In fact, Americans understood Dillinger, applauded him, and cheered for him because they saw him less as a gangster than as an outlaw—a social bandit of the Great Depression who turned his guns against the banks. Newspapermen in 1934 compared him to Jesse James, not Al Capone, and certainly not to mobster Frank Nitti, who makes strange, gratuitous appearances in Public Enemies. At one especially telling point in the movie, Purvis tells Dillinger that he is about to extradite him to Indiana. Dillinger thinks about it and says coolly, "Why? I have absolutely nothing I want to do in Indiana." It's a great scene, but the spirit of it is dead wrong. Not only is it wholly made up—the two never met—but Dillinger, a scrappy heartland renegade, would never have dismissed his home state.
Whether Public Enemies is a good film or not is for others to decide. And it certainly gives us a new spin on the old Dillinger legend. But I felt much more at home in the scruffy, low-budget 1973 movie Dillinger,directed by John Milius and starring Warren Oates. That movie was certainly less showy than this latest Hollywood version, but it made me feel in my gut that I understood something of the man, his legend, and his times.