Steal This Book! Public Enemies, John Dillinger and Me

July 12, 2009, 3:52 pm

Don’t be surprised if you are channel surfing in the next couple months and suddenly see — me! There are at least four different made-for-TV documentaries in which I appear as a talking head because of my first book, War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men and the Politics of Mass Culture (Rutgers University Press, 1998). For a while I was an all-star on Third Street in Lower Manhattan because the History Channel is, apparently, one of the few things the inhabitants of the men’s shelter there can agree that they all like. Every once in a while I would be strolling by and a cigarette-ravaged voice would growl happily, “Hey! I know you!” Once I was at a tenure party for someone else, and that person’s father confided that he had really come to the party to see me. People write me mash notes from Australia, England and Canada — always men, which is really disappointing. I am also occasionally recognized at the off track betting parlor in Shoreline; and lately, my friends at the rowing club have looked on me with new eyes as well.

But where you will not see me is in the credits of the new Michael Mann movie, Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and an all-star cast of very pretty boys (there are virtually no women in the movie.) And yet there is an important connection between me and this movie: the script was written from the book that ripped off my book.

That’s right: your academic nightmare come true. The book everyone told you could be a crossover success (but wasn’t exactly, although it has sold a lot of copies over the last decade), gets re-written with conversations, sold to a commercial press and then to the movies.

The nightmare began in 2004, when I walked into a bookstore and saw a bright shiny pile of books with a picture of John Dillinger on the cover. Bryan Burrough, a journalist for Vanity Fair, popular writer and author of Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 gave me a lovely citation in almost the first footnote. But that said, while he did a bunch of his own original research, most of the major theoretical and historical insights of my book were lifted into his, repackaged with vivid dialogue and highly descriptive prose and resold. And then he sold my book again to the movies. I had recovered from the first ripoff — because after all, what are you going to do? Beggar yourself suing someone with a powerful agent for something that is very hard to prove? Then I got a call from an assistant to Famous Costume Designer letting me know about the Johnny Depp project. She asked if I would be willing to talk to them a few times about what the film should look like — what things the bandits were likely to have, what clothes they would wear and whatnot.

“Sure,” I said. “But you’ll need to pay me a consulting fee.” I explained that I had been ripped off once before and that if they wanted me to work for them, I couldn’t do it for free.

“Uh – oh, jeez, I’ll have to get back to you on that,” she said, beating a hasty and permanent retreat. (Note to Hollywood people: do you really think we are all so star-struck that we have endless time to give you for free? Because the budget on this film must have been in the hundreds of millions, and if you wanted to talk to me, you could have squeezed out a thousand bucks or so just out of courtesy.)

Now don’t get me wrong: it isn’t as if I didn’t profit from this book. It did get me tenure, which over an academic career is probably worth about 3 million dollars in salary and benefits. I have probably made around 3K in royalties, which isn’t much, but since Public Enemies came out, the book seems to be selling on Amazon (the last time I looked, they said they only had one copy left, but had more on order.) I predict a little bounce in this year’s royalties. It’s also nice to be able to say that historians still read the damn thing, people other than Mr. Burrough. Graduate students, for example, make a point of saying so, and most recently I got a really nice shout-out from Elliott Gorn in an essay titled “Re-membering John Dillinger.”* (Thank you Elliott: I will light a candle for you.)

Eventually, of course, I had to see the movie. I trundled grimly off to our local theater night before last, and despite the good reviews Public Enemies has gotten in places like The New Yorker, I am happy to say that, beautiful as it is, it really stinks. They should have hired me to help them. I don’t know whether the errors derive from Mr. Burrough’s translation of my work (because every time I try to read his book I feel like I am getting the stomach flu and have to stop) or whether it was the script writers’ rotten translation of Burroughs’ work. But here are the major flaws from my perspective:

