New to Blu: Arrow Video - Dillinger

Andrew reviews John Milius' seminal take on the notoriously violent gangster.

John Herbert Dillinger was probably the most violent of the world infamous Depression era American gangsters, trumping the likes of Bonnie and Clyde and even his own sordid associates including but not limited to Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson.  Often conducting his affairs with the Terror Gang or Dillinger Gang, the man managed to rob twenty four banks, four police stations, escaped imprisonment twice and is responsible for the deaths of many police officers and bystanders despite only being charged with murdering a law enforcement officer once.  In league with the likes of Al Capone, John Dillinger's infamy and subsequent theatrical takedown resulted in not one but several cinematic depictions over the course of the last century, going back as early as 1935's Public Hero No. 1, an official 1945 adaptation with Laurence Tierney in the titular role and recently Michael Mann's 2009 Public Enemies with Johnny Depp as John Dillinger.  The Movie Sleuth takes a look at Arrow Video's new blu ray edition of Conan the Barbarian director John Milius' 1973 take on Dillinger with Sam Peckinpah favorite Warren Oates in what is arguably the definitive cinematic dramatization of probably the most ruthless, cunning and dangerous outlaw in American history.

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For as many films out there as there are concerning John Dillinger, only the 1973 Dillinger stars a great actor who actually physically looks like the subject he's portraying.  Looking at pictures of the real John Dillinger alongside Warren Oates, the resemblance is uncannily close to the real thing, making Milius' film probably the most authentic take on the infamous criminal to date.  My personal favorite Oates performance will always be in Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but as Dillinger he shines and begs the question why anyone else tried to play the role after he nailed it so definitively.  

Well, don't we look happy. 

Contrary to Michael Mann's signature Miami Vice stylizing and arguably stronger Billie Frechette by Marion Cotillard, Milius' approach is a no-nonsense modestly sized and often ultraviolent gangster drama in league with Walter Hill's Charles Bronson dramas of the 70s.  Turning in pitch perfect performances in the star studded cast are Harry Dean Stanton as Homer Van Meter, a young Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson, and The Wild Bunch co-star Ben Johnson as the man who ultimately brought Dillinger down, Melvin Purvis.  Considering Oates and Johnson fought on the same side of the fence in Sam Peckinpah's blood soaked The Wild Bunch, it is not without a sense of irony to see them playing sworn mortal enemies here.  Dillinger does a fair job of shedding light on the strange captive relationship between Dillinger and Frechette but mostly their story takes a backseat to the intensely choreographed action shootout sequences involving tons of Tommy Guns, pistols, Colt 45s and grenades.  Not since, once again, The Wild Bunch, has there been such a grandiose ballet of bullets flying across the screen.  

Much shorter than Michael Mann's film and possibly less fleshed out, Dillinger is a faced paced frenetic ride and a look at the battle to capture and destroy the toughest and slickest gangster to have walked on American soil.  The flavor of Milius' meat and potatoes approach coupled with newsreel and newspaper clippings ala Oliver Stone's JFK with just a hint of Terrence Malick's Badlands, Dillinger is a white knuckle action drama which perfectly captures the full spectrum of the legend that was John Dillinger.  

Guys. Let's all stand around the car looking dumb. 

With Warren Oates' rough face, course exterior and his own sense of badass swagger, we get a Dillinger that not only looks the part, he lives the part with conviction and a palpable sense of danger.  Take for instance a scene where the Terror Gang meets for a roundtable discussion regarding their next big score and Baby Face Nelson scoffs at Dillinger's code and balks at accepting instruction from others.  Within seconds, watch Warren Oates' Dillinger reduce Dreyfuss' Baby Face to tears, kicking him into a nearby pond after beating the Hell out of him and managing to point his own gun at his temples as he roars 'I'M JOHN DILLINGER!'.  Yes it's all acting and choreography, but there's a sense that Oates really did rough up Dreyfuss during that scene.  Dillinger didn't mince words when it came to your fate being determined by the barrel of his gun and with Oates, you really felt a bit of the real man coming out in his performance.  Milius' Dillinger might be a Cliff Notes abbreviation of the man's life and crimes but with Oates wearing the shoes, the depiction of the spirit of Dillinger in this case is pretty definitive.


 - Andrew Kotwicki