The biggest challenge facing Mann was turning 21st-century America back into the world of the early 1930s. As there were some 114 different sets to dress for the film, the art department was kept occupied well before principal photography began. In addition to his crew's work on developing sets, Mann felt it was important to lens at as many of the actual locations as possible. As Dillinger and his crew traveled across the Midwest during their bank-robbing spree, so would this production.
A keen historian, the writer/director gives an example of just how easy it was for Dillinger and his crew to get away with it all as they robbed. “Indiana State Police had 27 officers for the whole state of Indiana,” Mann offers. “Law enforcement was local, underpaid, poorly supplied, and they didn't talk to anybody else. They didn't know what was going on in the next county, unless it was anecdotally in a bar or in a café. If you're a crew of bank robbers, you could commit a bank robbery in Indiana, go across the border into Illinois and be home free. There was no law against interstate crime and no federal police force at all.”
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Though in various states of repair, several of the actual sites visited by Dillinger are still around today. Fortunately, the production was allowed use of the structures for three of his iconic showdowns with the law: the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana; the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin; and the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.
Before Dillinger's daring escape in Sheriff Lillian Holley's (Six Feet Under's Lili Taylor) personal automobile (after he carved a wooden gun out of a washing board), the Lake County Jail briefly saw him as a reluctant guest. Of the location, production designer Nathan Crowley elaborates: “The front portion, which was Sheriff Holley's house, was pretty much deteriorated, while the back part, which was the jail, was rusted and corroded. We didn't have to make anything up, which was fantastic. It had the real corridors and the real geography.”
One of the most notorious photographs ever taken of Dillinger was shot at this jail. The gangster offered a wry smile while leaning on the shoulder of District Attorney Robert Estill (Prison Break's Alan Wilder); it was a photo that would sabotage Estill's burgeoning political career. Because many photographs of the jail (especially the common areas) were taken during the famous press conference, Crowley's team was able to accurately duplicate the area. As there were no existing images of the interiors of the cells themselves, even more imagination went into their dressing.
At the Little Bohemia Lodge in spring 1934, agents from the Chicago and St. Paul offices of the FBI surrounded Dillinger and his gang, only to be outfoxed once again. Along with the notorious Baby Face Nelson, Homer Van Meter and Red Hamilton, Dillinger had just held up a bank and fled to northern Wisconsin to hide out. A violent gunfight ensued in which one innocent local man was killed; additionally, FBI Agent Carter Baum was killed by Nelson. During production of the film, the team lensed at the Little Bohemia 74 years to the week that Dillinger evaded the feds.
The Alpine guesthouse is a tourist spot that now operates as a restaurant, and it took some work to recreate the era. From replicating the gangsters' rooms and planting shrubbery about the grounds, the design team was fastidious in making the Little Bohemia look as it did during Dillinger's heyday.
“We were able to shoot not just in the actual place where this happened, but in his actual room,” reveals Mann. “As you can imagine, there's a certain kind of magic, a kind of resonance, for Johnny Depp to be lying in the bed that John Dillinger was actually in. When he puts his hand on the doorknob and opens the door, it's the same doorknob that Dillinger put his hand on and opened.”
All of the Dillinger gang successfully escaped from the Little Bohemia, and the event became an unfortunate black mark in the FBI's history. The current Little Bohemia still hosts a variety of signs and relics from the Dillinger shoot-out, including bullet holes, broken windows and even some of the gang's luggage which it didn't have time to retrieve upon its hasty exit. It was, as Mann puts, “a dark day for J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI."
Melvin Purvis' assistant during this period, Doris Rogers Lockerman, was helpful in putting both the people and times in perspective for the cast and crew. According to the 92-year-old Lockerman, the Dillinger gang was toting around heavy weapons while holding onto the sideboards of cars during their escapes from the banks. They were simply tough young men, she explains.
On the other hand, she shares that the FBI agents were law school graduates with both proper training and athletic abilities, but they were simply not raised as ruggedly as the criminals in Dillinger's gang. Those men had a definite advantage in pure physicality and endurance.
