The Chicago Syndicate: John Dillinger Was Bad for the Business of the Chicago Outfit
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Sunday, July 12, 2009

John Dillinger Was Bad for the Business of the Chicago Outfit

After watching the excellent new Johnny Depp movie "Public Enemies" -- the story of romanticized desperado John Dillinger's murder in Chicago with the help of the Outfit -- Wings and I realized something.

We were hungry. So we walked over to Volare, the fine Italian restaurant at Grand and St. Clair on Wednesday evening, where three amazing things happened:

1. We had the most superb sausage and peppers in the universe. The sausage was beyond tasty, the peppers perfectly cooked, the sauce to kill for.

2. A group of people came in, the women in red dresses, the men in 1930s gangster outfits, fedoras for the guys, the women with much cleavage, feathered hats, tiny veils, red lips. It was a surprise party for Craig Alton, the fellow who runs Untouchable Tours, taking tourists to famous mob murder scenes, including where Dillinger fell facedown, near the Biograph Theater on Lincoln. We went over to say hello. He seemed like a nice fellow, dressed in a straw hat with suspenders, a fat, painted tie and a curly mustache. They were all going to the movie afterward. I asked: Don't you tour some of the newer sites, like the Melrose Park restaurant where Tony Zizzo disappeared a few years ago? Or the 2001 hit of street boss Anthony "The Hatch" Chiaramonti in Lyons? "No," Alton said, sheepishly. "The guys who did that are still alive."

3. At another table nearby was a handsome Italian family. Mother, father, sons and grandsons, proud, straight backed, polite. They proved their good manners by quietly chanting "chumbolone" at us.

The father, who said his name was John, announced to his family and half the restaurant that he grew up on Chicago's Taylor Street and then in River Forest.

"You wrote about Al Capone, and you also wrote about the real boss, the old man," said John. "You went past Capone and wrote about the real boss."

Paul Ricca?

"Yes," said John. "Paul Ricca."

Capone got all the attention. Ricca, a quiet fellow, never wanted to be a star. He let Capone get the applause and wisecrack with reporters. Ricca made the decisions and built modern organized crime in America. Hollywood has never made a movie about Paul Ricca. That should tell you something.

The Ricca mention by a stranger in a nice restaurant brings me back to "Public Enemies," directed by Michael Mann.

Mann gets it. He was born in Chicago, and produced one of my favorite films, one that actually speaks truth about this city: "Thief," starring James Caan. In that film, real Chicago cops played gangsters, and real gangsters played Chicago detectives. In any other town this might be seen as ironic. Not here.

So in "Public Enemies," Mann allows truth to press up against the Dillinger myth, the one with which generations of Americans were led to believe that The Lady in Red caused Dillinger's demise.

All The Lady in Red got was deported back to Romania, if she got that far and didn't end up on the bottom of the Cal-Sag Canal. And the Chicago Outfit got what it wanted: happy cops and happy FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, who kept winning at the racetracks while insisting there was no organized crime in America.

Mann understands Chicago. I'm not going to spoil anything. Anyone with a room temperature IQ knows how this one ends. But it was Mann's method of revealing this real Chicago truth that I found fascinating. It was in a big speech, by one of the actors playing an Outfit guy, talking to Depp's Dillinger.

Big speeches are usually disasters and belong only in manipulative TV shows like "Law and Order," where the big speech is delivered before the final commercial by a wise old actor with crinkly eyes.

In a movie, the big speech can ruin things. It can pull you out of that willing suspension of disbelief directors work so hard to achieve, and it can plop you back into reality, tasting the stale popcorn and the stale message from the actor delivering the big speech.

You might guess that I'm not a big fan of the big speech. Except the one in "Public Enemies," with the Outfit giving the message to Dillinger.

It's set in a wire room, with bets coming in on the phone, and Dillinger is told that the old freelance days are done. Freelancers bring heat and embarrass the locals. Businesses don't need heat. It costs money.

"You're bad for business," Dillinger is told.

It was almost subtle by comparison to other big speeches. But it was necessary, because the romantic outlaw had to learn the truth from the guys who snap their fingers and have chiefs of detectives and mayors shine their shoes.

Freelancers were entertaining, once. But freelancers cost too much. They get crushed.

Like John Dillinger.

Thanks to John Kass

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