The Film: 4/5
The year is 1933. The Great Depression has impoverished the nation and left millions of Americans out of work. Outlaws roam the open country and target banks in small rural towns, having traded in six-shooters and horses for submachine guns and automobiles. John Dillinger (Warren Oates) and his gang – including Harry Pierpont (Geoffrey Lewis), Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton), and Charles Makley (John P. Ryan) - are perhaps the most feared and wanted bank robbers in the U.S. Hardened F.B.I. bureau chief Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) has lost good men in the line of fire pursuing the Dillinger gang and has vowed to hunt each man to their death and smoke a cigar over their bullet-riddled corpse.
As he flees from the authorities with his cohorts in tow ready for their next stick-up job, Dillinger falls in love with the half French/half Menominee Indian Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips) and decides to bring her along for the ride. Each botched robbery and each capture by the law forces Dillinger to make new additions to his crew, including the volatile loudmouth Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), and brings Purvis and his men one step closer to their elusive prey, culminating in the explosive gun battle at the Little Bohemia Hunting Lodge and the Biograph Theater in Chicago where Dillinger meets his end on July 22, 1934.
When Bonnie & Clyde became one of the surprise critical and commercial box office success stories of 1967, it opened the floodgates for every studio in Hollywood, from the most outsized major to the scrappiest little indie outfit, to produce their own hard-hitting period gangster epics. One of the best of the bunch was 1973’s Dillinger, a partially romanticized portrait of the legendary outlaw’s final years robbing banks and battling the law in the Depression-era Midwest that marked the directorial debut of the one and only John Milius, the man who would one day bring the world glorious masterworks of action cinema as The Wind and the Lion and the original Conan the Barbarian.
After having made his name in the film industry as the screenwriter who penned Jeremiah Johnson and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and co-scripted the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force with future fellow filmmaker Michael Cimino (he also performed an uncredited rewrite on the original Dirty), Milius jumped onboard Dillinger at American-International Pictures with an eye towards making his first full-fledged motion picture as director. At just a shade over the million-dollar mark, it was to be A.I.P.’s most expensive feature to date, but it played right into Milius’ wheelhouse as a writer of classical adventures with a rougher, edgy quality geared toward predominantly male audiences. Dillinger was just too perfect for the USC graduate who was famous for keeping company with – and often working closely alongside – fellow alumni Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola to make in his first go-around as director.
Milius (I just love writing that name) devoured the widescreen masterpieces of John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, and David Lean, and his own stories bled a passion for a simple yet less enlightened time when men easily figured out their place in the world and allowed it to define who they were for all time. He didn’t want to make hollow, crowd-pleasing spectacles for the masses because such films bored the hell out of him, and with Dillinger the self-proclaimed “Zen anarchist” focused on the details of the criminal’s personal mythology that fascinated him the most and fashioned them into a blood-soaked tall tale that is as indebted to the classic Warner Bros. gangster pictures of the 1930’s as the F.B.I.’s Public Enemy No. 1 who used their cultural impact to shape his own image to the media.
Dillinger wisely avoids getting into the man’s backstory and instead devotes its running time to documenting his final years when his gang was becoming increasingly splintered, Purvis and his agents were running down his associates, and he finally discovered true love. Milius takes the major events from that time along with some composite characters and scenes of his own devising and manages to craft a narrative that really works and never stops moving ahead, aided by a few montages assembled from still photos, newspaper headlines, and newsreel footage. They functional beautifully as both transition devices and budget-conscious substitutes for unnecessary action set-pieces that would have only disrupted the pace the director created with editor Fred R. Feitshans (Wild in the Streets), the father of the film’s producer Buzz Feitshans. The original score by Barry De Vorzon (Rolling Thunder) keeps the proceedings jaunty with the sounds of upbeat jazz until the third act when the music turns surprisingly somber but remains effective.
