Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, Depression-era bank robber
Indiana, September 1934
Film: Public Enemies
Release Date: July 1, 2009
Director: Michael Mann
Costume Designer: Colleen Atwood
Once again, the best shots of Dillinger’s attire in this scene from Public Enemies are from production shots, as Michael Mann’s choice of a handheld camera and extreme close-ups just show close details. However, unlike the previous Public Enemies post, Dillinger was nowhere near the incident being portrayed on film.
While Dillinger did indeed engineer the breakout of his prison buddies from the Michigan City Penitentiary on September 26, 1933 – eighty years ago yesterday – he was nowhere to be found on the day in question. Was he being smart by avoiding the situation? Was he scared?
Neither. He was in jail himself.
About a week earlier, Dillinger had managed to smuggle three .45-caliber pistols, likely the gang’s favorite Colt semi-automatics. On September 26, Harry Pierpont and Charley Makley found the marked box with the guns inside. They dug them out and, with eight other yeggs, managed to get out of prison. Unlike the film adaptation, it was relatively bloodless with no fatalities. Some of the prisoners were quickly rounded up and either killed or returned to prison, but the nexus of the Dillinger Gang: Pierpont, Makley, Russell Clark, Walter Dietrich, and John “Red” Hamilton, were now back together again. The only problem was Dillinger himself.
On September 22, Dillinger went to visit his girlfriend, Mary Longnaker, in Dayton, Ohio. Mary’s brother, James Jenkins, was one of the inmates who would join Pierpont and company for the jailbreak four days later. However, Mary’s neighbors were growing tired of the bank robber’s visits. As soon as Dillinger arrived, an old lady called the Dayton police, saying “He’s here!”
The officer responded, “Who?”
The impatient old lady couldn’t take waiting and blurted out, “John Dillinger, you dumb flatfoot!”
This was all they needed to hear. After robbing five banks in Indiana and Ohio in the last two months, Dillinger was quickly rising up the list of wanted bad guys. Dayton detectives Charlie Gross and Russell Pfauhl, with a Thompson and a shotgun, quickly busted in Mary’s apartment. Dillinger – clad only in an undershirt and gray slacks – subtly moved for his nearby piece, but the well-armed detectives convinced him otherwise.
While Dillinger’s buddies were tasting freedom – some for the first time in ten years – he was languishing behind the bars of a Lima jail, wondering if he could ever trust a woman again. (If you’ve ever heard of “the Lady in Red”, you’ll know he shouldn’t have.) Dillinger didn’t have long to wait, though. After robbing a bank in St. Marys, Ohio, Pierpont was on his way to free his pal.
What’d He Wear?
Putting aside the inaccuracy of the scene, Dillinger’s attire is very ’30s correct and looks indeed like something the real Dillinger would have worn and approved. The fashionably roomy suit is dark blue with a very subtle windowpane undercheck, seen most clearly when worn out in the sun or in color-altered promotional photos.
The suit jacket is double-breasted with wide, sharp peak lapels. Like most double-breasted jackets, especially of this era, it has a 6-button front, although Dillinger wears it open. It is fitted with slightly padded shoulders for a more muscular-looking hang. We don’t see much of the coat once Dillinger gets to his hideout. Most of his suit jackets appear to have a belt-fitted rear over a single vent, so I think it’s same to assume this one is similar.
The vest underneath gets much more playing time, as Dillinger stands on the Indiana farm in it after removing his coat. It is single-breasted with a 6-button front and no lapels. There are four pockets – two on each side – left empty since Dillinger wears a wristwatch instead of a pocketwatch. The rear is dark blue silk, matching the suit’s lining, with a single seam down the center and an adjustable strap for fit.
Dillinger’s trousers are the traditional high rise of the time, meant to be totally covered by the vest. When the vest is worn open, we see that the trousers have belt loops with a black leather belt suspending them. The belt has a blackened steel 1-eyelet clasp in a rounded square shape.
