In Depression-era America, an FBI agent hunts the legendary bank robber John Dillinger and his gang.
Gangsters and bank robbers were big news in the 1930s, but for most of that decade and the ones that followed the Hays Code largely excluded them from the screen precisely because of their potential to become folk heroes. Indeed, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America—which administered the code—inserted specific strictures against portraying “activities of American gangsters”, the depiction of illegal weapons, and scenes of law enforcement officers being killed.
These prohibitions were starting to be ignored by the 1950s, but it was not until the end of the 1960s (at which point the Code also formally ended) that the modern American gangster movie really got into full swing, and both historic and contemporary criminals became familiar as antiheroes.
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is the best-known of those films set in the past, but there were plenty of others: Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972) and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), for example, while George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (also 1969) are effectively gangster movies in western disguise. Indeed, John Milius’s Dillinger overtly compares its 1930s gangster to Cassidy and Jesse James.
Dillinger, here given a welcome reissue by Arrow Video in a gleaming 2K restoration, isn’t the most original movie of the genre, clearly owing a lot to Bonnie and Clyde (and recognised as such at the time). But it’s one of the best, in its languid atmosphere interspersed with scenes of great energy, as well as in the portrayals of the two key roles—the bank robber John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis, the federal agent charged with hunting him down.
Milius’s movie takes liberties with the details of Dillinger’s career—bank robberies across the Midwest in 1933-34, latterly with his “super-gang” of about a dozen others including Baby Face Nelson (here played by an almost unrecognisable Richard Dreyfuss)—but the general outline is grounded in historical fact, and just as importantly the film is firmly grounded in its era. The Depression is almost a character here, breaking down trust in law and order and driving men and women to desperate extremes.
The opening title song, “We’re in the Money” (from Golddiggers of 1933), conjures up the irresistible attraction of riches to those who had none. A later comment that “decent folk don’t live that good”, made by a suspicious local (Read Morgan) observing the incognito Dillinger gang at a fair in Arizona, makes it clear that at least in the film’s mythology, these robbers are fighting an ideological war against “decent” self-denial as much as acting for purely financial motives.
And in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a prison warden who Dillinger (Warren Oates) has kidnapped reluctantly accepts some cash from his captor, reasoning that times are hard for everyone. Even the supposedly incorruptible are, obviously, not too difficult to corrupt.
Dillinger isn’t just the story of the gangster, though; the federal agent Purvis (Ben Johnson), working for J. Edgar Hoover in the organisation that was about to become the FBI, is almost equally important, and the movie’s chronological account of Dillinger’s criminal odyssey is balanced by Purvis’s narration of his own crime-busting career. He’s not exactly law-abiding either (he’d rather find a flimsy excuse to shoot the gangsters down than bring them in for trial) and he and Dillinger noticeably resemble one other, both physically and in their nature.
Both men are consumed by their missions—Dillinger at one point confesses to his girlfriend Billie, played by Michelle Phillips, that it was always his ambition to be a bank robber, and that despite the fortune he’s amassed, he’d rather continue robbing than flee to Mexico and live “like a pharaoh”. Both are very aware of themselves as celebrities, too. Indeed, Billie joshes Dillinger about the idea of escaping to Mexico: “What would your public think?”
In an early bar scene Dillinger repeats his name over and over to ensure all the other patrons know who he is, then hands their cash back after robbing them—he didn’t really want the money, he just wanted his power over them to be recognised. He frequently comments, too, on his own resemblance to the movie star Douglas Fairbanks.
Purvis is very similar. In one of the film’s most unusual and striking passages, he is taken aback when a young boy doesn’t recognise him, and insulted when it becomes clear that the boy’s idol is the bank robber, not the G-man. And the two men seem almost drawn to one another at the same time as they are bitter enemies. In one scene, Dillinger can’t resist calling Purvis on the phone; in another, Purvis spots Dillinger at a nightclub but the agent is unwilling to take action in front of his fiancée, so he sends the gangster a bottle of champagne—and a threatening note—instead.
Dillinger the movie doesn’t allow Dillinger the man or his pursuer much room for self-doubt or reflectiveness: they’re assured, larger-than-life figures, and Oates and Johnson give performances to match. Neither actor ever became a major star, but they certainly had the screen presence to do so.
Oates as Dillinger is emotionally driven, and can be brutal, but he clearly also has real love for Billie (despite his misogynistic approach to her when they first meet). Johnson as Purvis is much colder and controlled, and verging on the sadistic in a way that Dillinger isn’t: he seems almost grimly delighted at the prospect of slaughter as he prepares for a showdown, an automatic in each hand and a cigar in his mouth.
Dreyfuss also stands out as Baby Face, who unlike Dillinger kills for fun, while other noteworthy performances come from Harry Dean Stanton as Van Meter, a more sympathetic member of the gang, and Frank McRae as Youngblood, a fellow prisoner of Dillinger’s who joins his crew. Youngblood is unsophisticated by comparison with the others and not a professional criminal (he refers to killing his wife and a Bible salesman after catching them in “flagrant dilecto”) but the allure of the wrong side of the law seems to be just attractive to him as to his mentor: “I’m already a murderer, so I might as well be famous”, he says.
Though men get the meatiest parts, Phillips is poignant as Dillinger’s girlfriend—she sticks with him, but insists that she doesn’t want to be there when the law finally and fatally catches up, a clear echo of the same point made by Katharine Ross’s Etta in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Cloris Leachman, meanwhile, manages to steal a scene from Purvis in her small and amusing cameo toward the end as a Romanian madame providing information on Dillinger’s whereabouts.
Even strong performances like Oates’s and Johnson’s can be overwhelmed, and very effectively, by the violence of Dillinger. Almost the first shot has Oates pointing a gun directly at the camera and, although the character initially refrains from killing, that doesn’t last long once the gang is bigger and the government’s guns are aimed at them. In some of Dillinger’s spectacular sieges, ambushes and battles there must be more ordnance expended than in many war movies.
It’s never violence for its own sake, though, or trivialised—there’s always a narrative point being made (or a loose end being tied up), and Milius doesn’t sanitise. People don’t die instantly; the drawn-out, agonising demise of one gut-shot gangster is enough to make the audience uncomfortable, and while the film doesn’t linger on or revel in this kind of detail, nor does it turn away.
Dillinger is both detached, even rather cold, and surprisingly engaging at the same time. Stylised techniques such as Purvis’s narration and the black-and-white montages—involving newspaper headlines and archival newsreel as well as new photography with the actors—tend to reinforce that this is distant history rather than a drama unfolding before our eyes, as do the popular songs and dance music of the period on the soundtrack. The paucity of close-ups keeps the characters mostly at arm’s length, too.
But Milius’s unhurried pace (“time is one thing I got plenty of”, Dillinger says with great unintended irony), his painterly, uncluttered compositions and his emphasis on earth tones conjure up a very credible Depression Midwest. Even if the characters are never completely opened up to us, the sense of time and place is immersive.
Dillinger is a hard film to pigeonhole. It’s not quite a crime movie in the ordinary sense—there’s not actually much bank robbing in it, or much detection. Nor is it really a study in pride and ambition; though those are certainly important elements in the psychology of the two leads, Milius doesn’t probe them in detail. Nor is it quite a history lesson.
Yet in blending all those things, and thanks to skilled direction and some forceful performances, it often achieves a mood that’s all its own, both hard-edged and oddly haunting.
USA | 1973 | 107 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR • BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH • SPANISH
writer & director: John Milius.
starring: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Michelle Phillips, Cloris Leachman, Harry Dean Stanton & Richard Dreyfuss.