In spite of its meager budget and talent-heavy cast, Milius had enough cash left over to put together some cracking action beats with streets running red with stage blood and stuntmen with balls of cast iron earning their pay. The Dillinger gang’s battle with the F.B.I. at the Little Bohemia is without a doubt the most intense shootout in the entire film, with the director investing every ounce of his furious energy into making the audience aware of the stakes and feel as if they were present during the violent siege. The superlative hand-held camerawork by cinematographer Jules Brenner (The Return of the Living Dead) certainly adds to this chaotic atmosphere.
Warren Oates was cleverly cast in the title role of John Dillinger, not only because he bore a striking resemblance to the real Dillinger but also because Oates was one of filmdom’s greatest tough guy actors. He brings a strictly bullshit-free charm and dangerous edge to his performance as the iconic criminal who, much to the detriment of the lawmen tirelessly trying to bring him to justice, became a hero to the downtrodden working poor of an America crippled by its wealthiest citizens. Dillinger was anything but a modern-day Robin Hood, but he readily embraced the star status bestowed upon him by a sensation-hungry media and often used it to his advantage. Oates is perfect in the role and by far the best actor who ever played Dillinger on the silver screen. It’s a performance that might have flatted the man himself.
Oates plays well off of Michelle Phillips as Billie Frechette, but their relationship isn’t given much time to develop and often their bond resembles not two people in love but a kidnap victim in the throes of Stockholm Syndrome (which makes sense seeing as how in this version of the story Dillinger practically kidnaps her after their initial meeting). The strongest relationship in the film is between Dillinger and Purvis, which is ironic considering there is not a single scene in the film where the men meet face to face for a conversation. The only time they do meet is during the finale, and it doesn’t end with a friendly chat. The great Ben Johnson, a legend of big screen westerns, once played Oates’ brother in Sam Peckinpah’s transcendent cinematic masterpiece The Wild Bunch, and his performance as Melvin Purvis is absolutely essential to the film’s success.
Milius intended for Dillinger and Purvis to serve as each other’s shadows, two men who are the best are what they do and feel pressured to live up to the expectations of the public, and in Purvis’ case, a federal government out to prove once and for all that crime does not pay. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Purvis, although neither he nor Dillinger are presented as horrible human beings. Purvis believes in law and order and is prepared to enforce it by tracking down the country’s worst criminals and executing them as if he was the Angel of Death. Johnson is steely and honest as Purvis and he has several memorable dramatic dialogue exchanges in the film.
The first is a revealing conversation he has with a child mere moments after Dillinger has been brought to the very jail he famously escapes from with a gun carved from a bar of soap. The second is a conversation he has with Dillinger over the phone later in the film. Dillinger calls Purvis with the intention of boasting about his escape, but Purvis proves himself to be a greater rattler of cages by calmly putting the cocky professional criminal on edge. We only hear Johnson’s voice in this scene, Brenner’s camera choosing instead to focus on Oates as his expression changes over the course of a few seconds from brave to angry, but it’s clear the Oscar-winning actor (The Last Picture Show) owns the short but powerful scene.
Milius’ supporting cast comes up aces across the board. Geoffrey Lewis, Harry Dean Stanton, John P. Ryan, Steve Kanaly, and Frank McRae all give excellent performances as various members of Dillinger’s gang. Young Richard Dreyfuss has a few standout moments as the violent blowhard Baby Face Nelson, including one where his big mouth earns him a righteous ass-kicking from Dillinger. Cloris Leachman makes a good impression in the film’s final moments as Anna Sage, the infamous “Lady in Red” who helped Purvis and his agents set up Dillinger for the final showdown at the Biograph that is given a sense of tragedy by Milius that works in spite of some annoying fudging of the basic facts of the case. The entire film is like that, but Dillinger is such a tough, wicked fun little yarn that you won’t care about the director’s decision to print the legend once the action really gets going.
