John Dillinger by Way of Stephen King? Mr. Beaks Thinks THE DEATH OF JACK HAMILTON Has SHAWSHANK Potential!
Published at: June 26, 2008, 12:33 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
Like any self-respecting film geek, I am a sucker for a Public Enemy era gangster flick (i.e. the kind that rampaged during Prohibition, not the ones who temporarily transformed millions of white kids into black revolutionaries). From the vintage films made at the height of J. Edgar Hoover's dogged pursuit of Alvin Karpis, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, etc., to the myriad period recreations inspired by BONNIE AND CLYDE (which wasn't really an out-of-the-blue event; it just made the genre hip again), the simple evocation of that wild time and excessively bloody place is enough to justify a two hour sit. As long as I get one classic per decade (THE UNTOUCHABLES for the 80s, MILLER'S CROSSING for the 90s, still waiting on one for the aughts), I'll tolerate the HOODLUMs.
Though Al Capone is easily the most romanticized gangster of the '20s and '30s, you have to cheat a bit to make his life story cinematic. John Dillinger's tale, on the other hand, is cinema. The Indiana-bred bank robber boasted roguish good looks and movie star charm; by all accounts he scored just as well with the ladies as he did with the local financial institutions before he got gunned down by the feds in front of Chicago's Biograph Theater in 1934 (after a showing of W.S. Van Dyke's MANHATTAN MELODRAMA starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy). There's true love (with the exotically gorgeous Billie Frechette), betrayal (by the somewhat apocryphal "Lady in Red"), and several rip-roaring gunfights with the cops and, ultimately, Hoover's fresh-scrubbed, college educated G-Men (Charles Martin Smith-types were the rule, not the exception). Because Dillinger liked to claim he only murdered for self-preservation, he's also kinda sympathetic so long as you don't think too much about the families of the law enforcement officials he and his gang cut down whilst making off with tens of thousands of other peoples' dollars. (Call it the "Jesse James Killed My Father" caveat.)
And then there's the mystery: was the less-than-handsome, somewhat puffy gentleman assassinated under the Biograph's marquee actually Dillinger?
It's interesting that a mythmaker like Stephen King would concoct an historical fiction peripherally dedicated to disproving this theory, but that's apparently what "The Death of Jack Hamilton" sought to do on the page. I say "apparently" because I still haven't cracked the spine of EVERYTHING'S EVENTUAL, the omnibus in which the non-fanciful short story appears (along with 1408 and RIDING THE BULLET). I have, however, spent a couple of rapt hours pouring over Keith Clark's lush rendition of the yarn, and feel fairly confident it could join STAND BY ME and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION as one of the best non-supernatural King films ever with the right director and solid support from financiers or, god forbid, an honest-to-god studio that ain't afraid to "make 'em like they used to".
Though Clark (probably best known for a couple of as-yet-unproduced Clive Barker adaptations) definitely isn't afraid of writing in the Frank Darabont idiom (the bookending narration from Dillinger associate Homer Van Meter are so wistful you can practically hear the Thomas Newman score), the prevailing voice of the piece unmistakably belongs to King. What other popular storyteller working today could so effortlessly mix the melancholy and the grotesque? Who else would build a metaphor for fiercely loyal friendship out of a putridly gangrenous body?
Clark's screenplay begins with the Biograph Theater ambush, which is deftly contextualized by Van Meter's voiceover (he indulges in a little backstory and enumerates the physical inconsistencies that led many to believe the Feds shot someone other than Dillinger). It's a familiar tableau, but Clark's keen sense of detail - e.g. bystanders sopping up Dillinger's blood with anything that'll stain, be it a handkerchief or the hem of a dress - drives home the significance of the moment in a manner that's far more poetic than, say, DILLINGER or THE LADY IN RED (movies I adore, by the way). That's because the scope of Van Meter's narrative is far more intimate; rather than delve into Dillinger's shitty childhood and his romance with Frechette, he just wants to tell us how Dillinger's luck ran out.
