Adapted from a non-fiction book by Vanity Fair journalist Bryan Burrough, the history of gangster flick Public Enemies is as convoluted as the story it narrates. Burrough was originally commissioned to write an HBO TV series, tracking the exploits of America’s Depression-era bank robbers, such as John Dillinger, but after a few aborted scripts, it fell foul of the TV execs and was quickly forgotten.
The same could be said of Dillinger himself. In the ’30s, he was a bonafide celebrity – a romantic Robin Hood type: ‘We don’t want your money, mister…just the bank’s,’ the robber famously growled at one hostage. His jailbreaks endeared him to an American public who had little sympathy for the banks that had plunged the country into Depression. But, without a catchy nickname, Dillinger soon faded from public memory.
Two eponymous films did little to revive his legend. The first was a 1945 blood-and-guts gangster flick which rewrote Dillinger as a cold-blooded killer. The later ’70s version portrayed him as a romantic anti-hero in the style of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunnaway’s Bonnie and Clyde. Neither was a huge success.
So what makes Public Enemies different? Burrough eventually turned his research into a book, reclaiming the movie rights from HBO before selling them on. Three years later, Johnny Depp became attached to the project.
Depp is perhaps an odd choice to play Dillinger. His career has, for the most part, been spent playing strange, gentle, often eccentric (mostly British) outsiders. Give Willy Wonka a tommy gun and he’d probably dip it in chocolate. It is unlikely that he would pick off the Oompa Loompas one-by-one from the back of a Model T Ford.
He is usually the sympathetic, persecuted character (Edward Scissorhands, Gilbert Grape). When he plays it violent, he tends to go either art house (Dead Man), comic book (Once Upon A Time in Mexico), or, in the case of Sweeny Todd, musical and slightly kitsch. None of these make him a likely candidate for the hard-boiled violence of a Michael Mann (Collateral, Manhunter) film. So why Johnny?
The choice of Depp is perhaps a better indication of where Mann’s script is headed. Public Enemies is as much the story of the FBI as Dillinger himself – a cat and mouse thriller in the vein of earlier Mann effort Heat.
Dillinger’s gang undoubtedly contained psychopaths and bandits, but they were organised and mobile. He bribed police in three different jurisdictions. He embarrassed the authorities to the point that the US government sanctioned the creation of a go-anywhere police task force – the FBI.
Headed by department pin-up boy Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), it was largely ineffective. Dillinger and his gang outwitted and outgunned Purvis’s men in a series of wild shootouts. This was the case until
J Edgar Hoover conscripted a ragtag gang of ex-gunfighters every bit as dangerous as Dillinger’s men.
Naturally, this was what interested Burrough and Mann. Purvis, the FBI and their new set of gunfighters set about orchestrating a series of epic betrayals. Like the more recent The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Mann’s Dillinger has a touch of persecution about him. Depp’s baby blues certainly have a haunted quality, but the actor adds something else needed for the role: screen glamour.
The ’30s was an era of celluloid and celebrity. When Bonnie and Clyde went on their famous killing spree, they took pictures. Purvis was described as ‘the Clark Gable of the FBI’. Even Dillinger was obsessed with the movies. After failing to sell his memoirs, he had planned to film his exploits, claims Burrough’s book. It’s no surprise that he was eventually gunned down in an alley outside a cinema.
So can Johnny be bad? He certainly has that brooding something about him. In the past decade, cinema has lacked good gangsters. TV’s The Sopranos exhausted every possible Mafioso combination and even Guy Ritchie must be sick of cockney wideboys – everyone else is. Public Enemies suggests a welcome return to the days of cool bad guys, molls and men in fedora hats shouting, ‘You’ll never catch me, coppers!’: Depp’s Dillinger may yet be the baddest of the lot.
The seven faces of Johnny Depp
1 Johnny Guitar
Depp dropped out of school to play guitar in moderately successful garage band The Kids, opening for both Iggy Pop and Duran Duran. Later, he befriended rotten-toothed ex-Pogues singer Shane Magowan and played guitar on Magowan’s first solo album, even performing live with him on UK music show Top Of The Pops. He has also performed with Oasis and was a member of P, a short-lived band with Butthole Surfers singer Gibby Hayes and Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Famously, he modelled his Pirates of the Caribbean performance on Rolling Stones swashbuckler Keith Richards.
2 Serial Johnny
Married once but engaged four times, he wed his first wife, Lori Anne Allison, in 1983, aged just 20, while he worked as a telemarketer for ink pens. She was a makeup artist at the time and later introduced him to Nicolas Cage, who advised him to pursue an acting career.
3 Gonzo Johnny
As well as playing Hunter S Thompson in the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp was a close personal friend of the troubled Gonzo journalist and paid for most of his memorial event, complete with fireworks and the firing of Thompson’s ashes from a cannon. He is also set to star in the film adaptation of Thompson-penned book The Rum Diaries.
4 Johnny ‘Wino’
Known for his fondness for French wines, Depp’s reputed favourite tipple is Bordeaux third growth Château Calon-Ségur. In 2007, he even purchased a vineyard in the north of Saint-Tropez for partner Vanessa Paradis. Incidentally, he also has a tattoo which reads ‘Wino Forever’, although it originally read ‘Winona Forever’, after former fiancée Winona Ryder – he had it changed when they split up.
Depp was a co-owner of The Viper Room, the club where actor River Phoenix died. He closed it every October 31 as a memorial until he sold his share in 1994. He also agreed to donate his salary from the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to Heath Ledger’s daughter, Matilda, after he signed on to play the late Australian’s role.
6 Johnny Tattoo
Among Depp’s 14 known tattoos are the head of a Cherokee Indian chief, a reference to his grandmother’s heritage, ‘Lily Rose’ (the name of his first-born daughter) written above his heart, and his mother’s name, Betty Sue, on his arm. The latest known addition are the words ‘Silence, Exile, Cunning’, from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
7 Johnny Foreigner
Depp may live in the South of France, but he’s a noted Anglophile, specialising in a variety of British accents. He is also fascinated with English history and likes to collect old documents and British first-edition books.
Public Enemies is released on July 30.