‘Dillinger’ (1973): A rowdy, cynical, American tall tale

Bloody, funny, shoe leather-hard American tall tale.

By Paul Mavis

Seeings how they finally took down Public Enemy Number 1, Harvey Weinstein, I was suddenly in the mood for something illegal (yep), and since it’s “Crime Month” here at Movies and Drinks, why not an old-school gangster movie?

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A few years back, Arrow Video and M-G-M released a 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD special edition of Dillinger, the 1973 American International Pictures gangster exploiter, written and directed by John Milius, featuring a remarkable cast that included Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Michelle Phillips, Cloris Leachman, Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, John Ryan, Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Kanaly, John Martino, Roy Jenson, Read Morgan, and Frank McRae. First-time director Milius waved off flashier directors Peckinpah and Penn and returned to four-squared Ford, delivering a hard-nosed, epic blood feud between mythical creations John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis. It’s an uniquely American tall tale that plays better today than some of its higher-regarded predecessors.

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After the infamous “Kansas City Massacre” on June 17th, 1933, in which five Federal officers lost their lives when gangsters broke free from police custody, F.B.I. Midwest Bureau Chief Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) has vowed personal vengeance against the men responsible. Indiana bank robber John Dillinger (Warren Oates) was not connected with that assault; indeed, he had broken no federal laws at that point, since bank robbery was still a state offense. However, Purvis wants him dead, no matter what, and by god Purvis was going to make that happen.

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Dillinger and his gang—Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton), Harry Pierpont (Geoffrey Lewis), Charles Mackley (John Ryan), and Eddie Martin (John Martino)—continue to roam the Midwest, robbing banks, at the same time as Purvis destroys, one by one, the other gangsters involved in the Kansas City killings. Meanwhile, Dillinger works through a troubled relationship with half-Indian prostitute Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips), a union begun in assault and rape, that eventually turns into a fierce, mutual love affair.

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Dillinger’s arrest is national headline news…as is his self-predicted escape—an escape in a stolen car over state lines that finally gives Purvis a federal rap on Dillinger. Even the addition of equally notorious gangsters Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly) and Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss) to the Dillinger gang can’t stop Purvis’ relentless pursuit—a personal vendetta that will end in bloodshed at the Chicago Biograph moviehouse.

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Anyone tuning into Dillinger for a history lesson better not take a test the next day on 1930s American gangsters. Screenwriter John Milius has gathered up the barest bones of Dillinger’s and Purvis’ timelines—along with his own outright fabrications—and jumbled the events and people involved to serve up a hard-charging, nasty-toned fable that features concerns found in many of Milius’ subsequent works. Accounts apparently differ as to how Dillinger wound up green-lit at American International Pictures in 1972, with Milius stating he brought the project to former boss Lawrence Gordon, then head of production at the studio, while Gordon recounts that the studio already had a substandard script on the notorious gangster, and that Milius was approached to re-write it at a drastically reduced fee, with directing chores thrown in to sweeten the deal.

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Milius at the time was one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, having sold scripts for A-list projects Jeremiah Johnson and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, while also being known around town as the guy who, uncredited, re-wrote the previous year’s smash hit, Dirty Harry. Milius wasn’t happy with how his scripts were being adapted (he did, however, like what was done with the previous year’s drive-in hit, Evel Knievel), so he jumped at the chance to direct his own script.

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Up to that point, Dillinger’s budget—just over a million—was AIP’s most expensive, but that was still peanuts next to the bigger studios’ offerings, so the screenwriter/director was limited in terms of what he could actually do on location in Oklahoma, where all of Dillinger was shot. Fortunately, Milius was able to secure a remarkably strong cast of actors, including two Sam Peckinpah regulars: lead Warren Oates, who at the time was going from critical strength to strength with supporting turns in The Wild Bunch, Two-Lane Blacktop, and The Hired Hand, and Academy Award-winning veteran Ben Johnson, who was cashing in big time on that The Last Picture Show Oscar, with no less than seven movies coming out in 1973. Released in the summer of 1973, Dillinger received mixed reviews (although the critics unanimously liked Milius’ action scenes) and moderate box office, eventually turning a nice profit after passes at second-run houses and the drive-ins (where I first saw it…thank god).

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I doubt fans of Dillinger cared one iota that Milius fudged the real history’s facts in favor of his own personal concerns. Instead of a dry documentary he delivered a ballsy, beautifully-tempoed actioner that alternated some surprisingly lyrical moments with more than enough rousing, bullet-splattered set pieces to satisfy undemanding action fans. Rejecting the arty, fragmented time/space continuum stylistics of Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (as the years go by, Bosley Crowther is looking more and more right…) and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1972’s The Getaway showed Peckinpah was already heading into unintentional self-parody), Milius’ square, unobtrusive Fordian construction gives Dillinger both a quiet solidity to its dialogue scenes, and a grounded, weighted base for its gritty, straight-ahead, deliberately presentational action scenes.

