08 April 2009

Movie Review: Dillinger

Dillinger (1973)
Written and Directed by John Milius. Starring Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Michelle Phillips, Cloris Leachman, Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Dreyfuss, Frank McRae.

The next stop on my “Public Enemies” tour is the film that will receive the most comparisons with the upcoming film Public Enemies: the explosive 1973 low-budget biopic of John Dillinger. Until the premiere of Michael Mann’s film in July, this is the most famous on-screen depiction of the 20th century’s top bank-robber. It brought director John Milius to the world’s attention, paving the way for Big Wednesday and Conan the Barbarian, and gave supporting actor Warren Oates a rare chance to tear up the screen in a lead role.

Dillinger was released through American International Pictures, a specialist in low-budget exploitation fare. The immediate influences on the film are the success of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and the films of Sam Peckinpah. The movie’s two stars, Oates and Ben Johnson, were favorite actors of Peckinpah’s; Oates’s other great lead role was in Peckinpah’s notorious Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Let’s not skirt the facts: Dillinger most certainly is an exploitation movie, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great one… which it definitely is. In the crazed, palsied hands of an aggressive young filmmaker like Milius, coupled with a dream-cast of great actors, Dillinger becomes lovely sweetmeat of violent, sensationalist, pseudo-history.

Let’s start at the end. As the credits finish and the screen drops to black, an imposing voiceover makes this solemn announcement:
Dillinger was a rat that the country may consider itself fortunate to be rid of. And I don’t sanction any Hollywood glamorization of these vermin. This type of romantic mendacity can only lead young people further astray than they are already. And I want no part of it.
Whose voice is that? Is it famed voiceover-artist Paul Frees (it certainly sounds like him) tacked on to add some irony? No, it’s J. Edgar Hoover himself! Hoover didn’t approve of the movie and recorded this disclaimer shortly before his death. It comes across as damn hilarious when put in context. Milius must have laughed himself into the bathroom when he first thought of slapping this disclaimer onto the end the movie. It ties everything together.

Hoover’s objection to the film probably has more to do with the way it portrays Special Agent Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) as a grand, active hero, than its supposed negative view of the FBI. Hoover came to loathe Purvis for his numerous mistakes, and despised that the bungler got so much attention from the press during the “public enemies” phase of 1933–34. And Hoover would be correct that Johnson’s portrayal in this film has little to do with reality.

But Hoover was wrong to think of this film as a “glamorization” or in any way “romantic.” Dillinger is a work of obvious fictionalization—it makes no excuses about it, and makes no gesture to pretend its accuracy—but it isn’t a romanticizing of the spree-criminal either. It’s quite a brutal and ugly film in the way it shows the Dillinger Gang and the other criminals of the time operating. If we feel affinity for Dillinger and Co., it comes from the magnetic performances of the actors, not the way script depicts them.

The only parts of the film that Milius romanticizes are the brief “pastoral” moments with Dillinger near his family with his love Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips) at his side. The photography and music glow here with a sunset beauty, the only moments in the film when anybody can be said to feel content with life.

The story of Dillinger’s rampage across the Midwest and the FBI’s hunt for him gets compressed, restructured, chopped, and changed. (Read my overview of the history of the era for the lowdown.) All the major events surface—the East Chicago robbery, the Crown Point escape, the Battle of Little Bohemia, and the finale at the Biograph theater in Chicago—but often in changed contexts and with characters taking on different roles. Dillinger’s gang now includes two men who never joined it: Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly, who later played FBI agent Sam Cowley in a TV movie) and Herbert Youngblood (Frank McCrae). Floyd probably never met Dillinger—although an unsubstantiated story from another criminal of the time claims Floyd joined one of Dillinger’s last robberies. But Floyd’s death as depicted in the movie, one of its most astonishingly staged sequences, does resemble his actual demise in a field in Ohio after hiding out with a farm family. As for Herbert Youngblood, whose first name is changed to “Reed” in the script, he did help Dillinger escape from Crown Point prison, but he and Dillinger parted ways immediately after. Dillinger’s gang would never have accepted a black member. I like Milius’s choice to include Youngblood, since Frank McCrae is an appealing actor and Dillinger accepting him into the gang makes the bank robber seem even more rebellious. But the real Dillinger was probably just as racist as the next midwestern white man of the early 1930s and wouldn’t want to have anything to do with Youngblood after the escape was over. He paid the man two hundred dollars and put him on a bus. Youngblood died in a shootout with the cops a few weeks later.

The film’s biggest change is the character of Melvin Purvis. Instead of the young but mostly incompetent FBI agent of reality, the script presents an older and tougher “Western sheriff” fellow who leads the charge in every attack and does most of the shooting and killing himself, smoking a cigar over the bodies of the no-good vermin he’s shot down. Casting Johnson, far older than Purvis was at the time, immediately makes the character vastly different. Johnson’s Purvis is essentially a stand-in for Hoover himself. Again, I can’t complain, since I love Johnson as an actor, and it gives Dillinger an aggressive opponent. But Johnson is 180ยบ from the real figure he’s playing.

