Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Discount Bin Film Club: Dillinger (1973)

The weather outside is miserable. It's been that way all week. It's been so long since I've seen real sunlight I've achieved new levels of "pasty." Network television is mostly a wash out, so what do you do to entertain yourself? You go and put a DVD you bought for $5 into the player, and let her rip.

That's right, it's another edition of my erratically irregular Discount Bin Film Club, where I post a review of a movie I picked up from the discount bin of my local big box store. Today's pick is John Milius's film Dillinger, released by American International Pictures, made in 1973 for about 1/50th the budget of Michael Mann's more recent Public Enemies.

It sprung from the commercial success of Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde starring Warren Beatty & Faye Dunaway. Depression era gangster stories were all the rage, especially in the "exploitation" market ruled at that time by American International's Samuel Z. Arkoff and his top producer/director Roger Corman. Corman produced Boxcar Bertha in 1972, directed by a then young unknown named Martin Scorsese, quickly followed by Dillinger.

The film stars character actor and under-appreciated movie bad-ass Warren Oates in the title role, marking the only time anyone who actually bore a passing resemblance to John Dillinger played him. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Oscar winner Ben Johnson, who was cast as FBI master man-hunter Melvin Purvis, who he did not resemble at all.

Rounding out the cast was Michelle Phillips, formerly of the Mamas & The Papas, as Dillinger's girlfriend Billy Frechette, Geoffrey Lewis as real gang leader Harry Pierpont, the invincible Harry Dean Stanton as outlaw Homer Van Meter, a baby faced Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson, and a cameo by Oscar winner Cloris Leachman as Anna Sage, the madam who gained fame as the "woman in red."

Now judging from the cast list you can see that acting is not a problem in this movie. Even the untrained Michelle Phillips manages to hold her own as Billy Frechette in what can only be described as a very bipolar relationship.

Now onto the film itself.

Visually you get the sense that Milius was inspired not only by the films of John Ford, but the respect for the vast American landscape found in the art of Frederic Remington that inspired Ford. You get a great sense of the big sky and natural beauty found in the American Midwest, juxtaposed with the gritty small town realism found in the documentary photography that chronicled the Great Depression.

Despite the romance of the landscape, this is not a romanticized version like Penn's Bonnie & Clyde which made a story of love and rebellion out a story of two vicious killers who were woefully unsuccessful thieves. Dillinger treats its subjects warts and all. Sure, the members of the gang are all very watchable, and at times extremely charming. Pretty Boy Floyd comes across as a really nice guy who was fun to have around. However, they are all killers, and film doesn't flinch from that, at all.

The violence in the film is not the sort of cartoon shoot-em-ups we see nowadays. It's bloody, brutal, and painful. When characters get shot it hurts, blood gushes, they scream, and innocent people fall prey to stray bullets and speeding getaway cars. The action scenes are also very well put together, especially with the tight budget and shooting schedule the film probably had.

Now to the quibbles. Being a history buff I know a bit about Dillinger's story, and I can understand how they had to compress and simplify it to fit in a movie that runs less than two hours. Certain liberties with history had to be made, and that's understandable. But here comes the biggest quibble....

Biggest quibble is the casting of Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis. Don't get me wrong, the man's a legend and he does a good job in this film playing against his usual country-boy type, but he was 54 years old when he made this film, and the real Melvin Purvis was only 30 years old when he faced down Dillinger at the Biograph theater in Chicago. Now the presence of Johnson, still hot from his Best Supporting Oscar win for The Last Picture Show was probably what got the movie made, so I'll have to forgive this one.

There is also a mysterious continuity error during the Little Bohemia shootout scene. In it Billy Frechette picks up a gun to fire cover for her fleeing lover, but it changes from a BAR 1918 assault rifle, into a Tommy Gun, and then back again. That's an odd mistake for a film by Milius who is known for his vast knowledge of firearms.

The DVD itself is a nice widescreen edition, but the film itself has some grain in the picture, and there are scratches on the print that shows that it must have seen some use before being used for this DVD. It's probably the best that anyone can get, if you can still get it, because it's a fairly obscure film, and unlikely to get the deluxe remastering needed to fully appreciate the visuals as originally intended.

So, to summarize, good performances, good photography, and lots of very well done and exciting action. It does play a little fast and loose with historical accuracy, but you can forgive it because it's a well done ride through the back-roads of the dustbowl midwest.

PS: I don't know why I forgot this little tidbit when I first wrote the piece, but if you sit through to the end of the final credits there's an Easter egg in the original film. It's an actor, impersonating FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover reading an excerpt from an actual letter written by Hoover to the producers of the film, decrying its existence glorifying gangsters.


  1. Ahhh, The Discount Bin Film Club.

    I love these. You don't do enough of them.

    This one sounds pretty good...I'll have to keep my eyes open the next time I'm digging around in the discount bin at Wally-World.

  2. A fun game has to do with the hair in the movie. Every time you see a bit player or an extra unwilling to change their 70s hair for their paltry paycheck, take a drink. ;-)

    Also, if you see it, watch for the gang make snide remarks about Bonnie & Clyde as crazy "small time amateurs." I wonder if that was Milius taking shots at his predecessors for their romanticized portrayal.

  3. John Milius is the finest and most unappreciated director of his generation.