Guns! Guns! Guns! John Milius’ rootin’ tootin’ bio of the most famous of the ’30s bandits has plenty of good things to its credit, especially its terrific, funny cast, topped by the unlikely star Warren Oates. The battles between Dillinger’s team of all-star bank robbers and Ben Johnson’s G-Man aren’t neglected, as Milius savors every gun recoil and Tommy gun blast.
Blu-ray + DVD
Arrow Video U.S.
1973 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 107 min. / Street Date April 26, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Michelle Phillips, Cloris Leachman, Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, John Ryan, Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Kanaly, John Martino, Roy Jenson, Frank McRae.
Cinematography Jules Brenner
Special Effects A.D. Flowers, Cliff Wenger
Edited by Fred R. Feitshans, Jr.
Original Music Barry De Vorzon
Produced by Buzz Feitshans
Written and Directed by John Milius
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
There it was in the dentist’s office, an article in either Time or Newsweek about a rascally eccentric screenwriter turned director, who admitted he was gun crazy and had it in his contract that any weapons purchased to produce his new movie Dillinger would become his personal property. USC live wire John Milius had become one of the hottest screenwriters in town, with scripts in release or production by directors like John Huston and Sydney Pollack. And now he was peppering the screen with gunpowder for his biopic of everyone’s favorite rural bandit of the Depression.
Dillinger looked cheap in 1973 because its general style — newspaper montages etc. reminded us of Roger Corman’s Ma Barker tale Bloody Mama. But both of those movies now seem like gems atop the heap of violent exploitation filmmaking of the time. Whereas the Shelley Winters movie cut corners at every turn, Milius delivered the goods for shoot ’em up fans hungering for macho mayhem: no two scenes go by without someone brandishing a gun or using one to pump somebody full of lead. Milius decreed that his favorite filmmaker was John Ford, but his style in this picture was essentially to copy the compositions of Ford and Sam Peckinpah. More on the homage game played by film-school bred directors a little later on.
Milius’s script is refreshingly light on psychological motivation. It plays fast and loose with historical facts, but takes the trouble to feature some lesser-known criminal colleagues. The screenplay collects name bandits the way a kid would collect baseball cards, making their association seem more loyal than it was. John Dillinger (Warren Oates) sees himself as the criminal equivalent of a movie star, not a brutal thug. He and his cohorts Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton), Harry Pierpont (Geoffrey Lewis), Charles Mackley (John P. Ryan) and Eddie Martin (John Martino) cut a bloody swath from Minnesota to Texas. Harry’s wife tags along, while John basically kidnaps Billie Frechette (Michelle Philips of the Mamas and the Papas). She becomes his moll against her will, at least at the beginning. In various adventures John and his crew rob banks, break out of jails, and eventually pick up other crooks, like black convict Reed Youngblood (Frank McRae) and name outlaws Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly) and Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss). Meanwhile, the showboat F.B.I. agent Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) captures or kills one sad sack criminal after another, like Machine Gun Kelly, who calls him a ‘G-Man’. The somewhat deranged but genuinely fearless Dillinger talks to Purvis more than once, and they square off as adversaries. The ‘super-gang’ is forced to split up after the siege at Little Bohemia. Purvis hunts down the survivors, backed up by his lieutenant Samuel Cowley (Roy Jenson).
On the level of casting and genre writing, Dillinger is an enjoyable action show. Despite the lack of romantic qualities, the rough-hewn, experienced actor Warren Oates was for a few weeks seriously considered as the new Bogart — was this his only really successful starring role? Either A.I.P. executive Gordon or his appointed producer Buzz Feitshans selected a great group of actors, including Cloris Leachman and Michelle Phillips, and a baby-faced Richard Dreyfuss hamming his way through the role of Baby Face Nelson. The core of Milius’ stock company is already here, what with the charismatic Steve Kanaly, thuggish Roy Jenson and the eccentric Geoffrey Lewis (all from The Wind and The Lion). Warren Oates and Frank McRae had featured roles in 1941, which Milius co-wrote and produced. Oates and Ben Johnson were already associated as the Gorch Brothers for Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch, film that Milius would restage as often as Brian De Palma raided his favorite Alfred Hitchcock pictures. And then there’s John P. Ryan, another solid performer memory blasted into next Tuesday in movie after movie, notably Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks.
