Sunday, July 19, 2009

Enemies of the Public or Public Enemies?

The movie Public Enemies tells the story of the latter portion of John Dillinger’s life as an outlaw, juxtaposed with the schemes of J. Edgar Hoover, and the career rise of Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who was tasked by Hoover with the responsibility of apprehending Dillinger.

Much of the story is known to readers – Dillinger was an iconic bank robber in the US in the 1930s, who ultimately established a folkloric following with the general public. Public Enemies highlights certain elements of Dillinger’s life and personality which could easily explain the public sentiments surrounding him. He lived in a larger than life manner, not thinking beyond the moment he lived in, and loved all manner of vices – taken together, during a time when the nation was in the Depression, this was an attractive story for the nation. During the course of his robberies, Dillinger would not take money from bank patrons themselves because his target was only the banks and their reserves. In the Depression era, this was certainly an attractive concept to many people.

While there were occasional deaths during Dillinger’s robberies, Dillinger avoided harming civilians in the course of his robberies. Indeed, his standard tactic was to escape from the targeted bank with several hostages, who he would later free unharmed in remote locations. Dillinger is known for mingling with the public at large, and the movie presents us with Dillinger sitting in movie theatres, at a race track, and even being so bold as to walk into a police station, enter the offices of the law enforcement officers tasked with finding him, and ask them the score of a baseball game being broadcast over the radio. None of these public appearances was made in order to threaten the public itself; rather, it was Dillinger’s way of enjoying life, living among the people with whom he identified, and flouting law enforcement.

Even when he was in need of “jobs,” he had rules about not harming people. For example, he refused to participate in a plan to kidnap a man because he knew that the public would not look favorably on it, and also stated that it was something he did not do. When he found himself working with a trigger-happy Baby Face Nelson, Dillinger knew that he had to leave the group they had formed because of Nelson’s violence and temperamental demeanor. Ultimately, Dillinger dies after being exposed to the authorities by a Romanian madam with whom he was quite close; she was persuaded to cooperate with federal agents because she found herself facing deportation as the alternative to cooperation. After leaving a packed movie theatre, Dillinger is shot by federal agents amid a crowd of innocent people. All in all, it can be said that, in this version of his life, Dillinger lived and acted according to personal laws and rules which targeted what he saw as corrupt entities, while avoiding harm to the public to the extent possible.

The other primary focus is the FBI at the time when it was beginning to function as a law enforcement entity. Public Enemies does not paint a flattering picture of Hoover, presenting him as lacking field experience, being calculating, and generally lacking in respect for the legal system outside of his version of it. Merlin Purvis first appears to the audience when he is in the process of gunning down another well known criminal of the era, Pretty Boy Floyd. This results in Purvis’ promotion to the head of the Chicago FBI office assigned to apprehend Dillinger. At first, Purvis’ officers are part of the dedicated, well-intentioned force that Hoover presented to the world as his model for the FBI. However, when a member of his team is killed during a botched raid in which Nelson escapes, Purvis’ mindset begins to change.

Purvis requests and receives permission from Hoover to add hardened agents to his team – agents who did not conform with Hoover’s public mage of the FBI. He instructs his secretary to order a larger cache of weapons and tells his agents to either prepare for a dangerous and bloody fight or leave his office. However, when Dillinger and his girlfriend, Billie Frechette, are apprehended in a hotel, the apprehending agents are polite and respectful to Frechette, even assuring Dillinger that she had been sent back to Chicago because they were not “ogres.” Shortly thereafter, Purvis meets with Dillinger and Dillinger asks him about the experience of seeing one of his agents die. Dillinger then tells Purvis that men like Purvis were not conditioned to stand having the people around them die and advises Purvis to find another job.

Dillinger escapes from prison and resumes his activities, although he is an outcast in the Chicago criminal community. After Dillinger’s escape, Purvis is ordered by Hoover to bring all family members and associates of Dillinger and his men into custody and submit them to intense interrogation without “sentimentality”. Several scenes later, Dillinger and his men then join forces with Nelson in a bank robbery and one of Dillinger’s accomplices is shot in the head. He survives with a bullet lodged in his head, however at the hospital Purvis stops a doctor from treating him while he is being assaulted by Purvis’ team and denied vital medication.

Further along in the story, Frechette alone is apprehended by the FBI. Rather than letting her go, she is brought in for questioning by an enraged agent who savagely beats her and is only stopped when Purvis’ secretary alerts him to his agent’s conduct and another agent – the one who ultimately kills Dillinger – stops any further assault on Frechette. However, the agent who beat Frechette continues to serve on Purvis’ team and the audience is not privy to any disciplinary action taken against him. Finally, Dillinger is gunned down by Purvis’ men in what is best described as a planned killing that occurred in the middle of a crowded street. Indeed, the same officer who beat Frechette is seen walking down the street with a gun pointed at the back of Dillinger’s head. The only humanity shown in the Dillinger shooting is by the agent who shot him, who had given Purvis advice that Purvis opted not to take and that choice was proven incorrect. This agent listened to Dillinger’s last words and then faithfully relayed them to Frechette.

It is perhaps obvious to say that most stories surrounding Dillinger are romanticized to a certain extent. Romanticism aside, however, Public Enemies presents a powerful juxtaposition of personalities and views on law. Dillinger had his own set of personal laws and rules and refused to disavow them even when it would have been to his advantage. He expressed regret at one point for having robbed a store in his youth because the storeowner had been “a good man.” This remark is in keeping with Dillinger’s rules. Indeed, it was those very rules that made him attractive to the people at large – they were the sort of Robin Hood rules that were understandable to people, particularly in a time of desperation. Dillinger’s rules might have killed him, in that he might not have been ostracized by the Chicago criminal community if he had let go of them sooner and joined their operations.

In contrast, Purvis’ character loses more and more of the faith he had in established law as he pursues Dillinger. His first step is bringing in less than savory team members because of his realization that the type of agents being cultivated by Hoover would not be useful in a fight against Dillinger. From there, he continues to lose sense of his personal code, and the dedication he had to upholding the laws of the nation, with the brief exception of intervening in Frechette’s beating. The turmoil going on within Purvis is visible when he picks up the injured Frechette and carries her out of the interrogation room – one part of him wants to protect a vulnerable woman and uphold the rules of police conduct, while the other is on a mission to find Dillinger regardless of the legal or moral consequences. Ultimately, Purvis authorizes the killing of Dillinger, which could easily be argued as a murder, since the appropriate legal process would have been to apprehend Dillinger and charge him criminally. In so doing, he watches without interruption as his agents gun Dillinger down in the middle of a crowd, and in particular while one officer points his gun at Dillinger for a protracted period of time, while members of the public pass by.

The intersection between Dillinger and Purvis impacts the laws they lived by in different ways. Dillinger refused to change his personal laws even when it cost him the protection of the Chicago community that could have saved him. Purvis, paradoxically, changed his personal laws and the way in which he acted within the confines of national law during his pursuit of Dillinger. In so doing, he and his team allowed pressures from Hoover and the pursuit to make themselves public enemies in a different sense than Dillinger, Nelson, and Floyd. In the case of Dillinger, Nelson and Floyd, the designation as “public enemies” was made in order to indicate that they were a threat to public order and safety. However, in the case of Purvis and his team, the meaning of public enemies is somewhat different. Here, there are indeed enemies, but this time they are in the form of the public officers who were tasked with protecting the people and upholding the law and yet placed innocent civilians in danger and committed and/or sanctioned acts of assault and torture without regard to law or morality. Thus the “enemies” were also the “public” officers who had agreed to protect and abide by law and yet failed to do so.

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