The flat front trousers have an open pocket on each side and button-through rear pockets. They are generously fitted through the legs and have cuffed bottoms.
Michigan City is a very northern city in Indiana, right on the border of another state (Michigan, believe it or not) and right next to one of the Great Lakes (guess which one…) Thus, it would be pretty chilly by late September when Dillinger was planning his prison break, especially in the days before global warming. Thus, as FBI SAC Purvis later explains to his men, “He was in a place. He got cold. He bought a coat.” This is, of course, how coats work. Those FBI guys were sharp…
Of course, Dillinger did wear a coat. The coat in question is a dark charcoal herringbone double-breasted overcoat with heavy peak lapels, a 6-button front – although he wears it open – and cuffed sleeves. Like his suit coats, it is fitted in the rear, although the overcoat has an actual rear belt. The overcoat falls to below his knees and the large fit makes the open hip pockets look more like thigh pockets. Purvis’s fellow agent Baum goes on to describe the coat:
This is John Dillinger’s coat. It’s made by Shragge Quality out of St. Louis. Price, $35, windproof 32-ounce wool. Top stitching.
So, if you want one like Dillinger wore in the film, go to your tailor and make those requests. He may laugh at you since Shragge Quality is non-existent and $35 wouldn’t even buy you 10% of a decent overcoat, but at least you’ll have the 32-ounce wool part right. And top stitching.
Dillinger’s shirt, as opposed to the heavy wool coat, is a lightweight cotton dress shirt with no front placket. The French cuffs are fastened by a set of diamond-shaped cuff links in black onyx with silver trim. Dillinger sloppily wears the shirt with the collar unbuttoned despite the presence of a tie. The collar is a soft spread turndown collar. Given the amount of action in the scene and the fact that he is posing as an arrested criminal, wearing the top button undone isn’t so much a faux pas as it is a functional fashion statement.
The silk necktie is a very common early ’30s style with a short length that barely meets the waistband of the high rise trousers. It has a dark blue ground with reddish stripes in the American right shoulder-down-to-left hip formation. The stripes are accented with consistent blue patterns in each.
Down on his feet, Dillinger wears a pair of brown leather cap-toe balmorals. True, this is another instance of the hated brown shoes/black belt sartorial mismatch, but…
a) the belt is concealed under the waistcoat and its primary function is to support the…
2) shoulder holster, which actually matches the shoes.
Ah, the shoulder holster. Or, as it’s meant to carry both of Dillinger’s M1911s, a shoulder rig with double holsters would be a more appropriate term. The light brown leather rig was created by Ted Blocker Holsters for the film. This large holster, which would require a slightly oversized suit coat like the ones Depp wears as Dillinger, is fastened together in the rear with a thin darker brown leather strap.
While the shoulder rig is the most notable of Dillinger’s accessories in this scene, we also see a ring, a wristwatch, and sunglasses. Only the latter item, a pair of vintage sunglasses with an acetate tortoiseshell frame, round plastic rims, and amber-tinted lenses, was seen in the previous article.
The best view we get of Dillinger’s ring in these scenes is while desperately grasping Walter Dietrich’s arm to keep him from falling off of the gang’s getaway car. This thick gold ring, worn on his right ring finger, has a dark ruby asscher-cut stone.
Later, when breaking down a Thompson gun with the gang’s gun dealer – presumably San Antonio salesman H.S. Lebman, who provided many illegally modified firearms to the gang – we get a few glimpses of Dillinger’s wristwatch, a vintage-looking piece with a round gold case and a white face, crowded with large black Roman numerals. He wears it on his left wrist on a dark brown leather strap.
Go Big or Go Home
As the real Dillinger later told reporters at Crown Point jail, “I stick by my friends and my friends stick by me.” Thus, the Dillinger tale is laced with honor among thieves. Dillinger was hesitant to kill innocent civilians or even policemen – unlike the trigger-happy “Baby Face” Nelson – but a snitch is the dirtiest thing to be in Dillinger’s world. His cohorts and contemporaries – Nelson, Homer Van Meter, Harry Pierpont, “Red” Hamilton, Verne Miller, Alvin Karpis, the Barkers, and my favorite, “Pretty Boy” Floyd – never hesitated when it came to gunning down anyone who stood in their way. This wise reluctance landed Dillinger in jail a few more times than them, but it also landed him the Robin Hood reputation he went on to carry with pride.
