Dillinger (Blu-ray Review)16 May, 2016 By: Mike Clark
$39.95 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Stars Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Michelle Phillips, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Dreyfuss.
As an aspiring big league entry that valued action and pacing over even rudimentary adherence to historical facts, this biopic of John Dillinger (or Mr. Dillinger to you) was executive producer Lawrence Gordon’s attempt to jack up the production values at American International just a wee tiny bit. At this, he was reasonably successful, though it didn’t hurt that he had a debuting director of more than middling talent: the already successful screenwriter John Milius, that Macho Man of the film-school generation who later penned Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn.
The ’30s’ most famous gangster has never been a stranger to movies, from 1945’s Lawrence Tierney Dillinger (a big hit “B” for the King Brothers — as in John Goodman’s colorfully cantankerous Frank King from last year’s Trumbo) to Michael Mann’s 2009 fiasco Public Enemies, which messed up a terrific Bryan Burrough book. And Johnny was hardly alone, given that there were at least two screen “cycles” after the Production Code put a screech-halt on the perceived Robinson-Cagney-Muni glorification of hoods during the first years of the talkies. In my own formative 1957-61 alone, there’d be constant dust-ups with my mother over whether I’d be allowed to see the then current movies about Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie Barker, Mad Dog Coll, Legs Diamond and Dutch Schultz — all of which came out in that five-year period when “The Untouchables” and Bob Stack’s intensity made for must-see viewing every week on ABC (and let’s not forget Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot spoofing). Bonnie and Clyde then revved things up again in 1967, which meant that Dillinger was slightly disadvantaged in 1973 by coming in very late in the game after Capone (again) and Ma Barker got their share of screen attention in the more immediate B&C wake. All things considered, this Milius salvo is one of the better examples of the genre, though it helps that some of the supporting casting means more now than it did at the time.
Even then, however, Warren Oates was a spot-on choice for the lead, as we see during an Oates-Dillinger photo comparison in one of this Arrow releases bonus featurettes. If one were to sit down and list this movie’s strongest bits, the actor’s very entrance would be right up there: his surprise howdy-do to one of those unsuspecting rural bank tellers who probably think they’re about to cash someone’s meager payroll check from the feed store. For a while, Dillinger was a Depression hero to even some of his victims, a point also made in Bonnie and Clyde (though in Dillinger’s crowd, as portrayed in Milius’s treatment, those two were strictly regional nobodies who gummed things up for the true Tommy Gun elites). But once dead bodies started to become part of the Dillinger repertoire, the public turned against him during what was only a 14-month run before his fatal take-out by Feds as he was coming out of MGM’s Manhattan Melodrama at Chicago’s Biograph Theater. At least he’d just seen a good movie.
Alternately serious and amused at his nationwide celebrity while it lasted, Oates’s version surrounds himself with cohorts who were often not even in the same part of the country in real life — whopper screenwriter’s license that voiceover commentator Stephen Prince notes on the bonus track. The same embellishments go for Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), the FBI agent Milius sets up as the law-enforcing half of a cat-and-mouse duo (though a clash of the titans is closer to the filmmaker’s aspirations). In the movie, Purvis always speaks of “Mr. Hoover” with respect, though in real life he got on the FBI Director’s bad side by trying to steal some Bureau glory, something the latter was perhaps only willing to share wth his pet dog or Hollywood actresses that photographers would put unconvincingly on his arm.
Casting-wise, Milius and Gordon were able to exploit the recent Oscar wins (for The Last Picture Show) of both Johnson and Cloris Leachman, who plays the folkloric “woman in red” (actually, she was adorned in an orange skirt) who set up the Biograph ambush of Dillinger in 1934. But the real goodies here come a little deeper in the finer print: Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis and (as Baby Face Nelson) the very young Richard Dreyfuss, who hit screens here about a month before I caught American Graffiti in an early Denver engagement before it went wide. In just a few scenes (and even fewer with dialogue), Dreyfuss puts his very own cocky spin on Nelson, who was an out-and-out psychotic; I can remember coming out of the movie in ’73 and marveling to my buds under the marquee: “Who is that guy?” Dreyfuss is as good here as Mickey Rooney is in Don Siegel’s brutal-for-1957 Nelson biopic, which has long since become one of the toughest movies from a major director of that era to see these days. (I caught it in theaters as a 10-year-old and again a few years ago; it definitely belongs on the list of good Siegels.)
As Dillinger girlfriend Billy Frechette, rock goddess Michelle Phillips can’t do anything, though it’s anyone’s guess how many of the actress’s shortcomings are due to herself or to the obvious fact that Milius didn’t give anything to her on the printed page that would have had, say, Jane Fonda or Glenda Jackson would have been clamoring to work with him. I was struck this time — all around — over how many of Dillinger’s best scenes are the ones without dialogue, including the conscious John Ford homages that Milius insisted on including. Among these is the outdoor dance sequence that salutes My Darling Clementine, which knew a little about outlaws and myth-making itself. It’s my favorite scene in the movie, and Milius even seems to have directed the actors’ body language (and skillfully), even down to the way one of the actress’s shakes her behind to the music.
Continuity is kind of a mess, and this is one of those movies where characters geographically end up maybe five states away from where they were in the preceding scene without much explanation, though Prince’s all-business commentary is diligently researched in terms of juxtaposing real facts with the movie’s fictions (which are endless). The original theatrical rendition was a tad grainy in my recollection, but in any case, the Blu-ray looks to me like an AIP release of the day (some scenes are more visually striking than others, though a lot of the wordless set pieces are effectively composed by Milius and cinematographer-on-the-fly Jules Brenner). Arrow put a lot of extra effort into this release, and it’s a little eerie (in a not-bad way) to see Brenner, composer Barry De Vorzon and producer Gordon on camera today in the bonus section — distinguished-looking older men recalling a project that gave them breaks when they were young and hungry. Despite the expenditure of more AIP nickels than usual — which had not worked for 1969’s De Sade — the picture did well enough at the box office for Gordon to leap into more pedigreed production deals. This helped lead to The Warriors, 48 Hrs., Predator and Die Hard, plus (covering the waterfront here) Field of Dreams and Boogie Nights.