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If any reliable history is on display in Dillinger, it’s the history of the movies that the screenwriter/director soaked up in film school, not what Dillinger or Purvis were really like. Milius repeatedly references director John Ford—in particular, My Darling Clementine—to give a doubly self-reflexive tone to this modern gangster story. Milius wants to evoke the long-gone period of Depression-era America, circa 1933, a hard-luck environment suitable for the contrast of two honor-bound, deadly foes…and he does so by mining our collective movie memories of a renowned director whose own career iconography of a long-gone Western past was essentially “made up” for the movies, too (Milius has Johnson enter a spookily deserted farmhouse and blast away at a holed-up gangster, without us seeing what’s going on inside, just as Ford did in My Darling Clementine…and just as screenwriter Milius did the year before in a scene for director John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean).

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What Dillinger turns out to be is a once-venerated art form barely referenced anymore—(and if it is, it’s invariably denigrated for various retro-crimes against today’s P.C. dogma): the American tall tale. If you’re not quite sure what Milius is trying to say in Dillinger, it may be because his message is the medium here. Dillinger is taking two historical figures and turning them into web spinners whose biggest story is the invention of themselves (you can’t get more American than that). You see that in the very first scene in Dillinger, where Oates, during a bank robbery, throws out a deliciously self-aggrandizing speech—“Don’t nobody get nervous. You ain’t got nothin’ to fear. Your bein’ robbed by the John Dillinger Gang; that’s the best there is. These few dollars you lose here today, they’re gonna buy you stories to tell your children and great-grandchildren. This could be one of the big moments in your life. Don’t make it your last,”—before delivering that last line straight into the camera.

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Milius is showing us what used to be a model for admiration in this country: the cocky, charismatic braggart who could back up his sh*t. The guy who could excel and be a smart-ass about it because he was good enough and charming enough to pull it off. In this case, that role model just happens to be a criminal. Milius knows that America likes (or used to like) someone who’s number one; and if that person happened to be a criminal, and if the perceived reality—no matter how suspect—was that the criminal was fighting “the system,” then so much the better. It’s an American DNA archetype that still resonates, however faintly in today’s fundamentally transformed nation, with receptive viewers.

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Milius’ Melvin Purvis is just the other side of that coin: a winner in a world of losers who has the power to implement his code of ethics. Luckily for us, he’s on the side of law and order, but Milius and Dillinger isn’t really interested in showing Purvis “protecting” anyone, or enforcing any creed of law. We get no real exploration of Dillinger as some kind of Robin Hood to the people, nor do we get a thorough condemnation of the banks or the government for causing the Depression. We barely even see “the little people” in this movie (you know what purpose the average citizen serves in Dillinger? They’re someone to be mowed down by a car or a chopper).

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For a movie shot mostly out in the open, it’s remarkably closed-off; just an insular death spiral between two deadly foes. As for the people suffering the ills of the economic catastrophe? They and their suffering are peripheral, at best. Milius isn’t taking a political or sociological side; he’s showing two professionals who know their business—the crime and punishment business—and who are intent on becoming famous exercising their skills. Any strains of psychology are nipped off quick. Dillinger tells girlfriend Billie all he ever wanted to be was a bank robber, and that he’s happy now that he’s the most famous one in America. Period. That’s it for character motivation in Dillinger (Milius won’t even tell us why Dillinger gets wistful about escaping to Mexico, before he simply states he could never do that). As for Purvis, his motivation is as old as the Bible: absolute retribution. Purvis states his men “died like dogs in the gutter,” and that he “intends to smoke one of these [one of his Monte Cristo cigars] over each of those men’s dead bodies.” Plain enough.

Where Milius gets lift in Dillinger is in the respectful observance of these two professionals’ code of conduct, and in Purvis’ case, his ritualized way of killing (I’d venture that’s as much Howard Hawks as John Ford). Dillinger’s code is family loyalty; his family of gangsters, his “wife” Billie, and to a less-seen degree, his own family (Milius evokes Ford’s The Searchers when he has Dillinger return to the family farm, with the camera inside the house, Oates outside on the porch…and Red River Valley on the soundtrack).

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Purvis is the loner in the movie, and observance of an absolute law—obey or die—his god. We never see him report to J. Edgar Hoover, or get instructions from a higher up. He’s a power unto himself, an avenging angel of death who snuffs out life at the end of a Tommy gun, sans the bother of a trial, with his closest associate, Special Agent Sam Cowley (Roy Jenson), nothing more than a glorified lackey who helps dress him for battle, like a bullfighter, before lighting his “cee-gar.”

