Public Enemies (2009 film)

Public Enemies

A man wearing a hat and a longcoat, a large gun held in his right hand

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Mann
Produced by Michael Mann
Kevin Misher
Screenplay by Ronan Bennett
Ann Biderman
Michael Mann
Based on Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34 by Bryan Burrough
Music by Elliot Goldenthal
Cinematography Dante Spinotti
Edited by Paul Rubell
Jeffrey Ford
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • July 1, 2009 (2009-07-01)
Running time
140 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $100 million[1]
Box office $214.1 million[1]

Public Enemies is a 2009 American biographical mob drama film directed by Michael Mann and written by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman. It is an adaptation of Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34. Set during the Great Depression, the film chronicles the final years of the notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) as he is pursued by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), Dillinger's relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), as well as Purvis' pursuit of Dillinger's associates and fellow criminals Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham).

Burrough originally intended to make a television miniseries about the Depression-era crime wave in the United States, but decided to write a book on the subject instead. Mann developed the project, and some scenes were filmed on location where certain events depicted in the film occurred, though the film is not entirely historically accurate.


After killing Charles Floyd, FBI agent Melvin Purvis is promoted by J. Edgar Hoover to lead the hunt for bank robber John Dillinger. Purvis shares Hoover's belief in using scientific methods to battle crime, ranging from cataloging fingerprints to tapping telephone lines.

In between a series of bank robberies, Dillinger meets Billie Frechette at a restaurant and woos her by buying her a fur coat. Frechette falls for Dillinger even after he reveals his identity, and the two become inseparable.

Purvis leads a failed ambush at a hotel where he believes Dillinger is staying, and an agent is killed by Baby Face Nelson, who escapes with Tommy Caroll. Purvis requests that Hoover bring in professional lawmen who know how to catch criminals dead or alive, including Texan Charles Winstead.

Police arrest Dillinger and his gang in Tucson, Arizona, after a fire breaks out at the Hotel Congress, where they are staying. Dillinger is extradited to Indiana, where Sheriff Lillian Holley has him locked up in the Lake County Jail in Crown Point. Dillinger and other inmates use a fake gun to escape. Dillinger is unable to see Frechette, who is under tight surveillance. Dillinger learns that Frank Nitti's associates are unwilling to help because his crimes are motivating the FBI to prosecute interstate crime, which imperils Nitti's bookmaking racket, thus severing his connections with the Mafia.

Carroll goads Dillinger into robbing a bank in Sioux Falls with Baby Face Nelson. During their escape, both Dillinger and Carroll are shot, and they have to leave Carroll behind. The group retreats to the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin and realize their haul is significantly less than Nelson said it would be. Dillinger hopes he can free the rest of his gang from prison, including Pierpont and Makley, but Red Hamilton convinces him this is unlikely.

Purvis and his men apprehend Carroll and torture him to learn the gang's location. Purvis organizes an ambush at Little Bohemia. Dillinger and Hamilton escape separately from the rest of the gang. Agents Winstead and Hurt pursue Dillinger and Hamilton through the woods, engaging in a gunfight in which Hamilton is fatally wounded. Trying to escape, Nelson, Shouse, and Van Meter hijack a Bureau car, killing Purvis' partner Carter Baum in the process. After a car chase, Purvis and his men kill Nelson and the rest of the gang. Hamilton dies that night.

Dillinger meets Frechette, telling her he plans to commit one more robbery that will pay enough for them to escape together. When Dillinger drops her off at a tavern he thinks is safe, she is arrested. Frechette is beaten during interrogation to learn Dillinger's whereabouts, which she does not reveal; Purvis and Winstead eventually arrive and intervene. Dillinger agrees to participate in a train robbery with Alvin Karpis and the Barker Gang, intending to flee the country the next day. He receives a note from Billie through her lawyer, Louis Piquett, telling him not to try to break her out of jail.

