“‘The Gentleman Bandit’ Frank Nash was a much better thief, hauling in nearly $3 million, a staggering sum for a Depression era outlaw.” But Dillinger, says Maccabee, “He had style. He liked to amuse bank customers with quips and wise cracks during holdups. He would leap over the counters to show off his athletic ability and sometimes fired his Thompson submachine gun into the ceiling just to get people’s attention. Witnesses may have been robbed, but they got their money’s worth.”
Dillinger was gunned down by FBI agents led by Melvin Purvis in front of the Biograph Theatre in Chicago 75 years ago this July 22 at the height of his fame. He was fingered by a woman named Anna Sage, the infamous “Lady In Red,” though she was actually wearing orange at the time. He lives again in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies , adapted from the book by Bryan Burrough, which opened nationwide July 1 with Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as Purvis.
Depp is the latest of numerous screen Dillingers, beginning with Lawrence Tierney in Dillinger (1945) and including Robert Conrad in Lady In Red (1970) and Mark Harmon in a 1991 TV film, Dillinger. An avid moviegoer particularly fond of gangster and outlaw films — though, amazingly, his favorites were Disney cartoons like Three Little Pigs — Dillinger would probably have approved of Depp, the most charismatic actor to portray him. But most Dillinger aficionados, including Bill Helmer, coauthor of Dillinger, The Untold Story , prefer the grittier Warren Oates in John Milius’s fanciful but rousing 1973 pot boiler, also titled Dillinger, with Harry Dean Stanton as Homer Van Meter and Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson. “Depp’s a fine actor,” says Helmer, “all Warren Oates had to do to be convincing was show up.”
Dillinger’s impact on Hollywood went beyond the movie characters who bore his name. Just about every film Hollywood made about 1930s outlaws drew from his legend. Humphrey Bogart rose to prominence in two films playing characters that were clearly modeled on popular perceptions of Dillinger, Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936) and especially his brooding bank robber Roy “Mad Dog” Earle in High Sierra (1941), who resents the press’s portrayal of him as a crazed killer.
There is something to that, says Helmer, “Dillinger went to jail in 1924 for eight and a half years on a felony conspiracy and assault and battery with intent to rob charge. That was a pretty stiff sentence considering that cops and DAs back were often as corrupt as the men they were pursuing. Dillinger definitely wasn’t sadistic compared to, say, Baby Face Nelson. You might say he was crooked but not twisted.”
John Dillinger’s favorite celluloid Dillinger was probably himself. He loved watching himself in popular newsreels of the day. “Look at him in pictures taken in 1934,”says Maccabee, “when he was on trial for the suspected killing of a deputy during a bank shootout [the only known homicide Dillinger was charged with]. He has his arm around the prosecutor, Robert Estill. He knew where the camera was.”
It seems that Dillinger, along with other Depression-era bandits such as Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, members of the Barker Gang, and Cliye Barrow and Bonnie Parker, hold an endless fascination for the American public. “They thought of themselves as the inheritors of the Old West outlaw tradition,” says Jeff Guinn, author of Go Down Together – The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. Clyde even had a biography of Billy the Kid in the back seat of his car when he died.”
Much of Dillinger’s myth was built around his many Billy the Kid-like escapes, especially his 1934 breakout from an Indiana jail brandishing a gun carved out of wood or soap — depending on which story you give credence to – and blackened with shoe polish. “Combine that with the period resentment toward banks, and you can see why so many people were rooting for him,” says Guinn. And not just Americans – Dillinger was a favorite in newspapers all over the world, particularly in England and Germany. In the spring of 1934, looking towards the mid-term elections, Will Rogers quipped that, “If the Democrats don’t get Dillinger [on their side], they may lose the fall election.”
In truth, there is no secret to Dillinger’s appeal. “He was what he seemed to be,” says researcher and historian Sandy Jones, who once owned Dillinger’s death mask and his 1933 Hudson Essex-Terraplane 8, now on display at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, D.C. “He was an Indiana farm boy who loved baseball. ” (He was also a Chicago Cubs, fan, so you knew that he would some day come to a bad end.) “He wasn’t a Robin Hood, but he was living a revenge fantasy that millions of Americans dreamed about during the Depression. If he was alive today, he’d probably be going after Wall Street brokers.”
It’s fitting that John Dillinger was killed after an outing to one of his beloved movie houses. The last film he took in was Manhattan Melodrama with Clark Gable and William Powell. But his favorite movie gangster was James Cagney, who, according to legend, he actually met in a Chicago tavern. Lucky for Dillinger he didn’t live to see the star of The Public Enemy (1931) become – literally – a poster boy for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in the movie ‘G’ Men, released a year after his death.