In this sense, Dillinger was a “good” guy. The public could root for him because he stole from the evil banks and wasn’t violent about it. He got into plenty of exciting gunfights with police, but almost always without fatalities. If there were, they were usually definitely linked to Nelson or Van Meter. However, if you mess with any of Dillinger’s friends or lovers, you’re messing with him.
The only people Dillinger ever planned to maliciously and cold-bloodedly kill were Art McGinnis and Harold Reinecke.
McGinnis was a small-time Chicago hood who led the police to a doctor’s office in November 1933. Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie evidently spotted the trap and told Dillinger, who – in a split second – managed to maneuver his Essex Terraplane out of the Loop and into safety before the police even realized what happened.
Reinecke was the FBI agent – portrayed by Adam Mucci in Public Enemies – who was present for the arrest of Billie Frechette in April 1934. Dillinger watched helplessly from across the street as Reinecke shoved Billie into the car, not-so-accidentally bumping her head into the door frame as he did.
“But wasn’t he on trial for murder?”, you ask, if you’re reasonably well-informed in the Dillinger saga.
Well, yes. And he did shoot a policeman and that policeman did die. You know why? He shot one of Dillinger’s best friends. Now, the best friend of his was robbing a bank at the time and the return shooting was a hot-blooded reaction from Dillinger in full criminal mode, but it just goes to show the measures it takes to get a non-violent criminal like Dillinger to snap. Cop-killing is deplorable, though, and Dillinger wasn’t proud of his role in the death of Patrolman O’Malley, who left a wife and three daughters.
Ironically, Dillinger was the only one of the major “Public Enemies” to be truly done in by an informant. The others were either found by solid FBI work (maybe with the help of a small informant or two along the way) or were turned against by the mob, as in Miller and Van Meter’s cases.
OK, sorry about the rant. If you take anything away from it, it’s to be an honorable person and don’t kill policemen. Also, if you’re looking to buy a new car, Dillinger recommends “a Plymouth and an Essex.” Both companies are out of commission now, but there are still plenty of Plymouths on the road, so see if you can find one and make Dillinger proud. Of course, the real Dillinger would’ve really loved it if you drove a red 1933 Essex Terraplane 8, his personal car of choice.
How to Get the Look
Costume designer Colleen Atwood racked up another winner with this suit for Public Enemies; it’s just a shame we didn’t get to see more of it on screen. Do Colleen a favor and get ahold of a similar suit and wear it around town, showing it off. The best way to show it off? Go organize a major prison break.
- Dark blue, with a subtle windowpane undercheck, suit with a generous fit, consisting of:
- Double-breasted jacket with wide, sharp peak lapels, 6-button front, breast pocket, half-belted fitted rear, and single rear vent
- Single-breasted 6-buton vest with four pockets and an adjustable rear strap
- Flat front high rise trousers with side pockets, button-through rear pockets, and cuffed bottoms
- White lightweight dress shirt with a spread collar, no front placket, and French cuffs
- Dark blue silk necktie with red R-down-to-L stripes
- Black onyx diamond-shaped cuff links
- Dark charcoal herringbone double-breasted overcoat in heavy 32 oz. wool with a 6-button front, open hip pockets, cuffed sleeves, and a belted rear – Double points if you buy it in St. Louis. Triple points if it cost you only $35.
