“Why do you rob banks?” “Because that’s where the money is”. So declared Clyde Barrow, when queried about his criminal escapades. And moolah was clearly on the mind of most Americans during the ’30s, as the Great Depression vacuumed up millions of jobs, idling over 25 percent of the national workforce.
Compounding the misery was Mother Nature’s two-pronged assault on agriculture; a proverbial plague of locusts and Dust Bowl desertification devastated the heartland’s breadbasket. Out of this economic maelstrom rose a ragged but effective class of crooks whose names still resonate in our culture today. John Dillinger. “Machine Gun” Kelly. Bonnie & Clyde. “Baby Face” Nelson. Notorious figures that loom large on the historical landscape, even if less romanticized now than in their bygone era.
In the History Channel’s newly-released documentary Crime Wave: 18 Months of Mayhem, the violent crime sprees of the aforementioned malcontents are carefully detailed, including the fact that the whole eruption of mayhem lasted merely a year and a half.. By 1934, the whole blood-soaked opera saw its final curtain call.
Who were these storied individuals? Were they the spiritual descendants of William Bonney, Jesse James, and John Wesley Hardin, or something more complicated and insidious?
We know that their brazen looting was enabled by several factors they had no control over. First, American law enforcement in the ’30s was almost exclusively a local affair, and desperadoes could often elude the clutches of the police by crossing state lines. The F.B.I., created just a few years before, was led by an inexperienced political appointee named J. Edgar Hoover. Neither Hoover – destined to wield near-presidential power – or his numerous agents had backgrounds in keeping the peace.
Also, industrial technology placed serious firepower and speed into the hands of ordinary citizens. The 1932 Ford Coupe – yes, the fabled “Deuce Coupe” – was available with a flathead V-8 burbling under the hood. This early muscle car was swifter than just about anything else on the tarmac. And if a police cruiser pursued one, the officer might find himself staring down the barrel of a sub-machine gun, a fearsome weapon that left authorities scrambling for cover.
Perhaps the most resourceful of the outlaws was John Dillinger, a high school dropout who ran afoul of the law in his youth, and was sentenced to a frighteningly long prison stint by a vengeful judge. The penitentiary proved a college of corrupting influences for young Dillinger, as he was schooled by hardened toughs in the art of pulling heists. Upon release, Dillinger appropriated Charles Lam’s bank-robbing methods, which transformed stick-up work into a thoughtful science, and he quickly knocked over many banks.
Like his colleague-in-crime, Clyde Barrow was an early bird scofflaw, but his ‘career’ didn’t take off until he hooked up with Bonnie Parker, and the pair rode a money train through the heartland, hitting every mom ‘n pop bank they could. Clyde’s skill at piloting the powerful Ford Coupe came in handy, and the deadly duo’s murderous Browning rifles carried them through several shootouts.
Paradoxically, many Americans cheered the exploits of these bandits, perceiving them to be flies in the ointment to elephantine Wall Street-affiliated banking firms. But that was an illusion, one that the crooks may or may not have encouraged. Most Midwestern banks of the era were tiny family outfits, protecting the savings of working-class people, and unassisted by FDIC insurance, which was non-existent in that time. And it’s hardly the case that Clyde Barrow and his ilk were scruffy Robin Hoods, soaking the gentry to re-distribute lucre to the poor. Most – if not all – the booty these thieves collected only fattened their pockets, and made it easier to stay one step ahead of the law.
Atypical amongst these robbers was George Kelly Barnes, more renowned under his nom de guerre, “Machine Gun” Kelly, an appellation which left little doubt as to his weapon of choice. Kelly was a scion of the upper-middle class, with some college under his belt, unlike his poorly educated brethren. Kelly helped popularize – for good or ill – the Thompson sub-machine gun, or “Tommy gun”, a common prop in Hollywood gangster melodramas of the time. The awesome firepower of the Thompson made it clear to police agencies who held the upper hand in this war.
