“Public Enemies,” the 2009 film directed by Michael Mann, is based on Bryan Burrough’s book, “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI 1933-1934.” This film delves into the story of the notorious gangster John Dillinger and the FBI’s relentless pursuit to bring him to justice. Johnny Depp portrays Dillinger, while Christian Bale plays Agent Melvin Purvis, who is tasked by J. Edgar Hoover to lead the charge against Dillinger and his gang. Dillinger’s life, shrouded in myth and fascination, unfolds in the film. It begins with his challenging childhood, marked by his mother’s early death, his father’s remarriage, and a turbulent family life. The narrative progresses through his descent into crime, his prison terms, and his audacious bank robberies, making Dillinger an enduring enigma. Despite extensive historical research, questions about his methods, escapes, and motivations persist, leading to various conspiracy theories. Some suggest that Dillinger’s demise was staged by the FBI, while others scrutinize the circumstances surrounding his death.
Dillinger’s early life paints a portrait of an ordinary middle-class upbringing until tragedy struck when his mother died when he was just four years old. The family moved to a small farm in Mooresville, Indiana, where Dillinger’s father remarried, and his older sister took charge of his upbringing. Dissatisfaction with his stepmother and a failed marriage eventually led him down a criminal path. His first foray into crime involved a botched grocery store robbery, which resulted in his arrest and a ten-year prison sentence. During his time behind bars, Dillinger honed his criminal skills, studying bank robbery techniques and planning his revenge on the justice system. He was released on parole in 1933, amidst the Great Depression, and promptly assembled a gang for a daring prison break. With another arrest, the gang broke him out from the Allen County Jail in Lima, Ohio, while dressed as police officers.
Dillinger’s criminal career was defined by a series of audacious bank heists, accumulating more than $300,000 through robberies across several states. Notable among these were the robberies of banks in Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, South Dakota, Iowa, and Indiana, which often resulted in violent encounters with the police and a growing list of charges, including murder. The significant incident at the First National Bank in East Chicago in January 1934 added murder to his crimes, intensifying the law enforcement’s pursuit. Following this, a fire in Tucson, Arizona, led to Dillinger’s capture and extradition to Indiana, where he was tried for murder.
Dillinger’s daring escapes became a hallmark of his criminal career. While imprisoned in Crown Point, Indiana, he meticulously crafted a fake gun from a piece of washboard, and with careful planning, he seized an opportunity to escape, taking a hostage and later hijacking a car. Unfortunately, his escape over state lines brought his crimes under FBI jurisdiction. The FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, embarked on a mission to apprehend Dillinger. While Dillinger remained on the run, he reunited with his former girlfriend, Billie Frechette. After narrowly escaping the FBI at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Mercer, Wisconsin, Dillinger decided to undergo plastic surgery to change his appearance and adopted the moniker “Snake Eyes.” Despite these efforts, the FBI persisted in its pursuit.
Dillinger’s life and crimes reached a turning point following a bank robbery in South Bend, Indiana, where he killed a police officer. J. Edgar Hoover placed a substantial reward on Dillinger’s capture. Anna Sage, a friend of Dillinger’s working under the pseudonym Ana Sage in a brothel, tipped off the police, hoping for protection from deportation in exchange for her assistance. Sage revealed Dillinger’s plan to attend a movie at the Biograph Theater in Chicago, leading the FBI to stage a stakeout. After exiting the theater, Dillinger sensed the setup and tried to escape but was fatally shot in an alley.
Dillinger’s death remains shrouded in legend and controversy. Some inconsistencies have contributed to ongoing debates about whether the man killed outside the Biograph Theater was genuinely Dillinger. Witness accounts of his eye color, physical characteristics, autopsy findings, and forensic analysis have led to speculation that the FBI might have made a mistake or covered up certain aspects of his death. Conspiracy theories suggest that the FBI might not have killed Dillinger and that he may have survived and eluded capture once again. However, these theories are not widely accepted and are held by a small group of individuals outside the law enforcement and scientific communities.