After the Biograph prologue, Van Meter whisks us back to the Little Bohemia Lodge in northern Wisconsin, where Dillinger's gang futilely attempted to hide out from the FBI in early 1934. After a brief but festive setup that introduces the reader to the primary players in the oncoming drama (e.g. Dillinger, Jack Hamilton, Van Meter's gal Mickey, and the volatile Baby Face Nelson), Clark gets right to the "futile" part, which finds the Melvin Purvis and his "gees" preparing to storm the rustic getaway. The feds' inexperience quickly turns the assault into a full-blown fiasco; though Purvis has numbers, Dillinger's men have the heavy ammunition, and they unleash it with no quarter as they flee into the snowy wilderness. Honestly, Clark's clean and elegant presentation of the mayhem shames the perfunctorily-written version of this shootout in the Mann/Biderman/Bennett script for PUBLIC ENEMIES (which is not to suggest that Mann won't turn it into something exquisite in the final version).
Though Dillinger, Hamilton and Van Meter manage to evade the feds, they know damn well their survival depends on constant movement; ergo, they waste no time hijacking a Ford Tudor and hightailing it for anywhere but Wisconsin. But news of the shootout has already been radioed to every cop in the state, which forces the boys into another set-to with the law when they attempt to skip past a roadblock. It's during this high-speed pursuit that Hamilton catches a bullet in the chest; since Van Meter's already shown history's hand in the opening narration, you know the poor bastard's doomed.
What you may not know, however, is that it's going to be one excruciatingly long and drawn out death; one which many would argue sapped the fight out of the recalcitrant Dillinger for good. What's nice about Clark's script is the way he feints at convention; for a while, you figure the narrative is going to settle into a road movie/ticking clock groove ("If they can only reach Chicago in time!"), but, soon enough, Dillinger and the boys are back in the Windy City, and they're still shit out of luck. Dillinger's favored nation status in Chicago is long gone; now that Hoover and Purvis are obsessed with his capture/extermination, no one can risk doing the guy a solid. For a while, it's enough to take shelter in a prostitute's bedroom, but this arrangement gradually goes sour when the saloon/brothel owner starts mugging Dillinger for exorbitant, "get lost" rent. Meanwhile, there's not a doctor in town who'll tend to Hamilton's wound, which goes from dire to terminal in pretty short order.
Dillinger could easily leave Hamilton for dead, but he's surrendered self-interest for self-destructive loyalty; he'll go anywhere and burn every last teetering bridge before he gives up on his old friend. Homer is a little more inclined to hurry Jack along to what's coming, but he never finds the right moment to administer the merciful coup de grace.
The third act transplants the trio to an Aurora safe house with Dock Barker, Volney Davis and Edna "Rabbits" Murray (names that may mean something if you're up on this kind of lore); though Hamilton is days away from death, "Rabbits" gamely goes after the bullet lodged in his back. Actually, it's lodged a little deeper than that. (Truthfully, if there's a more gruesome bullet extraction sequence in film history, I have yet to see/read it.) From there, it's just a matter of whether Jack Hamilton will die well or horribly.
Well, and "How will Dillinger get that scar?" Hamilton's final moments are awfully precious in THE GREEN MILE tradition, but there is such a thing as earned sentimentality, and I think Clark achieves it in the final ten pages. If there's a potential pitfall in THE DEATH OF JACK HAMILTON, it's the lack of incident: there's a lot of waiting around for a doctor who ain't on the way. But this is where character (and great performances) will imbue the go-nowhere-for-a-good-thematic-reason middle-section with something resembling a heart. It's a dark heart (Clark is more open to Dillinger's cruel streak than Mann), but it's genuine; in Dillinger, Hamilton and Van Meter, you get the sense that these were very young men who stupidly gave up their future for the chance to be less than miserable during some very desperate times. It's a minor-key gangster flick I'd very much like to see. It might not be a classic, but it is a good story very well told. And it'd be a helluva lot better than HOODLUM.