On the other side, Oates keeps his Dillinger near to reality. He looks almost exactly like the famous robber, too. At the start of the film, Oates plays Dillinger as unpleasant and crude. When he meets future girlfriend Billie Frechette for the first time, he’s blunt and almost like a rapist. In the opening bank-robbery, Oates announces to the people he has at gunpoint, “This could be one of the big moments in your life. Don’t make it your last!” and delivers the line with an unpleasant sneer, like any bully. But later in the movie, after Dillinger has changed into a folk-hero, Oates completely shifts the character’s attitude. When he says a similar “don’t make it your last!” line at another robbery, Oates delivers it like a posturing movie-star. By the time Dillinger arrives at the Crown Point jail, he’s clearly “performing” for a national audience, loving every moment of his fame and using it as a tool. Oates appears to perfectly understand the real John Dillinger in the way he charts this arc: from just another thug stealing money to a hero people cheered when his face appeared in the newsreels.

The credits of the film say “Introducing Michelle Phillips,” which seems odd. Although this was Phillips’s first film role, nobody in 1973 needed one of the most popular singers of the day introduced to them. Perhaps this was John Milius’s way of saying to the young men in the audience, “Hey, I can introduce you to Michelle Phillips!” Because what man wouldn’t want an introduction to her? (And she was single at the time, three years out from her eight-day marriage to Dennis Hopper.) Phillips has an appropriate prickliness as Frechette, and when she pulls out the Tommy gun and starts firing during the Little Bohemia climax, you completely believe it. But she does seems to “melt” into Oates’s Dillinger, a woman totally committed to her man despite the one-way road to death he’s put himself on. And . . . I could argue this with myself, but I’ll say it anyway . . . I don’t think there’s ever been a popular singer more radiant and beautiful than Michelle Phillips.

The rest of the cast is dead-on, many of them popular character actors. Dreyfuss was on the verge of turning into a star, so he could still afford to play the least appealing of the gangsters of the era, Baby Face Nelson. Dreyfuss hits the right notes in his brief appearances: Nelson is nothing more than a murdering psychopath who commits crimes by killing enough people until he can get away. He’s hateful through and through. The film has Oates shaming him in a fistfight so he can establish his dominance in the gang, and this is one of the few moments in the movie that I just don’t believe: Nelson would have shot Dillinger in the back the first moment he could if Dillinger had pulled that sort of stunt. Harry Dean Stanton and Geoffrey Lewis (a favorite of Clint Eastwood’s) give effortless performances as Homer Van Meter and Henry Pierpont respectively; both actors have magical supporting actor presences, and Stanton gets an ironically hilarious send-off as he keeps proclaiming “Things ain't workin' out for me today!” until a town militia brutally shoots him down in a semi-circle while he’s lying prone. I wonder if this line inspired George Lucas a few years later with “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

The movie picks as its extended action climax the Battle of Little Bohemia in Manitowish, WI. This shootout, which appears in a fictionalized version in “G” Men to make the FBI look good, straddles reality and fabrication. The FBI mows down innocent people in their attack on the inn, but end up killing every single one of Dillinger’s gang except Dillinger himself in the enormous fire-fight and the chases that immediately follows. The reality was that the raid turned out as an embarrassment for Purvis, since the entire gang easily escaped and the FBI ended up only killing and wounding the innocent. Milius instead crafts a smashing finale that compresses the deaths of Pierpont, Floyd, Nelson, and Van Meter into a single time period. It’s an exhilarating, bloody bunch of fun, and one the best action gunfights ever put on screen at the time it was made.

The movie features plenty of savage violence, with large scale gun-battles and crashing cars that spill copious amounts of blood through huge, Peckinpah-inspired squibs. After watching a few bloodless 1930s gangster films, I found it astonishing to see a Tommy gun do what it’s actually supposed to do and rip huge holes in its victims. The level of mayhem on display goes far over what actually occurred in 1933–34, but it’s what an audience in 1973 would have demanded, and you can’t expect any less from a bloke like Milius, who once said that he really wanted to be a general, but settled for film director instead.

The film winds down for the coda, when Cloris Leachman makes her brief appearance as Ana Sage, “The Lady in Red,” and Purvis faces Dillinger outside the Biograph theater. Leachman got high billing for her short part in the film, but she puts a lot into Sage for the time on screen, and avoids making her a simplistic femme fatale. Phillips reappears in shadows as Dillinger’s new girl, Polly Hamilton… or perhaps it actually is Frechette using a fake identity. Hamilton supposedly resembled Frechette, which is the reason Dillinger went for her. Whatever the reason, Phillips’s appearance here add an ambiguous sting before the credits roll and Hoover pops on to complain.

The only aspect of Dillinger that holds it back is the unfortunate reality of the budget. The photography and design sometimes look spotty and rough, with the edges of the 1930s period rubbing away. Milius has to keep the action outside of the cities and restricted to the countryside as much as possible. He makes clever use of newsreel footage and montages of black-and-white stills mixed with newspaper headlines to jump over sections that would have cost too much money to film. Sometimes this makes the movie staccato and jarring, especially in the opening half hour. I found it easy to embrace this breakneck pace as part of the “New Hollywood” style that followed on Bonnie and Clyde and an aspect of Milius’s own filmmaking predilections. Or maybe it’s just that I like the movie so much that I’m willing to build up excuses for its few rough patches.

The DVD of Dillinger from MGM Home Entertainment is currently out of production, so you’ll have to snatch it up used if you want to see it. I hope that MGM has a new release planned to tie in with Public Enemies in July, because if you have any interest in seeing Michael Mann’s movie, you should get a blast of this awesome ‘70s exploitation version first. If MGM does release a new DVD, they need to do a better job restoring the print, and add more extras other than just the trailer that the no-frills old disk has. The movie deserves a lot better from its distributor.

Enjoy the terrific trailer, which includes the “I just wanted to steal people’s money!” that is such an awesome statement of purpose.