CHICAGO (AP) -- Whether moviegoers buy Johnny Depp as John Dillinger or
believe that public enemy No. 1 was actually a goodhearted bank robber
remains to be seen.
But as “Public Enemies” opens this week, one thing that may help viewers
travel back in time is that Depp drove the same streets, emerged from the
same theater and pretended to die in the same alley where the feds plugged
Dillinger full of lead more than 70 years ago.
Take a bow, Chicago.
The marquee may proclaim the film stars Depp, Christian Bale and Marion
Cotillard, but the credits could just as easily included Chicago -- and the
Midwest in general.
Director Michael Mann said filming on location at spots like Chicago’s
Biograph Theater and Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, where a gun battle
erupted between Dillingers’ gang and the feds, were instrumental in bringing
Dillinger’s story to life.
“It feels like you are there now and you know what John Dillinger’s
feeling,” said Mann.
If the scene where Dillinger realizes the FBI are outside his window at
Little Bohemia looks authentic, it may be because Depp is in the same room
where Dillinger stayed, laying on the same bed and even touching some of
Dillinger’s things in what were Dillinger’s suitcases.
Bryan Burrough, the author of the book that the film was based on, was even
impressed that while playing one of the movie’s news reporters who rush
across the street after Dillinger is shot, he was handed a notebook and
mechanical pencil that he was told were from the era.
John Russick, a Chicago History Museum curator who watched the film recently
at a screening in the city, said Mann captures Chicago at the time when
Dillinger was a big a star here.
“I thought they did a really great job of creating a different time in
Chicago, the pace of the public scenes, the look of the architecture, the
way the streets were not so floodlit the way they are today,” said Russick.
Russick recalls driving up Lincoln Avenue, where the Biograph Theater still
stands, and being amazed at the transformation of the street, from the
jalopies parked along it to the trolly line that ran down it and the stores
that lined it.
“I was driving my Honda Civic , thinking the odd thing was me in my car,”
said Russick, who said the filmmakers studied dozens of photographs,
including many of Lincoln Avenue, from the museum’s archives.
Perhaps just as significantly, he said, is that the movie captures the
city’s place in America during that time.
As Depp’s Dillinger drives down country roads on the way to the city, his
car is flanked by nothing but corn fields, farm houses and the occasional
“Places like Chicago were kind of like Oz, they kind of emerged out of the
cornfields,” Russick said.
Mann said while some historical elements are condensed and altered slightly
for the film, they accurately reflect what was going on at the time.
Historians may quibble, for example, about whether Dillinger actually met
with organized crime figures -- as Depp’s character does -- who told him
that his robberies were drawing too much attention from the feds.
But his activities were certainly not appreciated by the likes of mobsters,
Frank Nitti included.
“Dillinger got to the point where he was probably worth more (to organized
crime figures and others) dead than alive,” said Elliott Gorn, a history
professor at Brown University who recently published a book, “Dillinger’s
Gorn has not seen the movie but said that as far-fetched as Dillinger
breaking out of jail twice sounds, it’s true -- one of many examples of his
Then there’s the Hollywood staple, the love story.
Gorn agrees with Mann that Dillinger and Billie Frechette were in love. But
Gorn said Dillinger also had other girlfriends and if the movie would have
focused on the other women, it would have diluted the love story.
The history professor also said he’s not bothered by a few other
discrepancies because the movie captures the lore of Dillinger. For example,
in the movie, Depp’s Dillinger walks into a squad room of the very
detectives searching for him without being noticed. Those detectives don’t
even turn around when he asks them about the World Series Chicago Cubs game
they are listening to on the radio.
Of course, any good Cubs fan and tell you that their team wasn’t in the
World Series in 1934 -- the year when the scene takes place.
“I don’t expect to be disappointed if some stuff is wrong or simplified and
some dialogue is made up,” said Gorn. “It’s a movie.”