It was quite meaningful for the actor who played Purvis to work in the same places that his character did. Christian Bale particularly felt that in the woods near the Bohemia. “When you use the real location, you have a reverence for it,” offers Bale. “It's incredibly helpful to stand in the same spot and know you're in the same woods-just sitting silently for awhile-as the man you are portraying. This was where he was actually fired upon and fired back.”
History buffs offer some context to the defeat that almost got Purvis fired. In defense of the FBI's unsuccessful efforts at the lodge, producer Misher says: “There was danger. They were walking into a blind alley with people who are very capable with their hands and weapons. That's the divide between whether Melvin Purvis was capable or not. The film answers it. He ultimately led the charge that got John Dillinger and resulted in the task at hand being accomplished: mission accomplished.”
The most famous of the actual sites recreated for the film is the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. According to Crowley, this street “had the biggest facelift. The street is now gentrified, and there have been masses of changes since the 1930s. The finished street was an amalgamation of research and design.”
A combination of period streetcars, cobblestone-lined roads, numerous 1930s storefronts and automobiles gave an eerie and realistic look back in time to the sweltering evening of July 22, 1934: the night John Dillinger was betrayed by the “Lady in Red” and gunned down by Purvis' men.
No one was more shocked by this turn of events than Dillinger himself. While he knew his run was not indefinite, he had no idea his life would end so soon. Mann explains why the gangster felt comfortable mingling in the open: “Dillinger's natural charisma, his savvy about public relations, made him popular and charismatic, and he hid out in public. There were people who spotted him, saw him, and they didn't turn him in.” Until the “Lady in Red.”
But first, a bit of backstory. Anna Sage was an eastern European immigrant who ran a brothel and was in trouble with the immigration department of the federal government. In an effort to avoid deportation, Sage tipped off Purvis and the FBI that Dillinger would be attending the gangster movie Manhattan Melodrama (starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy) at the Biograph on this particular evening. As the point person in the treachery, Sage became known as the “Lady in Red” when she stood outside the theater. Curiously enough, she was wearing an orange outfit, but the artificial lighting made her dress look red. That moniker would forever be associated with a duplicitous woman.
As Dillinger walked out of the theater with then-girlfriend Polly Hamilton on one arm and Sage on the other, Purvis lit a cigar to alert the many law enforcement personnel that the criminal was in sight. Within seconds, Dillinger knew something was amiss and pulled his gun, but it was too late. He was shot three times and fell dead in an alley a few feet from the movie house.
As the team reconstructed events, Mann was most exacting. He explains the process: “We rebuilt the street front of the Biograph. We engineered it so that we were able to stage exactly where Dillinger was when he died-the same square foot of pavement that he died on-so that when Johnny looked up he saw the last thing Dillinger saw. That means a lot to an actor and to a director…to find yourself in those environments where you can suspend your disbelief and give yourself the magic of the moment.”
The film's lead agrees. He couldn't help but be wowed by his surroundings at the Biograph. “Everywhere you looked, it was 1934,” notes Depp. “It was pretty incredible to be standing in front of the Biograph Theater. As far as you could see, it was 1934…from the roads to the building storefronts to the marquee lights. Every detail was accounted for. I salute Michael for that. His attention to detail is unparalleled.”
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When deciding upon the actor who would portray the principal outlaw, Mann turned to a performer known for immersing himself in his roles. He found the complex character he needed for his interpretation of John Dillinger in Johnny Depp.
“Deep in the core of Johnny there's a toughness,” commends Mann. “When we started talking about it, he said that he had been interested in Dillinger for a long time and that Dillinger reminded him of some people from his past. He had Dillinger in him; that's something I sensed. Everybody has these dark currents inside of us, but to be able to reach down in a movie and plumb those depths and bring that up…that's courageous.”
Depp explains his long interest in the gangster: “Funny enough, when I was a little kid, there was a long period where I was fascinated with John Dillinger. No particular explanation why, I just was; he struck my fancy somehow. But looking back on that initial interest in Dillinger and the fact that it's carried through for the majority of my life, it was his character. It was who he was as a man…back at a time when men were really men. He was, for good or ill, exactly who he was, without any compromise whatsoever.”
