No. 145 | August 12, 2010
Our theme this week
Evelyns at the movies
Her nickname was Billie but she was Evelyn by birth. Evelyn “Billie” Frechette is not a fictional creation but a character based on the real-life woman who fell in love with 1930s bank robber John Dillinger. The two of them had been living together, as Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hellman, in the spring of 1934, when federal agent Melvin Purvis, operating on an inside tip, arrested her in a raid. She was convicted of harboring a criminal and sentenced to two years in prison. Frechette was behind bars during July that year, when Purvis and his team gunned down Dillinger outside a Chicago movie theater. After Frechette was released, she parlayed her fame as a gangster moll, touring for five years with the Dillinger family in a road show called “Crime Does Not Pay.” Of mixed heritage—part French, part American Indian—she lived on a Menominee reservation in Wisconsin until her death in 1969.
Frechette’s life has been dramatized in a couple of Dillinger films. For Dillinger, the 1973 film from first-time director John Milius, former Mamas and Papas singer Michelle Phillips, in one of her first acting jobs, played the loving girlfriend of the gangster-cum-folk hero. The film is action-packed and violent. The romance between Frechette and Dillinger provides the story with some breathing room and a chance for the characters to develop, though the story of Bonnie and Clyde it is not. Warren Oates gives a memorable performance as Dillinger—a tough guy, not heartless, but ruthless when it matters.
In Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), Frechette is played by the talented and beautiful Marion Cotillard, her first English-language role after she won the Oscar for La Vie en Rose (2007). There’s never a doubt about what Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, sees in her, and despite his life of crime—or more likely, because of it—Frechette is just as enamored with the charming figure who wines and dines her between bank jobs. The two never do escape to the better life that Dillinger dreams of. When Frechette is captured, she remains loyal, refusing to give the feds information on Dillinger’s whereabouts. She sends a message to him to wait for her release from jail so they can start a new life together. But it’s not to be. Dillinger’s dying words, relayed to her by the agent who had killed him: “Tell Billie for me, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird.'”