Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rollover text informationAmerican Experience Logo
Public Enemy #1











spacer above content
Film Description

Vaulting over bank counter after bank counter like Douglas Fairbanks in the 1920 swashbuckler, The Mark of Zorro, thrusting his blue steel automatic weapon at one terrified bank teller after another, the legendary outlaw John Dillinger thrilled and terrorized America from 1933 to 1934. A desperado, a bank robber and a bad man no jail could hold, his reputation grew until he was named the country's first public enemy #1.

Peeling back the myths surrounding the most infamous outlaw since Jesse James, Public Enemy #1 unravels the story of a charismatic stickup man, whose wild antics and flamboyant disdain for the law captured the imagination of Hollywood, the mainstream press and millions of ordinary Americans.

The film chronicles Dillinger's life from his youthful first brush with the law to his death a decade later in a hail of bullets. It explores how, at a time of great hardship, Americans felt more admiration for a daring criminal than their seemingly ineffectual institutions of government. And it shows how FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was determined to turn Dillinger's story into a morality tale in which law enforcers are the victors and crime doesn't pay.

With the help of interviews with press photographers and former police chiefs, film historians and FBI historians, the film paints a vivid portrait of a captivating villain, one who played up to the media and delighted in making a mockery of the police, a man who sauntered into banks at noontime unmasked and screeched out of town with bags of cash, who taunted his nemesis in the Indiana State Police with "wish you were here" postcards, and who, legend has it, broke out of jail with the help of a wooden gun.

For months, as Dillinger wreaked havoc across the Midwest, the Feds were powerless to do anything. But when he drove a stolen car across state lines, Dillinger sealed his own fate. The action violated a federal law and the G-men seized the opportunity to act. On July 22, 1934, after weeks of trying to track Dillinger down, FBI agents were waiting for him as he left a Chicago movie theater. The outlaw died in a blaze of bullets.

That night Dillinger's legend was transformed. While he was living, he was the adventurous outlaw, a man to be admired. When he died, newspapers reveled in the FBI's victory. In the months after Dillinger's death, the FBI eliminated almost all the depression-era desperadoes -- Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Ma Barker and Fred Barker. But for decades it was Dillinger who remained central to the myth of Hoover's FBI.

Film Credits



Site Navigation

The Film & More: Film Description | Transcript | Further Reading

Public Enemy #1 Home | The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline
Gallery | People and Events | Teacher's Guide

American Experience | Feedback | Search & Site Map | Shop | Subscribe | Web Credits

© New content 1999-2002 PBS Online / WGBH



Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: