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Christian Bale on Public Enemies

Published June 30, 2009 in Movie Interviews
By Fred Topel | Image property of Universal Pictures
Public Enemies Public Enemies

The FBI might be the bad guys in Public Enemies. If you’re with Dillinger (Johnny Depp) then the folks trying to catch him are the villains. Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the lawman leading the hunt for Dillinger. He even calls for a harder class of lawmen, which seems to be the type we have today, but Bale would not jump to that conclusion from the FBI of the ‘30s.

Christian Bale Hunts Down Public Enemies


“I think that naturally in finding a balance, mistakes are always made and that’s very much what we’re seeing in the birth of the FBI here,” Bale said. “They initially were at a great disadvantage. It’s something which you don’t learn in the movie but the FBI weren’t even allowed to carry weapons until the Kansas City Massacre had occurred. They had no jurisdiction over so many of the crimes that Dillinger committed with breaking his friends out of jail or robbing banks. As soon as he crossed the state line, he was free. I think that in this particular case, you had the brilliant vision of Hoover but a little too ahead of his time. They just weren’t ready for that yet. I don't think that with Purvis, that particular element of his desire to bring more experienced lawmen in resulted in anything brutal. I think it was more Hoover’s embarrassment at Dillinger’s spectacular escapes that drove him to, as he says, take off the white gloves. It was more to do with that and the treatment of, for instance, the one guy who they catch had a bullet wound to the head and they wouldn’t allow him treatment until he says where the gangsters are holed up. Those were the kinds of things that began to reduce Purvis and have him question his role and whether he really believed he had a future with this bureau.”

Melvin Purvis ended his own life in 1960. His son Alston was available to Bale as a consultant. “It really wasn’t just one brief interview. We spent a great deal of time together. I went down to their hometown and met with remaining family and friends. He’s written a wonderful book called The Vendetta which is focused on Purvis’s relationship with Hoover which is really how I approached this entire role. I never viewed Purvis as having a real personal zeal for taking down Dillinger. I think that he was somebody who was very understanding in acknowledging why the public felt Dillinger to be almost a hero. He wasn’t unaware of the problems of the day and the terrible deprivation of the majority of the population. He had a personal hatred for Baby Face Nelson because Nelson had killed Barton and then Baum who Purvis brought with him who were very close friends of him. But otherwise his driving motivation was that he truly believed in Hoover and had a great desire to realize Hoover’s brilliant vision. That’s really what I played with in my mind throughout this movie was the conflict between wanting to achieve that vision but recognizing Hoover’s own compromises which Purvis wasn’t entirely happy with making. In fact, very unhappy with making.”

Public Enemies Public Enemies

Public Enemies Public Enemies

Public Enemies Public Enemies


Public Enemies Public Enemies

Public Enemies Public Enemies

Of course Public Enemies ends with the killing of Dillinger at the Biograph theater. Spoiler alert! One would think Bale was playing a Purvis who did not know what was ahead for him, but the actor could not help foreshadowing some inevitability.

“I couldn’t leave everything out. Naturally, the person is not considering or has not learned the lessons that they will in the future, but the thing that I couldn’t avoid firstly was that I really became fascinated with Purvis so regardless of whether it was relevant to the movie or not, I just really wanted to learn more and more about him and grew to have a great affection for him. I had a great deal. But I do think that it was important in the portrayal here to recognize that this was an era that haunted him for the rest of his life, and so to find the key of why that was and try to show that, but recognize my place in this movie. It’s the story of Dillinger. I’m just a piece of that puzzle, so not to overdo my importance in the movie.”

In most of his interviews, Bale espouses the value of the director in a film. Everyone knows that the director is the one most in charge of a film creatively, but perhaps Bale notices it more from the inside. “Well, a movie does need to have one point of view. It shouldn’t be made by a committee. The fact is yes, it is a collaboration with so many different people, just as in my role, everything changes depending on the other actors and the environment that you’re in. Then also, it’s handed over to the director and editor afterwards and they may choose takes that the actor really wish they hadn’t, or they may cut whole scenes which were wonderful but ended up not being relevant for the entire movie. The director likewise has to deal with an actor’s interpretation that maybe was not exactly how he saw it. Situations on the day, time constraints, but ultimately he is the director. Definitely with Michael [Mann], you don’t get anybody who is more communicative and articulate than he is and has a very specific vision. But equally, he can turn on a dime and everything can change at any given second. I feel that working with Michael, everything is appreciated and recognized. Certainly, it’s tricky for me to be able to put myself in the shoes of somebody who was not a part of the making of the movie and I may well be seeing more details and nuance than maybe it’s possible for you to see, but I can certainly tell you that from my point of view, such a movie as Public Enemies has so much nuance and detail. What is not said is fascinating and Michael is so extraordinarily good at being able to display that.”

Public Enemies opens to theaters on July 1st.

For the trailers, stills, posters and more movie info, go to the Public Enemies Movie Page.

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Fred Topel
Sources: Image property of Universal Pictures
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