Johnny Depp and Christian Bale star in the film about famous bank robber John Dillinger

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated April 17, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Anyone who’s seen 1981’s Thief or 1995’s Heat knows that Michael Mann can pull off a heist movie. So it’s not surprising that the tough-guy writer-director would be drawn to the story of the most storied bank robber of them all, John Dillinger. Back in the 1930s, a time when most Americans were being hammered by the Depression, Dillinger launched one of the most dizzying crime sprees ever recorded. It turned him into a national folk hero. After all, he was daring to do what the rest of the cash-strapped country could only dream of: sticking up banks, which had gone from trusted institutions to the fat-cat enemy of the working man.

Timely, no?

Mann was raised in Chicago, the setting of one of Dillinger’s actual bank heists, and he’d been tiptoeing around the idea of a Dillinger movie for decades. ”The Biograph Theater, where Dillinger was finally gunned down, was a place that my wife and I used to go on dates, 30-some years ago,” he says, laughing. In fact, back in the ’70s, Mann wrote a script about the early days of the FBI when it hunted down gangsters such as Dillinger. ”Nothing ever happened with it,” says Mann, ”but I guess you could say it’s been in the back of my brain all these years.”

The name of that screenplay? Public Enemy.

Johnny Depp had also been flirting with the idea of playing the legendary thief for a while. Depp, whose grandfather ran moonshine on the back roads of Kentucky during Prohibition, grew up idolizing outlaws like Dillinger. ”Some people might disagree, but I think he was a real-life Robin Hood,” says Depp of the bank robber, who at least managed the rob-from-the-rich part of Robin Hood’s credo. ”He knew that the clock was ticking, and boy, if right now wasn’t the time to have a good time, then I don’t know when is!” Needless to say, when Mann approached Depp to play Dillinger, the actor didn’t need to be held at gunpoint.

While Mann’s film is ostensibly a biopic of the criminal whose movie-star good looks and knack with a Thompson submachine gun made him public enemy No. 1 during the early days of the FBI, it wouldn’t be much of a story without a colorful adversary on his tail. Fortunately, history provided one of those, too. Enter Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, J. Edgar Hoover’s golden-boy agent. ”He was known as the Clark Gable of the Bureau,” says Bale. ”Although he was on the other side of the law from Dillinger, they were similar in some ways. Purvis had the finest car at the time, a Pierce-Arrow, and he was driven to work each morning by a chauffeur. To this day, he’s responsible for taking down more public enemies than any other agent in history.”

For a summer movie that features neither superheroes nor cyborgs, it certainly helps to have a cast headlined by Depp and Bale — maybe the only two actors in Tinseltown able to carry a franchise flick and hang on to their artistic street cred. In a way, you could say that Depp and Bale are the movie’s special effects. This might also be the only movie opening during the air-conditioning months that could still be talked about at Oscar time.

Throughout his career, whether with The Insider or The Last of the Mohicans, Mann has encouraged his actors to get as deep into their characters as they’re willing to go. And in Depp and Bale, he found performers willing to go pretty deep. When Depp was presented with an actual suitcase that Dillinger left behind after one of his narrow getaways, Mann says the actor responded like a kid in a candy store (or, more likely, a kid sticking up a candy store). He even got to caress Dillinger’s folded shirts and inspect his Dopp kit. Meanwhile, Bale, an actor who Mann says was in character ”24 hours a day, seven days a week,” pored over reams of yellowing clippings and ancient newsreels. He even visited Purvis’ son in South Carolina. Says Bale, ”I don’t know that it’s essential, but if it’s there, I wouldn’t want to do without it.”

Still, moviegoers shouldn’t expect two-plus hours of Method fireworks between the stars. ”We had very few scenes together,” admits Bale. ”In fact, it was one. Otherwise, Johnny was just a silhouette I was shooting at.” Just one scene? Kind of like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Mann’s Heat? ”Well, don’t misunderstand. This is about Dillinger. I’m the supporting role. So it’s not the kind of moment that you’re talking about.”

If they don’t share a lot of screen time, one thing Depp and Bale did share was their favorite scene in the film: a re-creation of the infamous 1934 FBI raid at the Little Bohemia Lodge in northern Wisconsin. Mann and his crew made a pilgrimage to the actual location where Dillinger narrowly escaped Purvis and his men. Even now, months after the fact, Bale still seems almost giddy reminiscing about it. ”I fired so many bullets in those woods in the middle of the night, I was literally tasting metal for a week afterwards.” May we suggest some popcorn as a palate cleanser?

Public Enemies

  • Movie
  • R
  • 95 minutes
  • Michael Mann