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DILLINGER (director/writer: John Milius; cinematographer: Jules Brenner; editor: Fred R. Feitshans Jr.; music: Barry Devorzon; cast: Warren Oates (John Dillinger), Ben Johnson (Melvin Purvis), Michelle Phillips (Billie Frechette), Cloris Leachman (Lady in Red), Harry Dean Stanton (Homer Van Meter), Steve Kanaly (Pretty Boy Floyd), Richard Dreyfuss (Baby Face Nelson), Geoffrey Lewis (Harry Pierpont), John Martino (Eddie Martin), John Ryan (Charles Mackley), Roy Jenson (Samuel Crowley), Read Morgan (Big Jim Wollard); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Buzz Feitshans; Vestron Video; 1973)
“Plenty of Cheap Thrills.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 29-year-old writer-director John Milius (“Red Dawn”) in his debut feature films Depression-era bank robber, Public Enemy No. 1, John Dillinger (Warren Oates), as an American folklore legend and films him more as a Western mythic hero (signaling a new romanticized way to make gangster films that were to flood the market in the 1970s). The AIP produced film plays fast and loose with the facts but is filled with a good sense of nostalgia, an unbridled romanticism for outlaw legends (though belittling Bonnie and Clyde as merely two-bit punks), overheated gunfights and plenty of cheap thrills. It was a smart decision casting Oates in the lead, who makes his villain character likable and memorable. The film is set over a 13 month period from 1933 to 1934 when Dillinger gained the notoriety that made him a legend. Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) is the FBI bureau chief of the Midwest office who gunned him down in the back alley of the Biograph Theater in Chicago, after the showing of Clark Gable’s Manhattan Melodrama, while Dillinger was in the presence of the infamous Rumanian prostitute in red, Anna Sage (Cloris Leachman), who ratted him out. Purvis is seen here as similar to the gangster in being a headline-grabber, a man capable of great violence and posing for posterity, who quit the Bureau after killing Dillinger and ran his own detective agency until soon after killing himself with the same gun he used to kill Dillinger. Purvis obsessively made the hunt for the top crime names of the time his own personal vendetta, and vowed to kill all of these famous criminals and smoke cigars over their dead bodies.

The film begins after a shoot-out over bank robber Frank Nash that kills five FBI agents in Kansas City and the Bureau targets folk hero John Dillinger as one of the prime gangsters to hunt down. The Dillinger gang robs a bar in the Midwest and Dillinger comforts the victims by saying “Someday you’ll tell your grandchildren about this.” He then takes with him the bar’s prostitute who comes from Native American and French ancestry, Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips, formerly with the singers the Mamas and the Papas), and she becomes his gun moll. The gang loses two members, Charles Mackley and Eddie Martin, in a Chicago robbery and the remainder of the gang, Harry Pierpont and Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton), end up in Tucson, Arizona. Dillinger is captured there by “Big” Jim Wollard and sent to the Crown Point, Indiana prison, in 1933. He escaped from there using a bar of soap carved into the shape of a gun and blackened with shoe polish. Rejoining his old gang Dillinger finds that infamous hoods Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly) and Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss) have joined the gang since he was in prison, and they continue to rob banks until everyone is taken down but Dillinger.

The B film is drenched in violence with touches of black comedy, but is always entertaining even if there’s a revisionist approach to all the characters. If you really wanted to know something about Dillinger, you would only get misinformation and vagueness from this film.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”