Saturday, Nov. 21, 2009

Crime Wave

Celebrity Outlaws and Public Enemies

By David Luhrssen
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During the 1930s, in the lowest years of the Great Depression, a handful of criminals entered American folklore for robbing banks at a time when bankers were even less popular than today. The History Channel documentary “Crime Wave: 18 Months of Mayhem” (out on DVD) examines such storied outlaws as John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly and Baby Face Nelson, and the role their crime spree played in transforming the FBI from obscurity into one of the most far reaching organs of the federal government.

Propelled at breathless pace by a series of interviews and accompanied by reenactments of varying credibility, “Crime Wave“ burnishes the Dillinger legend as a courteous bandit, determined not to hurt anyone while enriching himself at the expense of greedy institutions. He avidly courted the media to become an early example of the celebrity outlaw. Bonnie and Clyde also caught the public imagination, less from media savvy than their image as alienated young lovers on the run. Baby Face Nelson was the berserker in the bunch, gleefully intoxicated by violence.

At first, this new breed of outlaw outraced and outgunned the law, fleeing crime scenes in fast cars and blasting away at pursuers with submachine guns. In those years local police and sheriffs carried revolvers and rifles and often stopped at their jurisdictional line, unwilling to chase criminals into neighboring townships, counties or states. Enter the FBI under its ambitious director, J. Edgar Hoover, determined to carve out a national fiefdom on the strength of a professional and well-armed secret police loyal to him and uncorrupted by local influences.

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