July 2009

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Enemies, Public and Private

It's going to be a short one this time, kids. There's a hell of a lot going on right now during this Bad Summer, and present circumstances require that I cross country once more, venturing into that breadbasket of America, the strange and inglorious middle where just about anything can happen, believe it or not.

Of course, you'll all be safely ensconced either within the vile trappings of a backyard barbecue (watch your uncle miss that wobbling football pass and plunge face-first into a fire pit) or, if you're lucky, in the cool, climate-controlled sanctuary of a movie theater.

Sure, you could lower yourself down among the proletariat to consume the vile, malicious humor of Bruno or The Hangover (though if the latter had leaned more heavily towards the characteristics of what is basically a skewed missing-persons case, it might have fared better in the long run). You could glory in the geekvana that is Harry Potter or the phaser fights of Star Trek. If you're real lucky, you might even snag a viewing of Kathryn Bigelow's stellar bomb-squad nail biter The Hurt Locker.

But I know you. You'll be spending your holiday with Johnny Boy.

Fortunately, Depp's latest venture doesn't have anything for me to warn against, so far. No tentacle-faced sea captains. No bad CGI. No murderous barbers (not that murderous barbers are altogether bad but I hate singing and Tim Burton, so Sweeney Todd turns me off). No weird historical adaptations, no sunglasses and facial tics, no coke-addled sweaty palms. For an even more appropriate take on the family's interest in crime fiction, it's worth ferreting out his big brother Daniel's recent crime novel, Loser's Town.

But back in the world of celluloid heroes, it looks like not only did Johnny get his gun but somebody finally realized that Depp's charm could be menacing instead of merely insane, and cast him as John Dillinger in Public Enemies. If there's anybody who could potentially not screw this up, it's Michael Mann.

I'll leave it to you to assess the movie for yourself, but regardless of what you think of the film adaptation, I would encourage the reading of its source material: Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI 1933-34 by Bryan Burroughs, who thankfully keeps his prose a lot more clipped than his title.

I'm not sure how this slipped under my radar when it came out, but upon hearing that Mann was adapting the book, I ferreted an original first out of my killer local used bookstore early this year and I was hooked.

This month, I kept flashing back to the book as I was planning my journeys to the various homelands that shaped my present self. Growing up in the Midwest, there was always very little sense that your environs once contained as much bloodshed, violence and bitter revenge as the blistering cities of Chicago, New York or Los Angeles, places you could only dream of stalking the streets someday. Sure, there was Jesse James and a few vaguely admiring comments from dim-witted high school teachers about the massacre inflicted on Lawrence, Kansas by the outlaw William Quantrill and his gang of thugs and murderers in 1863, but there was very little savoir faire attached to any of the history.

But even a cursory read of Burroughs' prophetic narrative reveals a wealth of criminal history right in one's path at any time. Eventually, my path will take me near Oklahoma City, where Machine Gun Kelly kidnapped Charles Urschel in July of 1933, holding him for ransom in Texas. At some point, I may pass through Tulsa County, where a dim-witted mother named Ma Barker would raise four sons, all of whom came to nasty ends -- not by the alleged criminal aptitude of their mother -- but the machinations of Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, the real mastermind whose ignominious career brought him in the orbit of Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde and even Charles Manson before his long run ended in a mysterious suicide in 1979. Less than an hour from one of my familial destinations is Joplin, Missouri, where Clyde Barrow and his gang, among them his gun moll Bonnie Parker, engaged the local lawmen in a vicious gunfight in March of 1933 that killed Detective Harry McGinnis and fatally wounded Constable J.W. Harryman.

History is everywhere if you look hard enough.

Later this summer I'll be near Sioux Falls, where Dillinger pulled off a brazen daylight heist of the Security National Bank and Trust with Baby Face Nelson on March 6, 1934, an event that Burroughs describes with both journalistic precision and narrative propulsion. It's to his credit that the author was dedicated enough to wade through stacks of newly released FBI files as well as do his own original research, particularly once you find out Burroughs started the project by pitching it as an HBO miniseries. While its historical accuracy feels dead on, there's no doubting its cinematic flavor, either. Keep in mind, too, that this is just one minor event in a string of career robberies, not even the mass gunfight that happened later at the Little Bohemia Lodge.

As Dillinger and Van Meter shoved the bank president toward the vault door, Nelson seemed to be working himself into a frenzy. He pointed his gun at one frightened employee after another.