For Mann, the challenge of preparation is “…trying to make 1933 come alive. And be alive just the way it's alive for you right now in 2009. And that meant not just how things looked, but how people thought. How men courted women in 1933. How ex-convicts thought about life and their fate in 1933. What the material world meant to those who were hungry and denied. The desperation on the streets.”
In preparation for the shoot, Mann, who had decided to film in some of the actual locations where the story took place-like the Crown Point Jail, Little Bohemia and the Biograph-was able to provide Depp with the actual clothing and personal articles of Dillinger.
Depp was able to spend time in some of the haunts frequented by the “Gentleman Bandit” and handle weaponry the man had used. Also informative were his personal experiences. “I read many books on him, but aside from all the research, more of it had to do with an instinct and understanding of the man,” Depp notes. “ I related to John Dillinger like he was a relative. I felt he was of the same blood. He reminded me of my stepdad and very much of my grandfather. He seemed to be one of those guys with absolutely no bull whatsoever, who lived at a time when a man was a man.”
The actor continues: “I think Dillinger had some idea of what he was doing. I believe he had found himself and was at peace with the fact that it wasn't going to be a very long ride…but it was going to be a significant ride.”
From his rise as a golden boy of the FBI to his need to get his hands dirty if he hoped to catch Dillinger, Purvis was just the complex part that Christian Bale was eager to tackle. The actor was particularly interested in the conflict he believed existed within Purvis. “He had such accolades in the press as a hero and was regarded so highly,” offers Bale, “but I think Purvis was very conflicted about the direction that the Bureau was taking in its effort to become efficient.”
Bale extended his feelings about that conundrum to Purvis' capture of Dillinger and the ruthless tactics pushed by Hoover. “There may have been no satisfaction for Purvis to pursue Dillinger,” he adds. “In my interpretation, I felt that by the time they got him, Purvis must have believed he had to compromise himself and his own values so much that he was questioning who was the loser here.”
As does Depp, Bale engages in extensive research into the characters he plays. For Public Enemies, he and Mann took an investigative trip to FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, and spent time with Melvin Purvis' son, Alston. Because there was no recorded sound available of the senior Purvis' voice (he died in 1960), Bale chose to use Alston's southern drawl as his accent for the action-thriller.
The Welsh actor stayed in his character's voice throughout production, and his dedication had a big impact. Producer Misher explains: “When Alston Purvis came to visit the set, we were at the Biograph Theater where Dillinger was shot. Alston said it was the greatest night of his life, because it was like watching his father come back to life. To have a son of the character who an actor is playing say there's no other actor on Earth whom he could see play his father…that's quite a testament to the actor's performance.”
To understand Billie Frechette, Mann spent a good deal of time uncovering the history of the woman who became the singular love of Dillinger's life. “I tried to figure out the life of Billie: what she was about, what she was doing and how she got by in the Depression,” he states. “She worked as a hatcheck girl at The Steuben Club; she was an ambitious young woman from a small town making her way in Chicago. What also is very significant is her upbringing. As a Menominee Indian, she was very much a second-class citizen, an outsider.”
Marion Cotillard, who won an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of chanteuse Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, was cast by Mann for the part. “After I saw La Vie en Rose, we met. That was it,” says the director.
As part of her preparation, Mann asked her to meet with a variety of gangster wives, girlfriends, strippers and bar girls to listen to the women's stories of unfailingly standing by their often-violent men. “He wanted me to understand the feeling of being a convict's wife and not knowing exactly what the next day would bring,” explains Cotillard.
As Frechette was French and Native American, the actress spent extensive time with a dialect coach and visited the Menominee reservation to learn about the world from which the gangster's girlfriend came. There, Cotillard met with members of Frechette's extended family and discussed the life and primary love of their ancestor. She was quite moved by what she learned about the woman…as well as about the man for whom Frechette went to jail and never betrayed. “It was very emotional,” she relates. “When you live a passion, a love like that, you will not turn your back at all the fear that comes from any situation to be with a man who's a gangster.”
“The skills of Marion are extraordinary. The commitment, the absolute total commitment to the moment. How deep and thoroughly she would live the truth of a small gesture, a glance,” says her director.