Through Zarkovich, Purvis enlists the help of madam and Dillinger acquaintance Anna Sage, threatening her with deportation if she does not cooperate. She agrees to set up Dillinger, who she believes will come to hide out with her. Dillinger and Sage see Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph Theater. After the film, Purvis signals other agents upon seeing them leave. Dillinger spots the police but is shot before he can draw his gun. Winstead listens to Dillinger's last words. Purvis goes to inform Hoover of Dillinger's death.

Winstead tells Frechette, still incarcerated, that he thinks Dillinger's dying words were, "Tell Billie for me, 'Bye bye Blackbird'". Billie sheds a tear - 'Bye Bye Blackbird' was the song the houseband was playing when Billie and Dillinger first met each other and danced together in a dinner-club. The closing text reveals that Melvin Purvis quit the FBI in 1935 and died by his own hand in 1960, and that Billie lived out the rest of her life in Wisconsin following her release in 1936.




Cotillard at the film's Paris premiere

Public Enemies is based on Bryan Burrough's 2004 non-fiction book, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 193334. Burrough had originally begun researching the subject with the aim of creating a miniseries. The idea was accepted by HBO and Burrough was made an executive producer, along with Robert De Niro's Tribeca Productions, and was asked to write the screenplay.[13] However, Burrough had no experience in screenwriting, and says his drafts were probably "very, very bad. Ishtar bad." He began simultaneously writing a non-fiction book, which he found easier, spending two years working on it while the interest in the miniseries disappeared.[13] Burrough's book was set to be published in the summer of 2004 and he asked HBO to return the movie rights. They agreed and after the book was released, the rights were re-sold to production companies representing Michael Mann and Leonardo DiCaprio, the latter of whom was interested in playing John Dillinger. Burrough met with a representative and then heard nothing for three years.[13] The actor eventually left the project to appear in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island.[14]

Mann had written a screenplay about Alvin Karpis in the 1980s which was never produced. After reading an excerpt from Burrough's book in Vanity Fair, he eventually worked to develop a film based on the book with producer Kevin Misher.[15] Novelist and screenwriter Ronan Bennett had written a screenplay about Che Guevara which Mann had intended to develop, but the project was shelved as Steven Soderbergh was already working on his two-part biopic about Guevara. Starting in 2006, Bennett worked for over 18 months on adapting Burrough's book,[16] writing several drafts.[2] Former NYPD Blue writer and Southland creator Ann Biderman rewrote the screenplay with Mann,[17][18] who polished it before shooting began.[3][16] Of the screenplay, Burrough has said "it's not 100 percent historically accurate. But it's by far the closest thing to fact Hollywood has attempted, and for that I am both excited and quietly relieved."[19]


Principal photography began in Columbus, Wisconsin on March 17, 2008[20] and continued in the Illinois cities of Chicago, Aurora, Joliet and Lockport; and the Wisconsin cities of Oshkosh, Beaver Dam, Milwaukee, Madison and several other places in Wisconsin; including the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, the actual location of a 1934 gun fight between Dillinger and the FBI.[21] Some parts of the film were shot in Crown Point, Indiana, the town where Dillinger was imprisoned and subsequently escaped from jail. The actual 1932 Studebaker used by Dillinger during a robbery in Greencastle, Indiana was also used during filming in Columbus, borrowed from the nearby Historic Auto Attractions museum.[22]

The decision to shoot parts of the film in Wisconsin came about because of the number of high quality historic buildings. Mann, who had been a student at University of Wisconsin–Madison,[23] scouted locations in Baraboo and Columbus as well as looking at 1930s-era cars from collectors in the Madison area.[24] In addition, the film was shot on actual historical sites, including the Little Bohemia Lodge, and the old Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana, where Dillinger staged his most famous escape where legend has it he fooled jail officers with a wooden gun[25] and escaped in the sheriff's car.[19] Scenes were shot at places that he frequented in Oshkosh. The courthouse in Darlington is the location for the courthouse scenes. A bank robbery scene was shot inside the Milwaukee County Historical Society, a former bank in Milwaukee that still has much of the original period architecture.[26]

In late March 2008 portions of the film were shot at Libertyville High School. Footage includes one of the school's science labs, an office, the school's front entrance, and the locker rooms.