1. Errors of fact. For example, the implication that the FBI went after Dillinger because Hoover couldn’t get funded properly by Congress unless he did; that the War on Crime was Hoover’s initiative; that Melvin Purvis hired a bunch of out of work Texas Rangers to help him track Dillinger; that said cops for hire tortured, beat and withheld medical attention from mortally wounded members of the Dillinger gang to get information from them (I don’t know why I was especially offended by this, Radical that I am, but it seems to me that the FBI has done enough bad things without gratuitously adding to the list); that Dillinger hung out with the Barker-Karpis gang; that Purvis found out that the gang was hiding at Little Bohemia Lodge from a telephone tap — there is absolutely no evidence in any of the files I read to support these things, and they represent major turning points in the narrative. Furthermore, it was my finding that bandits actually went out of their way not to harm people, particularly police, since they knew it would intensify the pressure on local and state government to capture them. And yet in this film there are constant pitched battles, with thousands of rounds being fired in each encounter, cops and civilians falling like flies.

And why that dumb scene at the end, right before his death, where Johnny Depp wanders through the fictional “Dillinger Squad” at a Chicago police station but isn’t recognized? Why tell us at the end that Melvin Purvis died by suicide? What is the audience supposed to do with that information?

2. The story is incoherent. I’m not sure how anyone who did not know the Dillinger story already would actually understand what was going on in this film or why. There are lots of long shots of J.Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson smirking and moue-ing at each other, with cigarettes cocked in their femmey hands, but no one ever explains, for example, that Tolson is the number two man at the FBI, not just Edgar’s boyfriend who hangs around listening to him rant. There are gestures at the real history of the FBI, and the real history of the war on crime, but since those gestures are never tied to anything specific — or even completed — my guess is that they just get in the way of the average viewer. The problem gets worse when director Michael Mann turns his attention to the criminals: people like the Barker brothers, Alvin Karpis, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Harry Pierpont and more come and go with little or
no explanation as to who they are. And then the dumbest details are given prominence. One of the things I do know about the Burrough book (from the Amazon blurb) is that he uncovered the fact that (drum roll) Anna Sage was wearing an orange skirt — not a red dress!! The movie gestures at this — Purvis explains to his team, “She’ll be wearing an orange skirt!” But since the red dress is practically iconic, doesn’t this simply serve to confuse?

I dunno.

Probably the major insight from my book that shows up in the film is the parasitical relationship bandits like Dillinger had to Chicago’s syndicates, and that eventually bandits’ notoriety led to organized crime cutting them loose. But again, there is crucial information missing: Frank Nitti is introduced as a character in the film, but there is no explanation that he is running the Capone organization, or why the creation of a national horse racing wire has anything to do with why the Mob ceases to support Dillinger.

3. The popular fascination with Dillinger is poorly evoked and very much in the background. This, I would have to say, is the movie’s worst flaw, because it’s one of the few reasons historians care about Dillinger at all: he spoke to something very deep in the Depression-era psyche. John Dillinger was a 1930s version of a rock star: he was an uber celebrity at a moment in time when celebrity itself was being reinvented. But you have absolutely no sense of that at all, nor of a cultural moment in which an entire nation held its breath to see when and where he would appear next. Staring crowds and paparazzi appear at various moments, but there’s no sense of the mass excitement about this man that caused Americans to flood Washington with letters offering to help capture him, pleading for mercy for him and musing on Dillinger as a metaphor for the nation.

In the end, Public Enemies is a gangster picture in which it isn’t altogether clear who you should be rooting for. The police are boring, and the gangsters’ characters — even Dillinger’s — are not memorable. And Johnny Depp? Well, he’s handsome enough enough. But you can’t help but make an unfavorable comparison to Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), which probably planted the earliest seed in my brain of the dissertation that became War on Crime.

Strangely, I left the movie theater no less ripped off but less worried about it. And while I hope to write books with a crossover audience in the future, and books that sell a lot of copies, I doubt that I will ever write a book again that has the kind of potential to really become a movie or a best seller without actually intending to do so in the first place and working hard to protect it.


*See The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present and Future, James Cook, Lawrence Glickman and Michael O’Malley, Eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 153-184.

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