An even more lethal George was the bloodthirsty “Baby Face” Nelson, and no one dared utter that nickname to his face. George Nelson, not surprisingly, suffered a troubled youth, and acquired the “Baby Face” handle after a robbery victim told the cops that the perpetrator had “a baby face”. His behavior was dangerously infantile as well, for Nelson clearly enjoyed gunplay, and would spray the streets with bullets, mowing down anyone in his view, as occurred in one notorious incident. He seemed to take a maniacal glee in killing, particularly if his target was a man in blue. To this day, Nelson holds the record for murdering more FBI agents than anyone in history
In the midst of this chaos, President Roosevelt was apoplectic, and declared a war on crime. If the Depression wasn’t disastrous enough, the last thing he needed, politically, was an ambience of general anarchy, which could conceivably foment a socialist revolution in his embattled country. After all, FDR himself was a member of the same upper crust socio-economic class that the average man blamed for his financial misery. Roosevelt’s liberal-minded heart wasn’t enough to keep him situated at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
FBI grandmaster Hoover concurred with the President – perhaps only in that instance – and designated the most slippery of the outlaws, the formidable John Dillinger, “Public Enemy Number One”. This proclamation was in response to Dillinger’s apparent ability to free himself from almost any confinement, whether a jail or a cabin under heavy fire. In fact, the International Society of Magicians awarded the cunning Dillinger their Houdini medal for his considerable prowess. Dillinger, at the height of his powers, seemed invincible, and the ambitious Hoover, desperate to corral him, ordered his boys to shoot the marauder dead on sight.
Dillinger clearly basked in the notoriety he’d received, but arrogant pride would prove his undoing. He liked to watch films in public theaters, and especially enjoyed the popular newsreels which detailed his activities. In the final reel of his life, a lady friend would cut a deal with the FBI, essentially signing Dillinger’s death warrant. Barrow and Parker would also meet their doom in a furious hail of bullets, immortalized decades later in Arthur Penn’s New Hollywood landmark Bonnie & Clyde. Ultimately, the tragic-romantic bubble surrounding the Barrow gang and their fellow hoodlums imploded, leaving pools of blood in its wake. Dillinger’s body was quickly put on display at Illinois’ Cook County Morgue, and briefly became the top tourist attraction in the area.
As one might expect of a documentary produced for basic cable, the DVD package contains only a single extra, a 45-minute featurette titled Love and Death: The Story of Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie Parker was never the sultry, silky-haired siren Faye Dunaway essayed in the momentous 1967 biopic, but simply a plain-Jane waitress, afflicted with small-town ennui and seeking an escape. She met Barrow at 19; he’d grown up poor in then-rural Dallas, and done a stretch at the harrowing Eastham Prison Farm.
This short film successfully demystifies the tenuous lives of the pair, who led a hardscrabble existence on the run, devoid of any definite plan for their future. Still, they earned the enmity of all policedom after murdering some officers in cold blood. For the law, I suppose revenge was sweet, and one need only visit the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan to witness the merciless handiwork of the duo’s executioners.
A former classmate of mine derides the History Channel as “the Hitler Channel”, and their programmers do seem eager to feed public fascination with the world’s most reviled madman. One must also be a bit weary of the network’s relentless parade of “Who Killed Kennedy?” specials, regardless of whether you accept the Warren Commission’s official report.
I don’t watch the channel as often as I once did – they’ve become infected with RSV(Reality Show Virus) – but I eagerly lapped up Life After People, and its subsequent miniseries, and my history fix is sated by Cities of the Underworld, which I reviewed here on PopMatters.
While it doesn’t proffer complex professorial delvings into the criminal psyche or soulful, poetic visual ramblings, Crime Wave: 18 Months of Mayhem is a perfectly honorable addition to the television documentary slate, one even the august HBO wouldn’t sneer at. If you’ve seen Michael Mann’s solid though uneventful Public Enemies, you might want to consider curling up one night in front of your HD widescreen with Crime Wave. Just remember to lock the doors and set the alarm first.