ⓘ Dillinger (1973 film)


ⓘ Dillinger (1973 film)

Dillinger is a 1973 American gangster film about the life and criminal exploits of notorious bank robber John Dillinger. It stars Warren Oates as Dillinger, Ben Johnson as his pursuer, FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, and Cloris Leachman as the "Lady in Red" who made it possible for Purvis to kill Dillinger. It also features the first film performance by the singer Michelle Phillips as Dillingers moll Billie Frechette. The film, narrated by Purvis, chronicles the last few years of Dillingers life as the FBI and law enforcement closed in. The setting is Depression era America, from 1933 to 1934, with largely unromanticized depictions of the principal characters. It was written and directed by John Milius for Samuel Z. Arkoffs American International Pictures.

Retired FBI Agent Clarence Hurt, one of the agents involved in the final shootout with Dillinger, was the films technical advisor. The film includes documentary imagery and film footage from the era. It includes a verbal renouncing of gangster films written by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover: he was scheduled to read it for the film, but died before it started production. Hoovers text is read at the films close by voice actor Paul Frees.

The film was followed by two made-for-TV spin-offs: Melvin Purvis: G-Man 1974 teleplay written by Milius and The Kansas City Massacre 1975, both directed by Dan Curtis and each starring Dale Robertson as Purvis.


1. Plot

"Indiana, 1933". During the Great Depression, various bank robbers and other outlaws have become folk heroes due to public distrust of financial institutions and the law. Following the Kansas City Massacre in June 1933 in which several law enforcement offers were killed brazenly in broad daylight, FBI field office chief Melvin Purvis decides to personally hunt down the men he deems responsible: Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Lester "Baby Face" Nelson, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, "Handsome" Jack Klutas, Wilbur Underhill and John Dillinger. During a meeting with fellow FBI agent Samuel Cowley, Purvis makes it clear he seeks personal vengeance and that hes willing to use extralegal measures if necessary.

Dillinger is in the midst of his criminal career, accompanied by Homer Van Meter, Harry Pierpont, Charles Mackley and others and is very braggadocios about his exploits. He meets Billy Frechette at a bar and immediately takes a liking to her, but becomes nonplussed when she doesnt recognized him and robs the bar patrons to impress her. She becomes his lover, accompanying him and his gang on their exploits. During one robbery in East Chicago, the gang loses Mackley and several others, forcing the gang to scatter.

It is during this time that Purvis has begun his purge of the gangsters, hunting down and killing Underhill and Klutas and capturing Kelly. Hes unable to move against Dillinger and the others as they have not violated federal laws yet. While lying low in Arizona with the rest of the gang, Dillinger is captured by the local authorities and transported to Crowne Point, Indiana. While imprisoned there, Dillinger makes a daring escape after carving a bar of soap into the shape of a gun and fooling the guards into releasing him. It is during this escape that Dillinger finally commits a federal crime, driving a stolen car across state lines.

He takes a fellow prisoner Reed Youngblood with him, and they eventually meet back up with the gang, including new members Nelson and Floyd. They start a crime spree across the Midwest to the chagrin of Purvis, angry and jealous of the how the media romanticizes their exploits. The gangs luck runs out following a bank robbery in Mason City, Iowa, which leads to a violent shootout ending in Youngbloods death and the wounding of another member. While staying at the Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin following the heist, Purvis leads a team of FBI agents on a raid of the lodge, costing numerous agents lives and sending the gang scattering again. During this chaos, Pierpont, Nelson, Van Meter and Floyd are all hunted down by either federal agents or local vigilantes and summarily killed.

While hiding in Chicago, Dillinger makes the acquaintance of a brothel owner, Anna Sage. Purvis, sensing an opportunity, offers to protect Sage from being deported if shell help finger Dillinger. While attending the gangster film Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph Theater, Purvis and his men get into position to capture Dillinger as he, Sage and a female acquaintance exit the theater. At the last minute, Purvis instead goads Dillinger into going for his gun and then shoots the gangster down in the alleyway.

In the epilogue, it is revealed the Sage was eventually deported back to Romania despite Purvis promise, Purvis eventually committed suicide after retiring from the FBI, Frechette ended up dying penniless, and that Dillingers likeness is now used for the FBIs targets during shooting practice.


