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Trigger happy: Gangsters’ lives an unending source of ‘Public’ fascination


Johnny Depp stars at John Dillinger in ‘Public Enemies.’

Trigger happy: Gangsters’ lives an unending source of ‘Public’ fascination

There’s something about gangsters that keeps movie audiences coming back for more.

Johnny Depp is the latest actor to jump into a getaway car when “Public Enemies” opens Wednesday. Depp stars as John Dillinger, the 1930s gangster branded “Public Enemy Number One” by the FBI.

Dillinger’s infamous career as a bank robber earned him a certain folk hero status with an American public struggling through the Great Depression.

His exploits as a thief and killer made headlines during the early ’30s, along with those of fellow outlaws Ma Barker and Pretty Boy Floyd. That was also Hollywood’s Golden Age of Gangsters, during which this trio of classics was made:

“The Public Enemy” (1931) made Jimmy Cagney a star as Tom Powers, a hoodlum who comes up through the ranks of Chicago’s underworld.

“Scarface” (1932) starred Paul Muni as a thinly disguised Al Capone, the Chicago mob boss.

“Little Caesar” (1931), another take on Capone, starring Edward G. Robinson.

“Manhattan Melodrama” (1934), starring Clark Gable as a debonair gangster, made its mark in film history as the movie Dillinger saw before he was gunned down outside the Chicago theater.

The success of these pictures prompted a reaction against screen violence and the gangster faded from view until Warner Bros. brought them back with 1939’s “The Roaring Twenties,” starring Cagney.

During the 1940s, Hollywood’s pretty boys did double duty as tough guys in these gangster classics:

“Johnny Apollo” (1940) starred Tyrone Power

“Johnny Eager” (1942) teamed Robert Taylor with sweater girl Lana Turner.

“High Sierra” (1941) brought Humphrey Bogart full-fledged stardom playing doomed gangster Duke Mantee.

As World War II ended, the low-budget “Dillinger” (1945) immortalized the ’30s gunman and became a sleeper hit. It starred off-screen tough guy Laurence Tierney, who Quentin Tarantino later rescued from obscurity in “Reservoir Dogs.”

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“Kiss of Death” (1947) brought creepy sadism to postwar America when a giggling Richard Widmark offed a wheelchair-bound little old lady by pushing her down a flight of stairs.

Cagney returned one last time to his gangster roots in the psychological study of a mother’s boy in “White Heat” (1948). The movie’s definitive gangster took his final bow with the now-famous farewell, “Top of the world, Ma!” as he was blown to smithereens.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway brought gangsters to the ’60s generation with “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) as notorious Depression-era bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

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