These are warriors, battling to the death in a strangely depopulated land (no doubt a happy accident due to the movie’s restricted budget), with larger-than-life declarations about their own intentions that make for an epic blood feud. They both kill, but there are rules to their killing (Purvis always waits to be drawn on; Dillinger only shoots when fired upon). Otherwise, you’re a sniveling, crying little punk like Dreyfuss’ Baby Face Nelson (a more perfect match of character and actor I can not think of…), who murders the defenseless indiscriminately, but who can’t handle a slap from another man.

However, even though their codes conflict, Purvis and Dillinger still need each other—after all: who else is on their playing level? Dillinger, after fulfilling his prophecy of escaping jail, calls Purvis to gloat…while clearly looking for congratulations (from a surrogate father figure, perhaps?). Purvis denies him the pleasure, condescendingly praising him on his futile escape, and easily telling an increasingly enraged Dillinger to reverse the charges anytime he can’t pay the phone bill. When Purvis finally has a line on Dillinger’s whereabouts, thanks to stoolie madame Anna “The Lady in Red” Sage (Cloris Leachman, bizarrely ineffectual in her five minutes on-screen), he grudgingly offers, “I’ve grown rather fond of [Dillinger] myself, in a strange sort of way.” But that doesn’t stop Purvis from lying to his men about how Dillinger should be taken at the Biograph, leaving the gangster all to himself for the coup de grace.

Their success in American crime joins them together. And it’s a joined success fueled by the newly media-linked America, where even rural backwaters could finally get immediate national news from the radio (as well as improved wire-service newspaper copy). Dillinger and Purvis get it: America is changing, and he who captures the public’s fancy through the media, wins (when a puffed-up Dillinger is told by one of his men, “You’re starting to believe that stuff in the newspapers,” an incredulous Dillinger throws back, “Don’t you?”). Dillinger becomes his own publicity image (he screams at Baby Face, “You can’t kill me! I’m immortal!”), pompously offering up considered opinions about the State of the Union while being led to a jail cell.

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That’s why Purvis has that disturbing encounter with the cops-and-robbers playing boy at the shoeshine stand. Purvis isn’t as much upset that the fatherless boy doesn’t know him but knows Dillinger; it’s that the boy knows Dillinger and wants to play at being a robber because the papers tout the criminals…and not the lawkeepers (sound familiar today?). The kid doesn’t want Purvis’ offered gun to maintain law and order; he wants to rob, just like the boy Dillinger did—only now it may not be an isolated aberration, as in Dillinger’s case, but a cultural wave. That sad goodbye wave Purvis and the boy give each other could just as easily be the first “hello” these future opponents may exchange. That’s the America Purvis faces when a woman-beating, murderous thug/rapist—code or no code—becomes an American folk hero thanks to an immoral, sensation-seeking press.

There are rough spots in Milius’ otherwise tight storyline, particularly the initial “courtship” of Dillinger and Billie. How the two go from Dillinger buying her, dragging her off to his home, calling her a “whore,” slapping her repeatedly (she fights back, as well), blackening her eye and tearing her clothes off (with the implication that he then rapes her), before he drags her back from her mother’s home after running away from him—how the two go from that to soulmates is never explained, and it’s a key plot point in the movie. All the nasty humor and gun battles help distract you from this glaring cheat…but you don’t forget it.

Dillinger is frequently quite funny—as an American tall tale should be—with Milius’ penchant for memorable one-liners on display (Dillinger’s opening line to a cowering victim, “You, miss! Turn over! This ain’t no board of directors’ meeting!” may be one of the greatest “Wait…what? Ohhhh…” sex jokes ever). I don’t know if it was on purpose, but laying the Quick Draw McGraw “El Ka-Bong!” sound effect over that woman’s grisly hit-and-drag, is perversely funny. And the filling station/gumball scene, with the dangerous thugs laughing at the absurdity—and pure guts—of the old coot telling dead-serious killers to essentially f*ck off, is classic Milius, made even better when Harry Dean Stanton saves face by blasting the coot’s place and mock-seriously exclaiming, “Step on it! I got his gumball machine!” (Geoffrey Lewis’ reaction is priceless).

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That rowdy, cynical humor, coupled with Milius’ high-adrenaline action scenes, transition beautifully with Stanton’s remorseless death scene (we’re laughing nervously when he keeps saying, “Things ain’t working out for me,” until he’s mercilessly cut down by townspeople not interested in his jokes), to the sad end for Kanaly (rejecting his new surrogate parents and embracing his own sin before a fatherly Purvis cradles his head), to the final, deadly calm showdown between Purvis and Dillinger, with Milius finally going slo-mo, for an altogether different effect than Peckinpah…and one overall that makes Dillinger quite an important addition to the American gangster canon.

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