In April 2008 the production filmed in Oshkosh.[27] Filming occurred downtown and at Pioneer Airport, including scenes shot using a historic Ford Trimotor airliner owned by the Experimental Aircraft Association.[28] Later that month, filming started at the Little Bohemia Lodge. In April and May 2008, film crews shot on the grounds of Ishnala, a historic restaurant in the Wisconsin Dells area.

The film became a flash point in the public debate about the "film tax credits" that are offered by many states.[29] The state of Wisconsin gave NBC Universal $4.6 million in tax credits, while the film company spent just $5 million in Wisconsin during filming.[30]

Michael Mann, the director, decided to shoot the movie in HD format instead of using the traditional 35mm film.[31] Public Enemies would be Mann's first all-digital feature.


Elliot Goldenthal composed the score of Public Enemies. Before Goldenthal wrote any music, he and Mann "sifted through tons and tons of American blues" as the director had talked about Billie Holiday's music "from the very beginning." Goldenthal said, "My job was chiefly composing dramatic music that didn't necessarily have to sound like it came from 1931 or 1933. It could be timeless." Goldenthal previously worked with Mann on Heat (1995). He commented that Mann "doesn't like too many twists and turns in the music's structure. He really responds to things that evolve very, very slowly. He wants music that the images, the edits, the dialogue can float above without it corresponding too much."[32]


A preview of Public Enemies was seen at the end of the 81st Academy Awards, with the first trailer being released shortly after on March 5, 2009. Public Enemies had its world premiere in Chicago on June 19, 2009,[33] and was screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 23, 2009.[34] The film was given wide release in the United States on July 1.

Box office

Public Enemies opened at number three behind Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs with $25,271,675. The following weekend it had a 45.5% drop to $13,794,240 for a total of $66,221,110. The next three weekends the movie would go on to have decent drops of 46% or less.[35] As of January 18, 2010 the film grossed $97.1 million domestically with a worldwide gross of $214.1 million in revenue, more than twice its reported production budget.[36]

Home media

Public Enemies was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc in the United States December 8, 2009. The two-disc special edition features a commentary track by the director and featurettes about the making of the film and the historical figures depicted in the film.[37][38] In promotion of the home media release, the multiplayer browser game Mafia Wars featured collectible "loot" from characters in the film.[39]

Critical response

Depp at the film's Paris premiere.

Rob James from Total Film gave the film 4/5 stars, stating: "This superstar crime thriller emerges as something surprising, fascinating and technically dazzling."[40] Most critics reviewing the film praised individual performances, specifically Depp as Dillinger. Roger Ebert, who gave it a 3.5/4 stars, stated: "This Johnny Depp performance is something else. For once an actor playing a gangster does not seem to base his performance on movies he has seen. He starts cold. He plays Dillinger as a fact."[41] Billy Crudup's performance was also praised, with his performance being described as "disarmingly good" by Variety's Todd McCarthy.[34]

Critics also gave praise to the film's cinematography and set pieces. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times stated: "Michael Mann's 'Public Enemies' is a grave and beautiful work of art. Shot in high-definition digital by a filmmaker who's helping change the way movies look, it revisits with meticulous detail and convulsions of violence a short, frantic period in the life and bank-robbing times of John Dillinger."[42]

While most critics praised the film, others expressed displeasure. Critic Liam Lacey, of The Globe and Mail, believed the film was missing "any image of the economic misery that made Dillinger a folk hero", and, "the most regrettable crime here is the way that Mann, trying to do too much, robs himself of a great opportunity."[43] Similarly, Richard Corliss of TIME magazine claimed the film's emphasis on docudrama allowed for "precious little dramatic juice".[44]

Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating of 68%, based on 263 reviews, with an average rating of 6.4/10.[45] At Metacritic it is ranked 70/100, which indicates "generally favorable reviews."[46]

