kind of promotional possibilities it wouldn’t see again until the 2008 Democratic presidential primary when, at Bronko’s, a local bar that sits about a mile from the jail, Hillary Clinton did her shot-heard-round-the-world.

Yet the citizens of Crown Point refused to talk to journalists for stories mentioning Dillinger. It was understandable that the personally embarrassed Sheriff Holley didn’t want any attention, but many locals started demanding that the jail be torn down.

Of course, the building outlasted Dillinger, Holley and just about everyone else, and for that Michael Mann must be thankful. He’s always been notoriously exacting in re-creating the worlds of his movies, and this seems especially true of Public Enemies, a homecoming of sorts for the director and his star.

Mann was born in Chicago, Depp just across the Kentucky/Indiana border, and both threw themselves into capturing the look and feel of Dillinger’s Midwest. They visited the old Dillinger homestead in Mooresville. When filming in a tiny Wisconsin town, the crew put out radio ads asking for vintage cars.

Wherever they were, Mann insisted on actual 1930s machine guns. (As for the screenplay itself? Bryan Burrough, who wrote the nonfiction book Public Enemies, described it as “not 100 percent historically accurate” but still “by far the closest thing to fact Hollywood has attempted.”)

So when it came time to shoot the Crown Point scene, Mann and Depp headed to Crown Point. This time, the town embraced all things Dillinger, and the gangster’s legend took another turn.

In an earlier iteration of Public Enemies, Leonardo DiCaprio was to play Dillinger. But Depp inspires people, even if only to follow him with a weirdly rabid intensity. During the filming of Public Enemies, various Depp fan sites not only posted trailers and gossip but also started book clubs for Burrough’s 600-page tome.

This same devotion surfaced in Crown Point. Sometimes it was funny. On the third day of shooting, a chubby man dressed as Depp’s “Captain Jack” character in Pirates of the Caribbean walked along the roof of the historic courthouse, waving an ad for his local business.

More often, though, it was fanatical. There were people standing on dumpsters, poking out windows, hanging from trees — anything to see Depp. The local paper, The Northwest Indiana Times, ran more than 50 stories on the movie. In the first few, they apologized for yet another Depp anecdote. Soon, they just provided what the town wanted: all Johnny, all the time.

Celebrity worship boasts a long, illustrious history. Immediately after Dillinger’s shooting death, people started pressing handkerchiefs, newspapers, anything into his pooling blood; even today, he’s on his fourth tombstone because people keep chiseling off souvenirs. But it took Depp-as-Dillinger for Crown Point to fully accept its legacy.

Kevin Misher, producer of Public Enemies, recently told The Los Angeles Times, “if we could find where Dillinger walked, we shot where he walked.” For the world beyond Los Angeles, that means more than mere realism.

Immediately after the filming, Crown Point’s Old Sheriff’s House Foundation raised the price of its 30-minute tour from $2 to $10. Its new ads in The Northwest Indiana Times started promising the chance to “walk where John Dillinger and Johnny Depp walked.”

Man becomes myth, myth becomes movie and movie becomes man all over again.



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