"If you want to get killed, just make some move!" he announced. "If you want to get killed, just make some move!"

Within minutes policemen began to arrive. A traffic cop, Homer Powers, was the first to run up. Tommy Carroll met him with his submachine gun, and within moments Powers was standing on the sidewalk, hands above his head. The police chief, M.W. Parsons, and a detective arrived next. They were disarmed and joined Powers on the sidewalk. A crowd of townspeople began gathering, drawn by the alarm and the spectacle of three policemen standing with their arms raised.

In the lobby, Nelson was working himself up into a lather. Just then a motorcycle cop named Hale Keith pulled up beside the bank. Spotting him through a window, Nelson leaped a low railing, scrambling atop a loan officer's desk, and let loose a deafening burst of gunfire through a plate-glass window. Women screamed as Keith fell, stuck by four bullets. "I got one! I got one!" Nelson cried.

As Dillinger and Van Meter finished in the vault, the crowd outside was still growing. People were hanging out of second-story windows, watching Tommy Carroll pace up and down in the street, his gun trained on the policemen he had taken hostage. A sheriff and several deputies headed onto rooftops, hoping to pick off one of the robbers as they tried to escape. Inside, Dillinger and Van Meter were finishing up. Just as the first Dillinger Gang had done in Racine, they grabbed a bank manager and four tellers and herded them out onto the sidewalk to the car. As they left, Nelson shot out the bank's front window.

Scattered gunshots ran out as the gang loaded the bank manager, Leo Olson, and the tellers onto the Packard's running boards. The car had just begun to move when a patrolman fired a shot into its radiator. Steam began to rise from the hood. The car stopped, and the hostages jumped off. One of the women began to run.

"Come back here!" one of the robbers shouted. A minute later, the hostages back on the running boards, the Packard again moved forward slowly through city streets, south towards the frozen prairie at the edge of town. Once they hit Route 77, the main road south, Dillinger reminded the others to toss roofing nails behind them. With the Packard's engine coughing and sputtering, he could see it was only a matter of time before a posse caught up with them.

If the book has any minor flaw, it's in Burroughs' dichotomy between his obvious fascination with the period and its larger-than-life characters, and his propensity to dismiss all but Dillinger as hopeless, incompetent criminals of the most pathetic breed. He does this with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, though it's fair to say that the pair of redneck outlaws have become largely over-romanticized in latter decades by their depiction in the 1967 film starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. (As an aside, it would appear that Bonnie and Clyde didn't make the final cut of Mann's film, although it's hard to criticize a cast that includes Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, Giovanni Ribisi as Alvin Karpis, and the long-lost Stephen Dorff as the aforementioned Homer Van Meter. For further reading about Parker & Barrow, I would recommend Jeff Guinn's new biography Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, although it tends to be more fact-laden and less enlivened than Burroughs' account).

Where Burroughs succeeds is not just in the details but in the big picture, as the author takes an idea long-held by scholars studying the period and fleshes it out into a real and relevant story. These criminals, as Burroughs writes, were, "…the bogeymen for the children who have become known as The Greatest Generation," and their subsequent appearance in books and films has mythologized them for history's sake. What few laymen ever realize, and Burroughs is dead-on in using as his thesis, is that Hoover invented the mythology. The romance attached to men like Dillinger, Nelson or Machine Gun Kelly belies a career built on murder, theft, skullduggery and betrayal.

But here's the funny thing. While Hoover often fabricated the folklore that made these outlaws heroes famous in middle America, all he really had to do was put their mugs on the Ten Most Wanted List. It was, as usual, the American people that did the rest. You have to give it up for oral tradition, even in this somewhat modern world. All it took was for Hoover to craft a narrative that featured his square-jawed agents (among them Melvin Purvis, who left the bureau the year after Dillinger was killed and later shot himself in the head) and braced them against a fiction that made out Bonnie and Clyde as renegade lovers, Dillinger as a desperado of the highest order, or Baby Face Nelson as, well, pretty much the crazed killer he was. Before long, John Dillinger could be found chuckling to himself in a movie theater, marveling as his own heroic villainy was being sold to him on the screen.

Hoover, meanwhile, went on to coalesce a combination of money, power and influence whose shock and awe swept over the arc of American history for the next forty years, and if you believe some people, far beyond.

Sometimes our enemies are more public than we think.

 

Clayton Moore wonders if his fingerprints are still on file. He talks about the bad old days at claywriting.blogspot.com.