The penultimate (one more to come) article celebrating the often told cinematic story of notorious 1930′s Chicago gangster John Dillinger and the classic gangster genre of film history in preparation for the upcoming release of Johnny Depp/Christian Bale/Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.
You can find our previous articles here…
“I rob banks for a living. What do you do?”
John Milius’ Dillinger (1973) is not the way it was – just the way it should have been. Bullets and broads, sharp suits and fast cars, men outside the law and desperate G-Men hot on their tale. This isn’t the true story of John Dillinger, this is the legend. And it rips at your heart like a Tommy gun spittin’ out lead.
Fans of Milius’ later work shouldn’t be surprised. After all this was the director who gave us the blood and thunder of Conan the Barbarian (1982) and the writer who penned both Dirty Harry’s “Do you feel lucky, punk,” and Quint’s macabre tale of the Indianapolis in Jaws (1974). Already we can see a filmmaker obsessed by Godlike men – men who hurl lightning bolts at each other and tread water in a sea of bodies. Dillinger, his directorial debut, was the beginning of such things.
Even without Milius, the notorious bank robber John Dillinger was already an icon. Newspapers of the day kept his Midwest crime spree constantly on the front page and, from 1933-34 he offered ordinary schleps a respite from the Great Depression. Many began to view him as a modern day Robin Hood. Never mind that he kept all the loot for himself; people wanted a hero Goddamnit.
Milius wanted a hero too and Dillinger’s semi-mythical status is lauded on the big screen. From his shoot out with the cops at the Little Bohemia Lodge, to his daring escape from jail using a wooden gun covered with boot polish, the film allows us to indulge in the idea of Dillinger as a kind of swashbuckling hatchet man. He’s the Douglas Fairbanks of crime.
DP Jules Brenner’s romantic autumnal colours add to this feel of a story told, and the dirt roads and desert towns are given a dreamlike quality. This is parable, not historical document.
But Milius is also careful to offset this wistful fantasy, most notably in his portrayal of the former Public Enemy No.1 himself. Dillinger is presented as being seduced by the fame and deliberately seeking to turn himself into myth. We first lay eyes on him in a bank, sticking a gun right at camera and telling us:
“Those few dollars that you loose are going to buy you stories to tell your children and grandchildren. This could be your big moment in life—don’t make it your last.”
Slowly he begins to believe the image he has created for himself and later, when challenged by one of his gang (Baby Face Nelson, played by a snakelike Richard Dreyfus), he tells him:
“I’m immortal you punk. I’m John Dillinger!”
By portraying him in this fashion Milius gets to play with both the legend and the grim reality (Dillinger the man vs Dillinger the legend). The shootouts between hoods and narks reiterate this split dynamic. They are epic – graceful and bloody as the streets get rained on with gunfire – but there is a real brutality here too. Dillinger shoots an old security guard in cold blood and the getaway car unflinchingly runs down an old lady, leaving her mangled on the street.
In the role of Dillinger Warren Oates (easily one of the finest actors of his, or any, generation) inhabits both elements of this schizophrenic narrative. With his battered face and shit-eating grin he effortlessly captures Dillinger’s bravado. But there is a real vulnerability here too.
Witness the scene in which he calls Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent on his tale (played by fellow Wild Buncher Ben Johnson) to boast about his ability to stay ahead of the law. His cockiness slowly gives way to insecurity and he hangs up frustrated and beaten. If Dillinger wants to be a legend the film tells us, then he’s going to have to pay a price. It’s all there in Oates’ eyes.
Dillinger then is a film that is fast and loose with the facts but manages to instead offer a fascinating study of a man who became a legend – or a legend that becomes a man. And while Michael Mann’s forthcoming Dillinger flick Public Enemies looks a little too polished for its own good (lacking the dustbowl romanticism seen here) it does at least prove one thing – maybe John Dillinger is going to be immortal after all.