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Public Enemies – Christian Bale

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Christian Bale © Universal Studios

Christian Bale portrays Melvin Purvis, a top agent of the newly formed FBI, whose job it is to track down and end the criminal career of the mythic gangster John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). Bale was particularly intrigued by the complexities of Purvis’ character and the conflict he believed existed within him.


Can you talk a little about the conflicts Melvin Purvis felt?

Christian Bale © Universal Studios
Christian Bale © Universal Studios

One of the things that I think was kind of charming about Purvis, some of the press would call him ‘Nervous Purvis,’ but it was only because he was so candid that he would admit to becoming fearful at times, and when Alston [Melvin Purvis’ son] took me to the cemetery, on the gravestone it’s written in Latin, but the translation is, ‘I was often afraid, but never ran.’ Which I thought was a wonderful caption for him, because he did find himself in so many dangerous situations.

Is there a scene in the movie that drives that home?

There’s a scene where Purvis does meet with Dillinger and is talking him, or rather listening to him. And Dillinger seems to have a great insight into who Purvis is and almost gives him a kind of a warning that this is not for him, that if he’s going to be able to catch him he’s going to have to get his hands dirty in a way that he can see Melvin is not going to be happy with. Melvin gives nothing away right there, but I think it was really quite as we portray it in the movie, he was quite shaken by that. That this man [Dillinger] was actually quite erudite and thoughtful and was able to tell him something about himself, which was shocking because maybe it was true.

What kind of research did you do for the movie?

Christian Bale © Universal Studios
Christian Bale © Universal Studios

My experience with the FBI guys included a fascinating day going around Quantico with Michael [Mann, the director] and seeing many of the actual weapons used in incidents with Dillinger. We picked their brains and discussed modern practices versus the olden days and what they knew of Purvis. They gave us incredible help during filming in Chicago, and some actually dressed up to play characters in the movie.  I found that we were actually telling them a lot of information about Purvis. In their FBI records, so much of his history had just been erased.

Why do you think Dillinger was loved so much by the public?

Christian Bale and Johnny Depp © Universal Studios
Christian Bale and Johnny Depp © Universal Studios

With Dillinger, I feel like with the Dust Bowl and so many people in poverty and the extreme feeling of us and them, the haves and have-nots, the fat cats, the banks, so many people were resentful and had had their lives ruined, that hearing about a man who was actually taking it back for himself, they couldn’t help by idolize him.

But Purvis was idolized too, by the press.

He had such accolades in the press as a hero and was regarded so highly, but I think Purvis was very conflicted about the direction that the Bureau was taking in its effort to become efficient. In my interpretation, I felt that by the time they got Dillinger, Purvis must have believed he had to compromise himself and his own values so much that he was questioning who was the loser here? To this day he is the agent who was responsible for catching the most public enemies – that record is still not been broken, and I think the media just couldn’t get enough of him.

Purvis was always very consistent in not wishing to take praise solely for himself, he always said it was an agency-wide success, and that he would always congratulate J Edgar Hoover, who was very much Melvin’s mentor and inspiration, but regardless the media loved Melvin.