1.1. Plot J. Edgar Hoovers postscript, voiced by Paul Frees

Dillinger was in production during early 1972, more than a year before its Dallas premiere on June 19, 1973. J. Edgar Hoover, who died on May 2, 1972, wrote a denunciation of the films glamorization of gangsters. Hoovers message is delivered by voice actor Paul Frees after the end credits have stopped rolling:

"Dillinger was a rat that the country may consider itself fortunate to be rid of, and I dont sanction any Hollywood glamorization of these vermin. This type of romantic mendacity can only lead young people further astray than they are already, and I want no part of it."


2. Cast

  • Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis
  • Frank McRae as Reed Youngblood
  • Geoffrey Lewis as Harry Pierpont
  • Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson
  • Warren Oates as John Dillinger
  • John Ryan as Charles Mackley
  • Harry Dean Stanton as Homer Van Meter
  • Michelle Phillips as Billie Frechette
  • Steve Kanaly as Pretty Boy Floyd
  • Roy Jenson as Samuel Cowley
  • Cloris Leachman as Anna Sage
  • Read Morgan as Big Jim Wollard
  • John Martino as Eddie Martin

3. Period music

  • The 1929 song, Happy Days Are Here Again, featured in the Technicolor finale of the 1930 film, Chasing Rainbows, is prominently featured in the aftermath of Dillingers capture.
  • As photographs of Depression-eras impoverished victims pass on the screen during opening credits, "Were in the Money" from Golddiggers of 1933 is heard on the soundtrack.
  • Another song popularized by Crosby, "Its Easy to Remember And So Hard to Forget", was written for his film Mississippi, released in 1935, one year after Dillingers death. It is heard during an intimate bedroom scene with Dillinger and Billie Frechette.
  • "One More Chance", popularized by Bing Crosby in his 1931 short film of the same name, plays during a scene featuring Machine Gun Kelly.
  • The melody "Honey", a 1929 hit for Rudy Vallee, is heard through the entire length of the closing credits.
  • The 1917 tango, "La Cumparsita", still popular in the 1930s, plays during a scene in a Chicago restaurant, followed by "Beyond the Blue Horizon" from the 1930 film Monte Carlo.


4.1. Production Development

In the early 1970s, John Milius was one of the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood, selling his scripts for Jeremiah Johnson and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean for record sums. He was unhappy with the way both films turned out, however and wanted to turn director. He approached Samuel Z. Arkoff of AIP with the offer of writing a script "for a fraction of his usual price" if he could direct.

Milius says AIP gave him three choices - Blacula, Black Mama, White Mama or "a gangster thing with Pretty Boy Floyd or Dillinger. I looked at the gangsters of the early thirties and the one that had the most appeal was Dillinger. It was a subject I never would have chosen myself but it allowed me to show how good I could do a gunfight. It was a showcase to show everyone I could make it cut together, make the story hold and make the actors act."

The project was announced in April 1972.

"My father always predicted I would wind up in San Quentin by the age of 21," said Milius. "I wouldnt want to disappoint him too much. So here I am. directing a film about John Dillinger, the greatest criminal that ever lived."

Milius cast Warren Oates in the lead. Milius had wanted Oates to play the lead role in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. "I write all my things for Warren Oates or young John Wayne types," he said. "Or sometimes Clint Eastwood. He looks good holding a gun. But to me John Wayne is the ultimate American hero. Not because hes big and tough but because hes sentimental. My pictures are sentimental, idealistic. I deal with values of friendliness and courtliness and the family and chivalry and honour and courage - not just guts but bigger than life courage. Nobody today writes movies in the style that I do. Nobody. I write characters that are strong and direct, superindividuals. The people in my movies fear no one but God."

Milius says he wanted to make a movie about Dillinger because "of all the outlaws, he was the most marvellous". He elaborated:

People admired and respected Dillinger for being the greatest criminal. They admired him because he could get away with it. Because he did it well and he did it with style. And also because he enjoyed his work. Ive made a myth out of him but not a romantic myth like Bonnie and Clyde. Dillinger is a tough guy hes a Cagney. Im not at all concerned with showing his early life or explaining how he got that way. What Im interested in is the legend. Thats what this movie is, thats exactly what it is. Its not a character study or a Freudian analysis; its an American folk tale

Michelle Phillips claimed she got cast by pretending to be half Cherokee, like her character.


4.2. Production Shooting

Filming took place in late 1972. Dillinger was filmed in its entirety in Oklahoma.

