Probably best remembered for Lawrence Tierney’s stone cold portrayal of the bank robber, this 70 minute biopic is a bit muddled but gives the least romantic vision of the cultural icon. Tierney also played Joe, the criminal ringleader in Reservoir Dogs, but he’s unrecognizable here. The film opens with Dillinger’s father touring to speak about his son’s crimes, and how he never liked an honest day’s work. This one is accurate, quick and brutal- the tommyguns fire fast and furious- but it comes off as too short, and fudges Dillinger’s end.
Those who want to make him into a Robin Hood dislike Tierney’s portrayal, but all it lacks is his desire for notoriety. It has the chilling brutality of a pre-code gangster film of the ’30s, and caught a lot of flack for it. Tierney’s real-life hot temper simmers through his fedora, and Dillinger’s infamous “fake gun” escape is re-enacted well here. Although now it’s believed the guards were bribed and the fake gun was only made to cover their tails, they didn’t know that in ’45. And for its time, this unlikely film from a B movie house is surprisingly accurate and shocking.
Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
This was the movie John Dillinger saw right before he was gunned down. You can see the appeal; the bank robber did resemble Clark Gable, and here he plays one of two orphans who grow up to be a gangster and a District Attorney. William Powell gets to play the good guy, and Myrna Loy plays the gal torn between them. You can see the chemistry that would blossom into Nick and Nora Charles and lead to 14 pairings for the two. But Gable is the interesting one, the crook, dapper and devilish.
It says melodrama right in the title and it doesn’t disappoint- we meet the two as kids on the steamer General Slocum, which catches fire and orphans them both. Blackie, a little gambling trickster who grows up to be Gable; and Jim, the straightlaced young boy who grows up to be District Attorney, destined to prosecute his own friend for the murder of another gangster. Gable had just come off It Happened One Night and won the Oscar; this cemented his stardom as the rakish type we love, but probably wouldn’t leave alone with our daughter. The film was a surprise hit even before Dillinger’s death immortalized it, and it holds up today with its classic story. Its lone Oscar was for original screenplay, and it would serve as the template for many similar tales, such as Angels with Dirty Faces and Heat.
Some of Blackie’s lines must have reverberated with Dillinger: “Die the way you live,” and “If I can’t live the way I want, then at least let me die when I want.” He’d surely have wanted Gable to play him instead of Tierney. This minor classic has more to offer than the trivia of it being the last movie he ever saw, and its story told by Powell, Loy and Gable make it still worth seeing today.
John Milius’s first feature film came five years after Bonnie and Clyde (full review), and manages to strip any vestige of romance from the gangster era. Told from the perspective of Melvin Purvis, it is episodic and inevitable as he guns down the list of criminals who massacred his men at a shoot-out earlier. Ben Johnson plays him as a laconic and cold killer with balls of steel. We’re introduced to him outside a farmhouse where a gunman is holed up. Purvis gloves up, takes two .45’s, and has his cigar lit for him before stalking in with calm sense of duty. Shots ring out, and the gangster walks out bloody. Purvis comes out without a word.
This makes for good cinema, but it doesn’t seem right for a man who’d commit suicide after Hoover disgraced him, after using him as a hired killer of sorts. But taken as the myth that it is- Hoover demanded changes be made to the script to flatter the FBI- it’s an entertaining diversion. Milius has made some very memorable films, but works better in the realm of fantasy, as in Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. Here he seems like a boy playing at being Peckinpah. What holds things together is a fine choice of actors: Warren Oates plays Dillinger, and not only looks like him but manages most of his mannerisms quite well. The script lacks his most famous line, “we’re here for the bank’s money, not yours” and strips him of any Robin Hood pretensions. He takes their money as well, and is more interested in being the best bank robber than a celebrity.
The supporting cast is well rounded, with Harry Dean Stanton and Geoffrey Lewis both part of Dillinger’s gang; Richard Dreyfus plays the murderous “Baby Face” Nelson surprisingly well. Oddly, Dillinger is portrayed as frustrated by Purvis’s cool and suffering delusions of immortality; the more recent Public Enemies made him a little too dreamy and the ’45 version was perhaps a little too much a cautionary tale, but Milius seems too enamored of Purvis for this to be called Dillinger. In fact, when the men meet with their ladies at a fancy Chicago restaurant, the G-Man sends over a magnum of champagne and a note saying that the next time they meet will be their last. What does really shine are the gun battles, as expected from a director who used to be partly paid in rare or expensive rifles.
I love Warren Oates, but he gets few chances to stand out here; Milius seems more concerned with his law & order mentality of glorifying the FBI’s shoot to kill policy, and even puts a gun in Dillinger’s hand outside the Biograph Theater, when he was shot unarmed. Perhaps that was at Hoover’s urging; a voiceover after the credits recites J. Edgar’s thoughts on any film glamorizing these men and “leading young people more stray than they are already.” Even Billie Frechette comes off as a misguided hippie in the S.L.A. instead of a gun moll. But this is a tasty slice of ’70s violence and a decent period picture, it just feels aimless. Milius would do better later, when he had something more to say.
So, what Dillinger movie can I recommend? I enjoyed Public Enemies, but I think it glamorized him somewhat. Milius excoriated him, and Tierney perhaps was a little too Cagney. Like Jack the Ripper, Dillinger’s a character in our own minds and a portrayal will be hard pressed to satisfy us all. Maybe that’s as it should be.