According to the booklet included with this Blu-ray, the new 1080p high-definition transfer of Dillinger was created by scanning and restoring the original 35mm interpositive “in 2K resolution on a pin-registered 4K Northlight Scanner and picture grading was completed on a DaVinci Resolve”. PFClean software was employed for extensive clean-up work and “overall image stability and instances of density fluctuation were also improved”. The restoration was supervised by Arrow Films’ James White. Presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, Dillinger looks pretty damn good on Blu-ray for a film of its age and budget. Although some daytime scenes tend to look grainer than others due to the condition of the source elements, the overall amount of grain in the picture is balanced and consistent for most of the film. Improved color grading ensures that the warm and lush green and brown hues look more comfortable than ever before and the stage blood tends to reach Dawn of the Dead (original, naturally)-level shades of red. Details are at their sharpest and most defined in close-up shots, but from a distance they don’t look too bad either.
The uncompressed English 1.0 mono audio track, once again deferring to the booklet’s info on the restoration, “was transferred from the original magnetic reels by Deluxe Burbank and was conformed and restored at Pinewood Studios”. Since the film was originally mixed and released theatrically in mono, what we get here must be as accurate a recreation of that soundtrack as conceivably possible given the source elements used to create this track. Dillinger’s audio mix was not exactly ambitious or innovative, but for a low-budget gangster flick aimed squarely at the drive-in theaters and grindhouse bijous of the world it gets the job done with flying colors. Every element of the mix blends together beautifully with balanced volume levels in order to prevent disruption and disarray. Dialogue sounds appropriately punchy and gunshots and grenade blasts are presented with enough range and intensity to make an impact. English subtitles have also been provided.
Director Milius’ absence from the new supplements produced by Arrow Video for this Blu-ray, in light of his recent stroke, are regrettable but justified. Luckily the company has provided a fine array of bonus material to make up for this release’s criminal lack of John Milius, kicking off with a comprehensive audio commentary featuring author, film historian, and Virginia Tech professor Stephen Prince (a noted contributor to the Criterion Collection’s Akira Kurosawa DVDs and Blu-rays). Prince provides valuable historical and critical insight into the production of Dillinger and the actual events that inspired its making and often points out where Milius compressed happenings and characters in the name of dramatic license. Next to this terrific commentary track, the other alternate audio option offered on this disc is an isolated music and effects track.
Milius may not have been able to take part in the supplements produced for Dillinger, but in his stead three of the film’s behind-the-camera participants have come forward for new retrospective interviews totaling a little over a half-hour in length. First up is “Shooting Dillinger” (12 minutes), in which cinematographer Brenner briefly discusses his early days in the film industry before seguing into a series of remembrances regarding how he came to work with Milius on his feature directorial debut. Producer Lawrence Gordon talks about the origins of Dillinger and how his relationship with Milius and his knowledge of the man’s writing abilities compelled him to take a chance on the first-time director in “Original Gangster” (10 minutes). Finally, composer De Vorzon is the subject of “Ballads and Bullets” (12 minutes) and his interview is structured similarly to Brenner’s, spending the first few minutes talking about how he got his start in the music and film industries before jumping right into his work on Dillinger. These featurettes are presented in high-definition.
The rest of the extras are comprised of a stills gallery and the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes), the latter presented in standard-definition. Arrow’s customary collector’s booklet is present and accounted for and contains a new essay about the film and the history behind its inspiration by British author and film journalist Kim Newman, an article by John Austin about the making of Dillinger original printed in the November 1973 issue of Photoplay magazine, notes about the restoration, film and Blu-ray production credits, and color production stills. The Blu-ray comes with new cover art by Sean Phillips and the original poster art on the reverse side (I prefer the latter), and a DVD copy featuring a standard-definition transfer of the film and the accompanying supplements is also included.
Historical accuracy be damned, Dillinger remains a rip-roaring crime drama more than four decades after its debut and gave its writer-director John Milius one hell of an entrance into the annals of red meat action cinema. A film smart enough to take its subject matter seriously and savvy enough to give the audience everything they crave in a full-blooded cops-and-crooks narrative, Dillinger looks and sounds its best on home video thanks to Arrow’s excellent new Blu-ray edition. Highly recommended for fans of 70’s action flicks and Milius’ own potent blend of chest-beating celluloid machismo.