Much use of various local landmark buildings were used in the filming from Jet, Nash, Jefferson, and Enid, Oklahoma in the North, to Ardmore, the Chickasaw Lake Club which served as Dillingers "Little Bohemia" Wisconsin hideout, and the old iron truss bridge near Mannsville, Oklahoma in the south, the Skirvin Tower ballroom, and the Midwest Theater in downtown Oklahoma City, filling in as the Biograph. The house at the end of the movie was filmed in Dougherty, Oklahoma.

Many local would-be actors wound up immortalized on film, such as the warden of the prison, who was in real life, an Enid, Oklahoma postman.

"Its my first time as director and I think I did an excellent job because I had such a superb script," said Milius.


5. Reception

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded three stars out of four and called it "the film, we may speculate, that John Milius was born to make: violent, tough, filled with guns and blood." He added, "Dillinger is played by Warren Oates, a gifted actor with an uncanny physical resemblance to the gangster. Oates is lean in speech and lanky in appearance, and toward the end of the film, he does a good job of getting jumpy." A. H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote, "Dillinger does capture the look of the nineteen-thirties, but its violence dominates the scene and the players, who remain largely undefined figures on a bloody landscape." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote that it "repeatedly copies the spirit, and a few scenes, of Bonnie and Clyde. But it is distinguished by its acting. Director John Milius has cast fine second-tier actors who lend the familiar story great style." Variety wrote, "Necessarily episodic, it loses somewhat in a lack of straight story line, but theres sufficient fast action of the gangster type to satisfy this particular market." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "The idea that the Depression could create folk heroes out of gangsters was expressed with such freshness and imagination in Bonnie and Clyde that it seemed like a revelation. In Dillinger at selected theaters writer John Milius, in his feature directorial debut, attempts to make the same point, but because it has already been made so powerfully it comes out like mere repetition." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post was negative, writing that "Milius doesnt have anything fresh to offer the period or the characters. As usual, he just feeds off certain influential movies, idolizes a strongman with a gun and alternates predictable notes of facetiousness, viciousness and poignance."

Milius later said in 2003:

I look at it today and I find it very crude, but I do find it immensely ambitious. We didnt have a lot of money, or time, and we didnt have such things – we only had so many feet of track, stuff like that. So I couldnt do moving shots if they involved more than, what, six yards of track. We never had any kind of crane or anything. Thats the way movies were made then.

By 1976 Variety estimated the film had earned $4 million in rentals. It holds a score of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 13 reviews.


6. Evaluation in film guides

Steven H. Scheuers Movies on TV 1986–87 edition assigns Dillinger 2½ stars out of 4, opining that "Warren Oates gives a fine performance as Dillinger, but the script leaves no room for insight into the character and thus makes him merely a cartoon book villain". Scheuer ends with, "here are a great many gun battles and since this is an exploitation movie there is much twitching and shuddering till the bodies lie still. There is also much borrowed from Bonnie and Clyde."


7. Fictionalization

  • Charles Makley is shown dying of a wound and being buried by Dillinger; in fact Mackley was killed September 22, 1934 while trying to escape from prison. Dillinger gang member John Hamilton did die of wounds, and his remains were later found in a grave.
  • A Chicago bank guard named OMalley is killed by the Dillinger gang during a robbery attempt. In fact William Patrick OMalley was a member of the East Chicago Police force killed January 15, 1934. Likewise Dillinger gang member Eddie Green is shown being killed in the getaway; in fact Eddie Green criminal was killed in March 1934.
  • Dillinger gang member Herbert Youngblood is shown being killed during a bank robbery by the Dillinger gang in Iowa. In reality Youngblood had been killed alone in a gunfight with police in March 1934.
  • Homer Van Meter is shown escaping from Little Bohemia and then being killed by vigilantes in Iowa, which was filmed in Dougherty, Oklahoma in the foothills of the Arbuckle Mountains. In fact he was killed in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dillinger gang member Tommy Carroll was mortally wounded during a shootout with police in Waterloo, Iowa on June 7, 1934.
  • The Little Bohemia Lodge shootout was filmed at the Chickasaw Country Club near Ardmore, Oklahoma. The shootout implies that about four of the Dillinger gang are killed and half a score of federal agents were casualties. In fact the first three men shot in the raid were two YCC workers and a local resident shot by the FBI by mistake one killed and two wounded, while one FBI agent was killed, one FBI agent was wounded, and one constable was critically wounded.
  • In this film and in a related John Milius film Melvin Purvis: G-Man George Machine Gun Kelly is shown being hunted down and captured by Purvis September 26, 1933; in fact Kelly was captured by the Memphis Tenn Police and the Birmingham Alabama Office of the FBI. {Also Kellys alleged quote "Dont Shoot G-Man" is apparently a myth} Ironically the Dillinger movie newsreel footage of Dillinger being transported from Arizona is actually that of Kelly being extradited!
  • Pretty Boy Floyd is shown being shot at by about a dozen FBI agents; in fact there were only about four FBI agents present. Likewise he was killed Oct 22, 1934; gang member Baby Face Nelson was killed November 27.1934; both died after Dillinger was killed July 22, 1934.
  • Wilbur Underhill is shown being shot and killed by Melvin Purvis, in fact Underhill died on January 6, 1934, of wounds inflicted more than a week previously by an inter-jurisdictional group of law officers led by FBI Agents T.H. Colvin and Frank Smith, a survivor of the Kansas City Massacre. Purvis had nothing to do with the apprehension.
  • The Dillinger movie was inspired by the classic Bonnie and Clyde movie; contrary to both movies the real Barrow gang used BARs instead of Colt Machine guns. Likewise in real life the Dillinger gang used Colt machine guns instead of BARs.
  • Theodore "Handsome Jack" Klutas is shown being killed by Melvin Purvis; in fact Klutas of The College Kidnappers was killed by Chicago Police on January 6, 1934