It’s a great bunch. Still a few years away from discovery by the hipsters, Harry Dean Stanton is hilarious as a sad sack thief who consistently makes his own bad luck: “Things ain’t workin’ out for me today.” Geoffrey Lewis makes amusing gestures at domestic normality, with his wife checking his appearance prior to a bank holdup. Seeing this show after American Graffiti, we can see that Richard Dreyfuss can’t hold a straight face in some scenes. He’s too much of a lightweight to convince when Baby Face guns down some kids on a sidewalk out of pure malice. Dreyfus is a kick, but Mickey Rooney still owns that role. As for Warren Oates, he’s a little uneven mainly due to the script’s indecisiveness — is he a heroic figure or a charming madman? Milius has a bad habit of giving Oates speeches where he talks about his own image. It looks like Dillinger is trying to talk himself into believing his own noble outlaw myth. Milius’ attitude toward race is expressed by having Frank McRae behave like a giant ‘Baby Huey’ take on a ’40s black stereotype. Even when MacRae is given a sober scene, Milius invents the business of having Geoffrey Lewis hand him a fried chicken drumstick. At least there are no scenes with watermelons.
Raymond Durgnat somewhat deflated The Wild Bunch when he wrote that Sam Peckinpah indulged in mythomania to create an aura around his outlaws, an arguable complaint considering how strongly felt are Peckinpah’s sentiments toward his characters. But John Milius swallowed that pill whole. The only substance to his characters is imparted via constant injections of reverent, ‘meaningful’ images copied fairly faithfully from Ford and Peckinpah. I’ll accept that strategy when it works, but Milius’ effects ring hollow. The nice thing is that aping Ford gives the show the pacing of a classic movie: Milius isn’t afraid to slow things down and hold on wide compositions. The bad aspect is that we keep recognizing setups from How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath and The Searchers. The most copied Ford film here is My Darling Clementine. Peckinpah at least used his Ford references in league with a critical point of view, usually ironic, and he didn’t copy compositions outright.
Of his generation of film student directors, Milius is almost as blatant a copycat as Brian De Palma. It’s not a bad ploy for a tyro director. When he has to invent his own style, Milius gets things a little distorted. Ben Johnson is visualized as some kind of elemental knight, who undergoes more of a ritual prep for his gunfight confrontations than Lee Marvin’s Kid Sheleen in Cat Ballou (coming in May from Twilight Time). Ben Johnson is so good that the aggrandizement of the Melvin Purvis character isn’t a failure, and by manufacturing a mythical clash of titans Milius at least gives his film a structure. But it hasn’t anything to do with the reality of the F.B.I. of the 1930s. Warners old “G-Men” of 1935 was a fluff job for J. Edgar Hoover and still functioned better. Dillinger fails the history test not by glamorizing the thieves, but by ignoring the political mess of a ’30s F.B.I. intent on growing and consolidating power through unearned publicity. The glamour of the relatively minor rural bandits, mostly contrived in the newspapers, drew attention from the Bureau’s inability or unwillingness to do anything about the nation’s real crime problem, organized crime in the cities. Milius gives us what he would call a ‘moral’ perspective of simple crooks versus cops, juiced with plenty of gunfire.
That said, Dillinger really hops in the action scenes. At his best Milius also manages some marvelous character touches. Steve Kanaly’s Pretty Boy Floyd seems to have an aura around him. He thanks an old couple for a piece of pie, apologizes for being a sinner, and starts a-runnin’ in a flight that he knows isn’t going to succeed. As an illustration of the ‘good bandit’ mythology, it’s better than the scenes in Bonnie and Clyde that try to sell us on the notion that the Oakies’ identifying with the Barrow Gang as folk heroes. Ben Johnson is believably peeved to find out that a street kid wants to be a gangster when he grows up, not a G-Man. And as inaccurate as it is, the violent machine-gun shootout between Baby Face Nelson and a G-Man approaches the best of Peckinpah’s shoot ‘n’ splatter set pieces.
