In the film Public Enemies, when John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, escapes from jail, he grabs the fastest car on hand. Take that new Ford V-8, a helpful guard advises, his hands still in the air. • Fast cars gave the criminals of the 1930s as much advantage as the Thompson submachine gun, the film shows. In the film, J. Edgar Hoover, played by Billy Crudup, appeals to a congressional committee for stronger federal laws against crime because the automobile and the airplane have made it so easy for criminals to flee across state lines, thwarting local authorities. There is a virtually identical scene in the film 'G' Men, from 1935, starring James Cagney.
The Ford V-8s and Ford Trimotor planes in the new film let bank robbers flee the Midwest to Florida or Arizona or Nevada. The cars are stars along with Depp and Christian Bale, who plays FBI agent Melvin Purvis. There are also DeSotos and Buicks, but above all there are many Fords, with the powerful flathead V-8 introduced in 1932.
The film's car coordinator, Blaine Currier, says in the production notes that his team "conducted an elaborate search for cars in the Midwest (and across the nation) that could be used for the production." About 20 cars got most of the screen time, but Currier says 1,000 to 1,500 other vehicles were used in the background.
He says director Michael Mann "loves the rounded, curve style that was used from 1933 to '35." Mann's camera lingers lovingly over the chrome of hood ornaments and the red glow of taillights. In scenes of moving vehicles, images of main streets and dark forests are reflected in the polished black paint of the escaping cars.
Bryan Burrough argues in his book, Public Enemies, on which the movie is partly based, that technology got ahead of the legal system beginning in the 1920s. The firepower of the Thompson was one factor. But the main impetus, Burrough writes, "was the automobile, particularly the availability of reliable, powerful V-8 engines."
Currier writes in the production notes that Clyde Barrow and John Dillinger wrote letters to Ford about its cars. The famous Barrow letter, now at the Henry Ford Museum, reads in part: "I have drove (sic) Fords exclusively when I could get away with one."
Dillinger's note to Ford was a virtual testimonial. "You have a wonderful Car. It's a treat to drive one. Your slogan should be Drive a Ford and Watch the Other Cars Fall Behind You. I can make any other car take Ford's dust. Bye-bye."
The authenticity of both letters has been questioned. Evidence suggests that the Dillinger letter was a fake. Dillinger was not in Detroit at the time the letter claims he was, skeptics have argued.
The jury is still out on the Barrow letter. Bonnie and Clyde fan Frank Ballinger suggested that the handwriting in the Barrow letter looks more like Bonnie's than Clyde's.