From the moment that Warren Oates swings open the bank teller’s window and greets the audience on the other side with a grin equal parts sleaze and charm, DILLINGER (1973) appears to be another production mining the gangster-as-folk-hero vein ala BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967). A wealthy pigeon of a woman has just turned her nose up at the unseen teller, and the impression seems to be that she, standing right in front of the infamous criminal who will shortly make off with her precious cash, is going to get what’s coming to her. Clearly, the pompous woman is in the social minority–the opening credits wryly play a jaunty version of “We’re in the Money” over a photo montage mainly composed of poverty-stricken families of the Depression–and Dillinger’s theft aligns him with the conception of the criminal as a modern-day Robin Hood, but one who though adamantly opposed to killing any bystanders takes no visible issue with riddling cops and bank guards with hot lead, leaving them to bloodily convulse in the dust.
And this is where writer/director John Milius’ film differs from other exploitation films that would seek to glorify their real-life subjects, because from the start of the film our knowledge of the facts and Ben Johnson’s grim basso narration as G-man Melvin Purvis assure us that the entire gang is due to come to a bad, messy end. It’s a tone not uncommon to films dealing with this subject, yet the Old Testament vengeance that the cigar-chomping Purvis brings to the affair and the determination of the Midwest citizenry to add the gangsters’ scalps to their trophy rooms makes the crooks’ attempts to flee the long arm of the law all the more futile, like a host of Icaruses flying straight into the sun.
(Amusingly, Dillinger makes a comment upon his arrest voicing his support of the National Rifle Assocation; later, his cohort Homer van Meter, played by Harry Dean Stanton, is cornered in the street by a pack of good ol’ boys fresh from meeting halls plastered with NRA signs and blasted to pieces while wearing a fur coat that makes the scene feel like an outtake from Looney Tunes.)
The location shooting in Oklahoma helps to ground the false notion that all gangsters occupied the hustling and bustling urban sprawl of the city and affirm that many of these criminals were corn-fed farmboys who took their games of cops ‘n’ robbers upon the family acreage to the next logical level. Barry De Vorzon’s score, making ample use of fiddle and harmonica, helps to instill a rustic air amidst the roaring report of tommy guns and screeching tires.
An online review of this film criticized the inconsistency in Milius’ depiction of his criminals: are they meant to be mythic figures, deranged psychos, or people with whom we can sympathize? The answer, at least for me, is that they are meant to be all of these things, thus our conflicted and complicated feelings regarding them. We’re drawn to their larger-than-life exploits (at times almost to the point of ghoulishness Milius argues, as seen when one female onlooker dabs a handkerchief in a blood spatter upon the Biograph’s back wall), but the trail of bullet-riddled bodies becomes hard for us to ignore, and though DILLINGER isn’t an especially violent film, it frames its violence in such a way that we can’t easily forget it; whether law man or criminal, each felled shooter dies hard, painfully, looks of fear etched into sweaty faces. It’s why the scene of Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly) getting a semi-formal death by firing squad manages to be an emotionally poignant one. Floyd has accepted his fate, knowing he’s had a long run, and utters no ill will even as his head is cradled by his executioner, Purvis. Here Milius manages to bring a small sense of nobility to an ignoble life, so that even though we might see Floyd, Dillinger, and their like as having the same desires as us all, we can still agree that they all probably deserve what’s coming to them.
Viewed on Arrow Video’s Blu-Ray.