8. DVD

Dillinger was released to DVD by MGM Home Video on August 12, 2003 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD and by Arrow Video under license from MGM on April 26, 2016 as a Region 1 widescreen Blu-ray & DVD combo pack.


9. Dillinger on Turner Classic Movies

Dillinger premiered on Turner Classic Movies January 14, 2017 as part of its three-film tribute to Warren Oates. It was preceded by 1967s In the Heat of the Night and 1960s Private Property.


9.1. Dillinger on Turner Classic Movies Introductory comments

"Hello and welcome to TCM everybody. Im Ben Mankiewicz. Tonight our subject is Warren Oates, a character actor uniquely skilled at conveying a degree of relaxed menace. Up next, Oates plays a gangster with whom he shared an unusually strong natural resemblance - from American International Pictures in nineteen seventy-three - Dillinger. John Dillinger robbed banks across the Midwest in the early nineteen thirties and he managed to be seen by some as something of a Robin Hood figure - his exploits were featured in newspapers and newsreels - making him as famous as a movie star, a pro athlete or a… a cable television host. Hi, Im Ben Mankiewicz… how you doin?…

In telling Dillingers story, writer-director John Milius introduces us to Dillingers girlfriend, played by singer-songwriter and actress Michelle Phillips, gangster Baby Face Nelson, played by a baby-faced Richard Dreyfuss and Federal agent Melvin Purvis, played by a member of John Fords stock company, Ben Johnson. Purvis is pursuing criminals on the FBIs Most Wanted List. He lights a cigar before every showdown and he ends up lighting quite a few cigars during the course of the movie so if youre a fan of gunfights with exploding blood packs, you have tuned in to the right place.

Writer-director John Milius is almost as much of a character as Dillinger himself. In the nineteen seventies, Milius wrote the screenplays for some notable movies, including The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and Apocalypse Now. According to one story, Milius demanded a rare rifle as part of his payment for scriptworking in on Dirty Harry. He also wrote the first draft, which Steven Spielberg described as brilliant, of Robert Shaws famous USS Indianapolis speech in Jaws. Milius was also the inspiration for John Goodmans character in The Big Lebowski. Dillinger was the first feature film he directed - hed go on to direct The Wind and the Lion, Red Dawn and Conan the Barbarian. From 1973, also starring Harry Dean Stanton and, in a small role, Cloris Leachman, heres Warren Oates in the TCM premiere of Dillinger."


9.2. Dillinger on Turner Classic Movies Ben Mankiewiczs closing comments

Dillinger had some similarities to other gangster films, like Bonnie and Clyde. Theres also a nod to The Wild Bunch, where Warren Oates and Ben Johnson played brothers - they played adversaries in Dillinger. Former FBI agent Clarence Hunt, who was involved in the final shootout with Dillinger, was the films technical advisor. The original plan was for FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to read the films final message, but Hoover died before the movies release and, instead, the words were read by actor and voice artist Paul Frees. Dillingers writer and director John Milius was so interested in the character of Federal agent Melvin Purvis that he wrote another script about him, shot as a TV movie in nineteen seventy-four, with Dale Robertson as Purvis. Up next, this weeks visit to the TCM Underground brings us to a short documentary about the counterculture movement of the nineteen-sixties, narrated by Robert Mitchum.