Title: Public Enemies



Photographer: Weegee [Arthur Fellig]
Author: Bryan Burrough
Publisher: Penguin
Designer: Evan Gaffney

 

Image Title: Henry Rosen (left) and Harvey Stemmer (center) were arrested for bribing basketball players, January 25, 1945
Photo Genre: Documentary [Newspaper photography]
Book Genre: History/USA/Crime/FBI
Notes:

  Michael Mann's 2009 movie, Public Enemies, was adapted from Bryan Burrough's 2004 book of the same name. As occurs with virtually every translation from printed page to silver screen, the cover image on the first edition is subsequently dropped in favor of a new design, directly related to the film. In this case, Johnny Depp, Thompson submachine gun in hand, glares menacingly from beneath his fedora (Click on Point of Interest at right). Because this particular movie turned out to be less than a blockbuster, we may not forever associate Depp with John Dillinger in the same way that, say, Jack Nicholson's maniacal visage has become inextricably linked to The Shining.

  But let’s take a look at the content and cover of the book at hand.

  All of the action in Burrough's book, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, takes place in the United States between (despite the books subtitle) 1933 and 1935, ranging as far south as Texas and Florida, as far west as California, up north to Minnesota and east to Ohio and Washington D.C. In fact, one of the few places in the continental U.S. that the action does not take place is New York City; ie, the location of the photograph used on Public Enemies' cover.

  For that photograph, made in January of 1945, Arthur Fellig, known better by his nom de camera, Weegee, turned his famous flash on small-time gambler Henry "The Mustache" Rosen and fence Harvey Stemmer as they were being booked for bribing members of the Brooklyn College basketball team to throw an upcoming game against the University of Akron.

  Is Weegee's picture successful as a representation of the content of Burrough's book? On a purely factual level, the answer must be no. Between the period of time circumscribed in Public Enemies and the date of Weegee's photo, a full decade had elapsed; the Great Depression was over and World War II had come and was almost gone. Additionally, the two men being arrested and the law enforcement officer in Weegee's photograph are neither depicted in nor have anything to do with the subject matter of Burrough's book. Finally, despite the fact that Rosen and Stemmer were charged with and convicted of a felony in a case important enough to result in the passing of legislation making point shaving illegal, betting on college basketball is not quite the same as serial bank robbery and murder. In fact, one may reasonably argue that Weegee's image has as little literal correspondence to book content as the staged, airbrushed and Photoshopped version on the 'Johnny Depp' edition.

  Nevertheless, the publisher (Penguin) and/or the designer (Evan Gaffney) saw fit to use this photograph; this set of visual facts concerning a specific circumstance in a specific place at a specific time, to represent the content of a book; not a novel, mind you, or a collection of poetry; not even a textbook, but a history book, also concerning specific, albeit different, circumstances in a specific places at specific times.

  Having established the inaccuracy of Weegee's photo as a factual representation of Public Enemies' subject matter, the question inevitably arises, “Does it matter?” Well, for most purposes, probably not. The style of dress in the picture is not markedly different from that of the previous decade, and the handkerchiefs hiding the faces of the accused dilute the specificity of the image enough that it might pass muster as evidence for a broad range of cops and robbers activities from earlier in the 20th century. Nevertheless, the fact that Weegee's picture is able to serve as a perfectly acceptable cover for Burrough’s book is at minimum a testament to it’s visual strength and, in a larger sense, to Weegee’s consistent ability to transcend the specificity of a simple news photo. Moreover, it may be seen to support the argument that we (the Reader, the Public, the Culture) often prefer the persuasive abilities of metaphor to the cold comfort of fact.

KB

 

More 'before & after' covers of books that were made into movies:

A Very Long Engagement

The Comfort of Strangers

The Great Gatsby

Paris Trout

 



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