Her on-screen Dillinger was one of many on set moved by her performance. “I was profoundly impressed by Marion's commitment to Billie,” commends Depp. “She took so much care in playing her properly and giving Billie her fair shake. Marion worked unbelievably hard on the accent and was profoundly committed to the part. I like her very much, both personally and as someone to get in the ring with.”
For the supporting players in the world of Dillinger, Purvis and Frechette, Mann chose an elite international cast. Serving as two of Dillinger's primary henchmen are Australians David Wenham and Jason Clarke, who play Harry “Pete” Pierpont and John “Red” Hamilton, respectively, while British actor Stephen Graham portrays infamous psychopath Baby Face Nelson.
Rounding out Dillinger's immediate crew and known crime associates are Americans Stephen Dorff as incorrigible clown/unemotional killer Homer Van Meter; John Ortiz as high-level crime lord Phil D'Andrea; Giovanni Ribisi as train robber/kidnapper Alvin Karpis; Channing Tatum as the aptly named Pretty Boy Floyd; Stranger Than Fiction's Christian Stolte as calm killer Charles Makley; and 21's Spencer Garrett as Baby Face Nelson's wingman, Tommy Carroll.
For fellow Chicago gangsters and girls, Mann brought on board War of the Worlds' John Michael Bolger as corrupt East Chicago cop Martin Zarkovich; Bill Camp as Al Capone contemporary Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti; Miami Vice's Domenick Lombardozzi as Nitti henchman Gilbert Catena; Changeling's Peter Gerety as Chicago gangland mouthpiece attorney Louis Piquett; Branka Katic as Madam Anna Sage, better known as Dillinger betrayer the “Lady in Red”; and 88 Minutes' Leelee Sobieski as Anna Sage's “girl” Polly Hamilton.
On the other side of the law are Billy Crudup as the young front man for the newly formed FBI, J. Edgar Hoover; Rory Cochrane as Melvin Purvis' close ally and fellow agent, Carter Baum; Stephen Lang as Western Agent Charles Winstead; Disturbia's Matt Craven and Miami Vice's Don Fyre as, respectively, Western Agents Gerry Campbell and Clarence Hurt; Alpha Dog's Shawn Hatowsky as FBI Agent Medala; Barefoot to Jerusalem's John Hoogenakker as Agent Clegg; Taken's David Warshofsky as Lake County Jail Warden Baker; and Lost's Emilie De Ravin as bank hostage / Dillinger convert Anna Patzke.
Mann, who had previously written a screenplay about the era-about the famed train robber and bank robber Alvin Karpis-explains Dillinger's appeal: “Dillinger, probably the best bank robber in American history, only lasted 13 months. He was paroled in May of 1933, and by July 22, 1934, he was dead. Dillinger didn't `get out' of prison; he exploded onto the landscape. And he was going to have everything and get it right now.”
“In assaulting the banks,” the director continues, “and outwitting the government…to people battered by the Depression, it's as if he spoke for them. He was a celebrity outlaw, a populist hero.”
While no time frame in either Dillinger's or nemesis Melvin Purvis' lives could be considered particularly ordinary, the filmmakers were interested in a very specific window as they imagined Public Enemies. “It was this 14-month run of Dillinger's life that opened a window for us into a confluence of forces that were at work during this period of American history,” says producer Kevin Misher. “There was a nexus between John Dillinger, perhaps one of the more famous Americans of the 20th century; Melvin Purvis, the underanalyzed G-man; and J. Edgar Hoover, a titan of American history. These three were in a dance of power and death.”
Soon after his release from prison until late June 1934, Dillinger embarked upon a whirlwind bank-robbing spree across the Midwest that attracted fervent nationwide attention, especially from J. Edgar Hoover and his nascent Bureau of Investigation.
To track and capture Dillinger, Hoover assigned a young, square-jawed agent named Melvin Purvis, whose profile actually inspired cartoonist Chester Gould in creating the look for Dick Tracy. But Dillinger and his men proved to be much wilier than the FBI agents, who would eventually bring down such gangsters as Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum of Fighting, the upcoming G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), or their boss could ever imagine.
As they honed their techniques, Dillinger and his crew used a number of strengths to their advantage: a hardness hewn by years in prisons that were as lawless as they, the latest in automatic weaponry, a fragmented public safety system that had not yet been nationalized, state-of-the-art Ford V8 getaway cars and the knack for riding the wave of anti-banking sentiment from the very public whose banks they plundered.
While they could easily argue with his methods, few who saw the newsreels during Saturday matinees would disagree that someone was finally “sticking it” to the fat cats who they felt had destroyed their lives.
Time and again, the outlaw embarrassed government at every level and escaped from seemingly impossible situations, including a breakout of his crew from Indiana State Prison in September 1933, an escape from the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana, in March 1934 and an evasion of Purvis at the Little Bohemia travel lodge in northern Wisconsin in April 1934. And while his men never hesitated in the use of violence, the often chivalrous Dillinger could be counted upon to give money back to citizens during a bank robbery and not curse in front of female hostages.
When it comes to the law and lawless, Mann understands and appreciates that truth is stranger than fiction. Dillinger and his pursuers' story was just the inspiration he was looking for in his next project. “Their mobility and use of technology made them almost invincible,” he says. “This was happening at a time when massive forces conspired against Dillinger: what Hoover built with the FBI-the first national police force, the first interstate crime bill, the use of very progressive, modern technology and data management. They were doing what is routine in law enforcement now, but what had never been done before in this country.”
Battling a doubtful Congress about the efficacy of his newly formed FBI, Hoover grew furious that Dillinger was becoming a folk hero to American citizens, while his schooled and polished agents were flubbing cases. Many of his colleagues saw the head of the bureau as an inexperienced, puffed-up suit and didn't trust his methodology. In a frustrated effort to escalate the pursuit by Purvis and his agents, Hoover enlisted the aid of a Western lawman, Special Agent Charles Winstead, and two of his associates to track Dillinger. That, coupled with such orders to arrest relatives, girlfriends and associates of the criminals (in the FBI's efforts to get tough on crime), did the trick.
While eluding the law, the bank robber had traveled across the country with girlfriend Billie Frechette, spending money in lavish quantities and rubbing elbows with the elite of Florida. Eventually, Dillinger's luck ran out at the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22, 1934. As the screening of Manhattan Melodrama ended and he left the movie theater, law enforcement officials-under the direction of Agent Purvis and with the help of a Dillinger traitor called the “Lady in Red” (Chicago madam Anna Sage)-put him to rest with a slew of bullets. His legend only grew.
For grisly souvenirs of their hero, devastated fans of the “Jackrabbit” dipped handkerchiefs in the pool left by his blood, and thousands lined up at the morgue to view his body. From curious onlookers to lawmen, everyone wanted a piece of the legacy.
Dillinger's primary antagonist, Melvin Purvis, received the lion's share of the credit. And none were more unnerved by Purvis' accolades in the celebration of Dillinger's demise than J. Edgar Hoover. Continues Misher: “Dillinger was so famous that when he was killed, Purvis became `The Man Who Shot John Dillinger,' even though he was not the man who pulled the trigger. As a result, Hoover started to resent the fame and acclaim that Melvin Purvis, G-man, had in the United States and drummed him out of the FBI.”
Three-quarters of a century later, Dillinger's status as a legendary criminal is cemented. From the classic image of his crooked smirk as he draped his arm around one of his admiring captors, to his status as one of Chicago's most famous residents, the dapper Dillinger remains iconic. And no one would be more inspired by him than a man who grew up less than 160 miles from Dillinger's boyhood home of Mooresville, Indiana: an actor named Johnny Depp.
Now, in his most ambitious and timely project to date, the seminal gangster saga Public Enemies, Michael Mann directs one of our most gifted contemporary actors (Johnny Depp of Pirates of the Caribbean series, Sweeney Todd) in the story of the fast and dangerous life of John Dillinger.
In the film, Mann teams with Depp to examine the man whose criminal exploits captivated a nation besieged by financial hardship and ready to celebrate a mythic figure who robbed the banks that had impoverished them and outsmarted the authorities who had failed to remedy their hard times, who inspired the first nationwide war on crime, who led a band of accomplished armed robbers on a cascade of dazzling heists and improbable breakouts, and whose dashing manner and charisma entranced not only a special woman but an entire country: legendary Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger.