When in doubt, Milius falls back on gun imagery, and there’s far too much of it. If a gun is fired, it’s always screen center, lovingly depicted. It’s probably not true, but a few scenes look as if the actors are using live ammo, as when Harry Dean Stanton shoots a gumball machine. I saw effects whiz A.D. Flowers at work, and to do an effect like this, his men would shoot ball bearings out of an air rifle. Who’s to say that a shot at that glass gumball globe wouldn’t bounce back and hurt a cast member? The production gets excellent coverage of its Midwestern locations, which had remained roughly unchanged since the 1930s. The movie also doesn’t go cheap on the vintage automobiles and costumes, which look just fine. But all this is undermined by gun battles that go on twice as long as they need to, and focus too lovingly on realistic recoils and convincing bullet hits. Every shooting victim is ogled pre-, during and post- obliteration. A bank guard’s hand twitches behind his back as he expires, just like Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Our main protagonists seem bulletproof until Milius decides their time is up. They then bite the dust in as graphic a manner as possible, toppling off high bridges, screaming as they crumple to the ground or blasted all at once by a dozen farmers. We almost expect to see big clean holes bored through their bodies, like the cartoon character Yosemite Sam. Remember the National Recovery Act seal (NRA) carried by many movies during the Great Depression? Milius could have used the same graphic to display an endorsement from the National Rifle Association.
The result is that Dillinger thrills and entertains, and then goes about 200 gunshots into the overkill zone. When it’s all said and done we’ve gotten some amusing jollies, but we’ve sure had more than our fill of extended shootout battles.
The public loved the movie, which is what mattered. Milius would proceed straight from this picture to a gigantic imitation of Lawrence of Arabia, with beautifully sustained old-school battle scenes and a more satisfying selection of Wild Bunch references. Milius does a much better job of celebrating glamorized colonial militarism in The Wind and The Lion, than he does trying to make the F.B.I. look good in this movie.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray + DVD of Dillinger is an extremely handsome transfer of this high-end A.I.P. production. The fine quality encoding brings out more detail and better color than original release prints. Come to think of it, the general release prints on this show were so poor, this transfer raises my appreciation for the movie twofold. Jules Brenner’s filtered cinematography now looks appropriately hazy instead of out of focus. The soundtrack also pops, making sure we hear every shotgun boom and machine gun blast
Jules Brenner is one of three new interviews assembled in high style by disc content producer-director Elijah Drenner. The cameraman talks about his filming style and then goes into some reminiscences about the filming. The same goes for composer Barry De Vorzon, who is quite candid about his late entry into the film composing game. As more of a music consultant, he perhaps presided over the new recording of vintage tunes. His efforts to get Milius to refrain from reprising John Ford’s chosen music fell on deaf ears. The most illuminating interview is from executive producer Lawrence Gordon, who went on to a stellar producing record, with every third movie a box office or serious cult hit. In his version of events Gordon brought most of the film’s main elements together, and nurtured the cocky Milius into his directing career. But that may very well be the complete truth.
Dillinger has a reasonable budget, and its benefit can be seen on screen. Physical effects man A.D. Flowers and his crew worked on this movie and the earlier Bloody Mama and got along great with Buzz Feitshans. A.D. clamed that Roger Corman treated his crew poorly and went so cheap on so many things that almost nobody could be proud of their work, even some of the actors. As can be seen in the precise organization of Terry Leonard’s action scenes, the production coordination on Dillinger is much better.
The disc has an image gallery and a trailer, and I can recommend the commentary by Stephen Prince, who does a bang-up job comparing Milius’s version of events to the historical record. Prince has Milius’s themes well organized, even if he sees the constant re-staging of Ford and Peckinpah compositions and scenes in a more favorable light than I do. We UCLA students often thought in terms of our favorite old movies instead of making student films that would reflect our own experiences, or fresh ideas, and I can plead guilty to trying to make my own version of a Val Lewton movie. But the aping of admired filmmakers by Milius and even to some degree Peter Bogdanovich leads to diminishing returns. In the long run, the imitations crumble before the real thing. Prince’s visual analysis gets a little touchy when he compares distorted low angled shots to the work of Orson Welles, when there is no wide-angle distortion to be seen, just a dynamic composition. Otherwise, I think his take on the visuals of Dillinger is on the money, and refreshingly unfussy. I’ll look for more Stephen Prince commentaries.
Arrow’s disc comes with an insert booklet, which I wasn’t able to check out.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dillinger Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Movie: Very Good
Audio commentary by Stephen Prince, interview with producer Lawrence Gordon, interview with director of photography Jules Brenner, interview with composer Barry De Vorzon, Stills gallery, trailer, Collector’s with new writing by Kim Newman and an on-set report containing interviews with writer-director John Milius and others (not viewed).
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD disc in Keep case
Reviewed: April 16, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson