RARA-AVIS: Re: New Film PUBLIC ENEMIES (Warning! Long Post)

From: JIM DOHERTY (jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 05 Aug 2009

  • Next message: James Michael Rogers: "Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: New Film PUBLIC ENEMIES (Warning! Long Post)"


    Re your comments below:

    "I repectfully disagree with regards to the liklihood of Purvis killing Floyd...the 'one witness' you refer to really was a 'dead-eye dick' (reputedly a WW I sniper), could have easily made the shot to wound, and had no reason to lie whereas all of the other law enforcement present at the scene clearly did. Moreover, the murder of Floyd would be quite in keeping with the killing of Dillinger which some have said was in direct contravention of Hoover's own orders to apprehend him alive, if possible. Of course, none of us will ever know for sure - but that's what makes history interesting, isn't it?"

    Captain Chester "Cap" Smith didn't talk about this until decades later, though it was known at the time of FLoyd's death that he resented not getting the credit for firing the shot that brought Floyd down.  His "reason" was that he wanted that credit, and wanted the Feds to look bad.

    His story changed over time.  And details were wrong.  He states that Herman Hollis (who would be killed by Baby-Face Nelson a month later) was the agent who actually fired into the wounded and disarmed Floyd, for example, when Hollis wasn't even at the scene.  Conclusion:  Smith, concocting his story, and knowing, or finding out later, that Hollis was part of the Bureau's "Flying Squad," which worked out of Purvis's Field Office, simply assumed Hollis was there, and, in addition to trashing Purvis's memory, decided to trash the memory of another agent whose martyrdom had made him famous.

    If it was true, why did Smith wait so long?  I would guess that it was because he assumed that all the Feds at the scene were now dead, and there'd be no one to dispute his claim.  Little did he know that one member of Purvis's posse, Retired Agent W.E. Hopton, was still around, and he fired off a scorching letter to TIME as soon as Smith's version was published, disputing Smith's claims in detail.

    Also making Smith's claim hard to believe was the fact that, over time, Smith would embellish his story with new and/or altered details, first claiming he shot him only once, later that he shot him twice, that he wounded him and shot his gun out of his hand, that he fired the shots that killed Floyd, and that he'd known Floyd personally for years.  Significantly, at the time of Floyd's death, Smith made public comments that he completely contradicted when he came up with the "Purvis-the Murderer" version decades later.

    No one else who was there at the time, not the other East Liverpool cops (who had no loyalty to the Bureau as an institution and only vestigial loyalty to the agents as brother cops), not the civilian witnesses (who didn't even have that vestigial loyalty), and not the other agents, gave a version anything like Smith's.  Details varied, but no one except Smith claimed that Purvis ordered the unarmed Smith's murder.  (You'd think that at least someone would have said, "Don't do it.  He's not worth it."  Sorry, that's another thread.)

    One local brother officer, who had no particular reason to side with the Bureau, Bob Beresford, retired Sheriff of Columbiana County where East Liverpool is located, said of Smith's story, "'Cap' would tell different stories at different times.  I heard a copule of different versions.  That version [Hollis murdered Floyd at Purvis's behest] was a new version.  I don't much think anyone around here took it seriously."  He wasn't at the scene, but his skepticism is based on his long acquaintance with "Cap" Smith.

    As for Dillinger's being shot down in disobediance to Hoover's order that he be taken alive, Dillinger pulled a gun.  With so many agents in their graves at this point, I hardly think Hoover wanted Dillinger taken alive if it meant unnecessary risk to any of his agents.  The reason, after all, that Purvis had two of the agents variously known as Hoover's "hired guns" or Hoover's "cowboys," former Texas Deputy Sheriff Charles Winstead and former OK City Chief of Detective Clarence Hurt (uncredited technical advisor on Milius's film), taking the point was because they would be most likely to survive if Dillinger decided to shoot it out.  When Dillinger decided just that, Hollis, the third point man, fired and missed, hitting an innocent bystander.  Winstead and Hurt hit their target, and Winstead (played by Michael Mann repertory company member Stephen Lang in the film) is generally acknowledged as the guy who fired the fatal shots.  Hoover certainly
     thought so, as he said to Winstead in a letter of commendation he wrote to him glowingly congratulating him on his actions during the attempt to arrest Dillinger. Writing such a letter seems unlikely if Hoover's orders that Dillinger be taken alive were so absolute. I suspect that, if such an order was given, it was that Dillinger be taken alive "if possible."

    "I confess that I have not yet read the Bryan Burroughs book. I will, I assure you, rectify that omission immediately."

    Not only doesn't Burroughs's book support Smith's version, and, in fact, strongly refutes it, but neither of the two books often pointed to as the definitive biographies of Floyd, Michael Wallis's PRETTY BOY - THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CHARLES ARTHUR FLOYD (1994) and Jeffrey King's THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PRETTY BOY FLOYD (1998), endorse the Smith account.  Both report it, but both tend to accept the official account.  Wallis's book was somewhat sympathetic to Floyd (King's was not), and, if he wanted to engender more sympathy for his subject, he could have reported Smith's account as gospel.  He didn't.