For the epic action-thriller, Mann directs Depp, Christian Bale (The Dark Knight, Terminator Salvation) and Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, A Good Year) in the story of Dillinger, whose well-choreographed bank robberies made him the number-one target of J. Edgar Hoover's (Billy Crudup of Watchmen, The Good Shepherd) fledgling FBI and its top agent, Melvin Purvis (Bale).
No one could stop Dillinger and his gang. No jail could hold him. His charm and audacious jailbreaks endeared him to almost everyone-from his girlfriend Billie Frechette (Cotillard) to Americans who were looking for a symbol to divert them from their everyday hardships. They found it in the man who took from the banks the monies they felt the banks had wrongly taken from them.
But while the adventures of Dillinger's gang-later including the sociopathic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham of Gangs of New York, Snatch) and robber / kidnapper Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi of Cold Mountain, Lost in Translation)-thrilled many, Hoover planned to exploit the outlaw's capture as a way to elevate his Bureau of Investigation into the national police force that became the FBI. He made Dillinger America's first Public Enemy Number One and sent in Purvis, the dashing “Clark Gable of the FBI,” to snare him.
However, Dillinger and his gang outwitted and outgunned Purvis' men in wild chases and shootouts. Only after importing a crew of lawmen from the Dallas bureau and orchestrating epic betrayals-from the infamous “Lady in Red” (Branka Katic of Big Love, The Englishman) to Chicago crime boss Frank Nitti (Bill Camp of Reservation Road, Deception)-were Purvis, the FBI and their new crew of gunfighters able to close in on their prey.
Drawn back to the very city where his obsession with both Frechette and bank robbing began, Dillinger, for once and for all, ended this pursuit by Purvis. And when all was said and done, the entire country learned that with the death of one of its heroes came the birth of a legend.
Completing the principal cast are a talented group of seasoned actors and up-and-coming performers, including Jason Clarke (Death Race, Rabbit-Proof Fence) as Dillinger ally John “Red” Hamilton; Rory Cochrane (Hart's War, A Scanner Darkly) as Purvis' good friend and fellow agent Carter Baum; Stephen Dorff (World Trade Center, Cold Creek Manor) as Dillinger gang member and unemotional killer Homer Van Meter; Stephen Lang (Gods and Generals, Fire Down Below) as Special Agent Charles Winstead; John Ortiz (Fast & Furious, Miami Vice) as high-level crime lord Phil D'Andrea; and David Wenham (300, The Lord of the Rings franchise) as the authority-hating Dillinger gang member Harry “Pete” Pierpont.
Directed by: Michael Mann
Screenplay by: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman
Release Date: July 1st, 2009
MPAA Rating: R for gangster violence and some language.
Studio: Universal Pictures
No one could stop Dillinger and his gang. No jail could hold him. His charm and audacious jailbreaks endeared him to almost everyone—from his girlfriend Billie Frechette (Cotillard) to an American public who had no sympathy for the banks that had plunged the country into the Depression.
But while the adventures of Dillinger’s gang—later including the sociopathic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi)—thrilled many, Hoover (Billy Crudup) hit on the idea of exploiting the outlaw’s capture as a way to elevate his Bureau of Investigation into the national police force that became the FBI. He made Dillinger America’s first Public Enemy Number One and sent in Purvis, the dashing “Clark Gable of the FBI.’’
However, Dillinger and his gang outwitted and outgunned Purvis’ men in wild chases and shootouts. Only after importing a crew of Western ex-lawmen (newly baptized as agents) and orchestrating epic betrayals—from the infamous “Lady in Red’’ to the Chicago crime boss Frank Nitti—were Purvis, the FBI and their new crew of gunfighters able to close in on Dillinger.
No other filmmaker has explored the psyches of people caught in extreme circumstances with the dominating consistency and cinematic power of Michael Mann. For three decades, Mann has remained one of cinema's most compelling filmmakers, and his level of artistry has created an indelible influence on the medium.