Historical accuracy

Shortly before the theatrical release of Public Enemies, Burrough wrote that director Michael Mann "impressed [him] as a real stickler for historical accuracy. Yes, there is fictionalization in this movie, including some to the timeline, but that's Hollywood; if it was 100% accurate, you would call it a documentary." Dillinger's jailbreak from Crown Point, Indiana, the gunfight at the Little Bohemia Lodge, and Dillinger's death near the Biograph Theater in Chicago were all filmed where they actually happened.[47] Burrough's non-fiction book on which the film is based details the demise of multiple infamous criminals in a 14-month period in 1933–34, including Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, the Barker-Karpis gang, the Kansas City Massacre, and Machine Gun Kelly. In focusing on Dillinger, Mann and co-writers Biderman and Bennett omitted Bonnie and Clyde entirely, briefly included only one member of the Barker gang (Alvin Karpis), and left out Pretty Boy Floyd except for his death.[18]

In the film, Dillinger is shown participating in a 1933 prison break from Indiana State Prison and frees some of his associates in a shootout. In reality, Dillinger did help smuggle weapons into the prison for his associates,[47] however it is unclear how: Burrough's book reports that some believed Dillinger tossed the weapons over the prison fence, while other accounts (and the film) suggest that the guns were smuggled in boxes of silk sent to the prison shirt factory. Also, Dillinger was not present during the escape, because he was imprisoned in Lima, Ohio at the time, and "few shots were fired" according to historian Elliott Gorn (the only injury was a clerk shot in the leg, and no guards were killed).[48] Dillinger's preexisting friendship with those he helped break out, like Pierpont and Makley, who had taught Dillinger how to rob banks while he was in prison with them previously,[49] is not presented. Mann explained that "[Dillinger and his associates] employed techniques picked up from the military by a man [...] [who] mentored Walter Dietrich, the man who died at the beginning of the movie, who mentored Dillinger. So Dillinger's time in prison was really a post-graduate course in robbing banks, but what really interested me was he doesn't so much get out of prison when he's released but he explodes out".[50] There is then a scene where Purvis is promoted by J. Edgar Hoover after personally gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd in an apple orchard near the start of the movie. Floyd was actually killed three months after Dillinger's death, and Purvis was just one of several agents present. He was also killed in an open field beside a barn, not in an apple orchard.[51]

During a phone call with Hoover, Purvis requests assistance from experienced cops in the film, a decision that Hoover actually made on his own.[48] In reference to Dillinger's escape from Crown Point, Mann said "[Dillinger] didn't take six or seven people hostage, he took 17 officers hostage with that wooden gun he had carved. It wouldn't be credible if you put it in a movie, so we had to tone it down."[50] In the course of Dillinger's 1933–34 crime spree, he is depicted as killing multiple people; Gorn writes that Dillinger himself "probably murdered just one man": William Patrick O'Malley, a cop who had been shot during a holdup in East Chicago, Indiana.[48] Although Purvis was in charge of the Bureau of Investigation's office in Chicago as depicted in the film, fellow agent Samuel Cowley led the Dillinger investigation in its final months before Dillinger's death.[48] Homer Van Meter and Baby Face Nelson are shot to death by Purvis after a vehicular pursuit from the Little Bohemia Lodge in the film. Van Meter was actually killed by St. Paul police a few weeks after Dillinger's death, and Nelson was killed on November 27, 1934 in a gunfight with Cowley.

In the film, Dillinger and Purvis have a brief conversation in person while Dillinger is incarcerated.[48] In reality, they came close to seeing each other (right before Dillinger died), but never actually exchanged words. In the film, Dillinger walks into the detective bureau of a Chicago police station unrecognized and asks an officer for the score of a baseball game being broadcast on the radio, something he actually did according to Mann and Depp. However, the game being broadcast is anachronistic for the time period.[6] Additionally, Winstead hears Dillinger's last words – "Bye, bye, blackbird" – and later relays them to Frechette in the film. Burrough wrote that Dillinger's lips were reportedly moving just after he fell from being shot outside the Biograph Theater and that "Winstead was the first to reach him", but what he might have said is unknown (not to mention that his speech may have been slurred due to his injuries).[52]


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