Dillinger (1973) – Blu-Ray Review

1967’s Bonnie and Clyde was a such phenomenon that there were multiple cash-grabs to repeat that film’s success well into the ’70s, including Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us and perhaps the best of these, John Milius’s directorial debut, Dillinger. Milius, a self-described “Zen-Anarchist” who is everybody’s favourite crazy right-winger in Hollywood, was making his name around town writing scripts like Jeremiah JohnsonThe Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and then some little film called Apocalypse Now, which his left-leaning buddy George Lucas was planning as a follow-up to his nice nostalgia movie set in the early ‘60s. Milius also did a uncredited rewrite on Dirty Harry, and wrote the film’s most memorable dialogue with Harry’s “Do you feel lucky, Punk?” speech. 

Milius had also worked with AIP’s story department under Larry Gordon, and after his success as a screenwriter, AIP came calling to offer a chance to write and a direct a gangster film of his choice. He chose to focus on John Dillinger, because he liked the fact that Dillinger was a pure criminal with none of that Robin Hood bullshit. The result is a fairly episodic look at the life of Dillinger, who is played by the always wonderful Warren Oates. Oates had an extensive history in Westerns, and this was a rare leading role for the long-time character actor—although he could easily steal a film, as he did in his role as GTO in Two-Lane Blacktop. He probably makes Dillinger a little more charming here than Milius would have liked, since he wanted the gangster to be more like the psycho he actually was.

Milius sets it up in a quasi-documentary style with narration from G-Man Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson, one of John Ford’s staple actors). The script takes as much interest in Purvis as Dillinger, which is interesting since many years later Michael Mann took a similar approach to their cat-and-mouse game in Public Enemies.

The film goes through Dillinger’s crimes; his gang with Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson (a pre-American Graffiti Richard Dreyfuss) and Homer Van Neater (Harry Dean Stanton); his escape from jail and so on. The episodic structure is a bit of a detriment—the story could have used a narrative through-line. It starts at the middle of Dillinger’s campaign of bank robbery and of course ends with his death outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre. Of all the cinematic depictions of Dillinger, Oates is probably the one who most closely resembles his real-life character.

It’s a well-made film with a great opening, delivering a solid contribution to the slate of Hollywood gangster films made at the time. The gunfights are really brutal. Milius’ films were always good, and probably deserved more attention for the work he did. If only the structure was a bit better, it could have been even better than Bonnie and Clyde. Michelle Phillips plays Dillinger’s Native American girlfriend, Billie Frechette, a role she lied about having Native American heritage to get.

Be sure to hang in till after the credits for the absolutely ridiculous voice over of a actor playing J. Edgar Hoover, in which he decries gangster movies like Dillinger as a danger to the youth of the nation. Even on his deathbed Hoover was demanding script changes to make the FBI look better. incidentally, Dillinger may have the most uses of the term “son of a bitch” of any film…

It was followed by two spin-off TV movies, which really should have been included in the extras—Melvin Purvis, G-Man, starring Dale Robinson, which Milius also worked on, as did William F. Nolan; and Kansas City Massacre, also a Nolan project. Nolan is the author of the novel that Logan’s Run is based on. It’s a shame that Arrow wasn’t able to sort out the rights for these, as it’s unlikely that they will be released any other way.

The actual extras on this 2K restoration HD release include an audio commentary by author Stephen Prince, interviews with director of photography Jules Brenner, producer Lawrence Gordon and composer Barry De Vorzen; a stills gallery and the theatrical trailer.

★★★½

Ian Schultz

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