- Black leather belt with a blackened steel rounded square 1-eyelet clasp
- Brown leather cap-toe balmorals/oxford shoes
- Vintage watch with a round gold case, white face with black Roman numerals, and dark brown leather strap
- Thick gold ring with a ruby stone, worn on the right ring finger
- Acetate tortoiseshell-framed sunglasses with round plastic rims and amber-tinted lenses
- Light brown leather double shoulder rig for a pair of M1911s
Ah, the “gun that made the ’20s roar”, as William J. Helmer termed it for his excellent and comprehensive book. The action in Public Enemies kicks off with a bang, appropriately from the Thompson Submachine Gun wielded by Dillinger as his cohorts run from the Michigan City pen. For those of you unfamiliar with the Thompson submachine gun, I feel bad that you never saw any movies about old-timey gangsters.
Public Enemies portrays the Thompson – and rightly so – as Dillinger’s assault weapon of choice. He carries it during the prison break, most bank robberies, and most police gunfights. However, when it was first introduced by Auto-Ordnance in 1921, it wasn’t seen as the go-to weapon for urban bandits. Instead, Auto-Ordnance seemed to picture it in the hands of farmers and rural ranchers protecting their property, as depicted in the ad below. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s when Chicago gangsters discovered their use that the gun gained its unshakable underworld connotation, denoted by such nicknames as the “chopper” and a “Chicago typewriter”.
The Thompson was first developed during World War I, as U.S. Army General John T. Thompson began working on his vision for an “auto rifle” to replace the bolt-action service rifle. This was a novel thought at the time and one that those warmongering Germans seemed to miss until at least thirty years later. After co-founding the Auto-Ordnance Company in 1916, Thompson went to work, seeing what would work and what didn’t. A year later, America went to war and the horrors of trench warfare made themselves apparent. In reaction, Thompson began modifying his “auto rifle” design into a “one-man, hand-held machine gun” or “trench broom”, designed to fire the powerful .45 ACP pistol cartridge. By 1918, the Annihilator I, as it was first called, was built in a few early prototype models. An elated Thompson prepared to ship them off to Europe when, unfortunately for him (but fortunately for the ENTIRE WORLD), World War I ended and the world had no more need for a “trench broom”.
Nothing deterred good old General Thompson, however, not even the development of rival submachine guns (as they were now being called) by the Italians or the Germans. By 1921, his masterpiece was ready and the Thompson M1921 went into production, aimed towards civilians, police, and the military. However, the high price of $200 (half the cost of a new Ford) deterred civilians and the only government contracts were from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the U.S. Marines.
Luckily for our Thompson, the IRA was making some headway across the pond. The first major purchase of Thompson submachine guns was by the Irish rebels, who ordered more than 650 in the first year of production. U.S. customs was none too pleased about this, keeping nearly 500 of them, but the Irish still got their Thompsons and fought their way through the Irish Civil War. (Boardwalk Empire fans may recall the deal Nucky brokered with the IRA in the second season.) The gun continued to develop with the addition of a Cutts compensator in 1926 to serve as a recoil brake. Additional variants were made in 1928 and, as the gun caught on with gangsters, it soon caught on with police and the military too, eventually entering U.S. service during World War II.
Well, that was a lot of history. How about some stats?
The original M1921A (no compensator) and M1921AC (with compensator) are less than three feet long and are 10.5 inches long, with an extra 1.5 inches if the model is fitted with the Cutts compensator. It is a blowback submachine gun operating under the Blish Lock principle, with a heavy rate of fire between 600 and 1500 rounds per minute. The muzzle velocity of the .45 ACP round is 935 feet per second (or 285 meters per second). Due to its use of pistol, rather than rifle, ammunition, the effective range is no more than 150 feet, but it makes the most of its space and is very deadly. Early magazines held either 20 rounds in a stick or 50 or 100 rounds in a drum. Eventually, the wartime models were reduced to 30-round sticks, but the image of a gangster with the big 50-round drum is the most classic.
The Thompsons used in Public Enemies were, as our IMFDB friends report, hybrids of Colt M1921AC Thompsons and M1928 internal parts or M1928A1s made to look like M1921s with a polished blue finish and vertical foregrips.
Do Yourself A Favor And…
Buy the movie.
My friends call me John, but a son of a bitch screw like you better address me as Mr. Dillinger.