    Significantly, neither did Larry McMurtry in his novel about Floyd, PRETTY BOY FLOYD, on which he collaborated with Diana Ossana.  This was a novel, though a well-reserched one that tended to stick to the facts, but still a novel.  A piece of fiction, though fact-based fiction. And one, moreover, that depicted Floyd as a hero.  Being a novel, McMurtry could have used any version he wanted to.  But he did NOT use the Smith version.

    Finally, I fall back on the point I mentioned earlier.  Nothing in Purvis's life or career suggest that he would have committed, or even condoned, such an act.  It doesn't fit with the story of the rest of his life.

    I think you will find Burrough 's PUBLIC ENEMIES quite a worthwhile account of this period in American law enforcement history.  Burroughs's grandfather was a cop who was peripherally involved in the "War on Crime" and the subject is one that has always been close to Burroughs's heart.

    "But would you disagree that doing the 'ugly' version of the Purvis apprehension of Floyd and Dillinger would have made a better or, if you will allow the overworked expression, more 'noir' take on the story?"

    First of all, I don't think "more 'noir'" is necessarily synonomous with "better."  The 1966 version of TEN LITTLE INDIANS is more noir than MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, but few would say that it's a better film.

    Second, I don't think, and never have thought, and never will think, and never will stop saying so until absolutely everybody in the world agrees with me, that deeply flawed "heroes" are the defining element of noir.  Noir is nothing except a crime story with a dark, sinister atmosphere.  Mann, with his mostly nocturnal scenes, and his chiarascuro use of light and shadow, is already pretty noir (if far more self-consciously so than the filmmakers of the classic "noir cycle" were), no matter how admirable his heroes may be.

    Finally, leaving the noir question aside, and sticking simply to the "better" question, no, I don't think PUBLIC ENEMIES would have automatically been better film had Purvis been depicted as the murderer of Floyd.  We'll leave aside the fact that it would have trashed the memory of two good men, Purvis and Hollis, based on the highly dubious account of one bitter old man, since this really has nothing to do with whether or not the finished product was any good.  Shakespeare's HENRY VI - PART ONE, after all, is still justly regarded as a classic despite the fact that it trashes the memory of saint and martyr Joan of Arc. 

    Nevertheless, I don't think it follows that a story in which the hero is as bad as the villain he's pursuing is, on that account, automatically better than a story in which the hero is admirable and the villain is not. I happen to like admirable heroes, and I make no apology for that.  I suppose, in my heart of hearts, that's what I aspire to be.  That's probably why I became a cop. 

    "As a dedicated gangster devotee, I cringe when I go to see these flicks.....I literally cringed all the way through The Untouchables, for instance."

    Can't blame you there.  They couldn't even get Ness's agency correct.  Right there on the first page of his book, supposedly the source material for the screenplay, Ness (via his "ghost" collborator Oscar Fraley) states he worked for the Dept. of Justice, yet the movie claims he was a Treasury Agent.  And I don't even see the point of that for dramatic purposes.  I can understand, perhaps not agree with, but understand making bachelor Ness a wholesome family man to contrast with the decadent gangster lifestyle, giving him a daughter when his only child was a son since little girls seem more vulnerable than boys, and even making him an out-of-towner instead of a native Chicagoan since they can then depict him as being so surprised at the level of corruption in the city.  But what's inherently more dramatic about a Treasury Agent compared to a Justice Dept. Agent?

    My favorite scene is when the judge switches juries in the middle of the trial, over the perfectly justified protests of the defense, with a courtroom hearing a divorce action (juries hearing divorces and divorces being tried in federal courts!).  Anyone who managed to get through fourth grade civics must have been scratching their heads over that one!  That's to say nothing of the fact that it depicts Judge Wilkerson, a jurist with a well-deserved reputation for probity and integrity, as a grafter who makes the switch only because Ness blackmails him.

    What actually happened, as you undoubtedly know (but which I'll go into anyway for the benefit of Rare Birds who don't), is that one of the federal agents on the case (Frank Wilson, not Eliot Ness) discovered one of Capone's men packing in court (Phil D'Andrea, not Frank Nitti), and, searching him, found a list of the entire jury panel, from which the jury would be selected.  The trial had not yet started; the jury selection hadn't even begun.

    When Judge Wilkerson was shown the list, he switched the entire jury panel with another jury panel in a court that was about to begin a different trial that same day.  In the film THE UNDERCOVER MAN, based on a chapter in Wilson's autobiography, starring Glenn Ford as Frank Warren, a fictionalized version of Wilson, this scene is depicted with considerably greater accuracy.

    And yet, with all the inaccuracies in THE UNTOUCHABLES, which make me cringe, too, I still found it grand entertainment.

    "The only one that I recall seeing that made any effort at versimilitude (sp?) was the old St. Valentine's Day Massacre with James Coburn."

    Do you mean Jason Robards?

    I've got the Milius film on DVD.  This thread has inspired me to dig it out and look at it again.



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