Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Substantial Penalty for Early Withdrawal: "Dillinger" (1973)

Warren Oates walks like bank robber John Dillinger, he talks like Dillinger, he shoots like Dillinger, and he is one of the best things about "Dillinger."

John Milius wrote and directed this 1973 action packed biopic about the infamous bank robber. It acknowledges Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" a couple of times, but Milius' script is not as good as the eyewow he shows us.

The story may be familiar, it has been told on dozens of true crime documentaries on the History Channel. John Dillinger and his gang terrorized the Midwest with violent bank robberies. He was captured in Arizona, brought back to Indiana, and escaped from jail using a bar of soap carved into the shape of a gun and blackened with shoe polish. Hot on his trail was the FBI's Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), who made it his own personal vendetta to kill all of these criminals, smoking cigars over their dead bodies. The gang have their own loving bad girls to hunker down with, and Dillinger had Billie (Michelle Phillips), a prostitute with Native American and French ancestry. Dillinger was killed outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago while seen with the infamous lady in red, Anna Sage (Cloris Leachman).

While "Bonnie and Clyde" was a historic entry in the crime film genre, I thought the film makers in that situation glorified the duo a little too often. "Dillinger" does the opposite, making the bank robber as mean as we imagine he was. Milius' efforts to portray Dillinger as a villain backfire, since we see him in the couple of years before his death, never finding out how he got in to crime in the first place. His family is briefly shown, but nothing comes from the scene. Milius throws us into Dillinger's exploits immediately, but without any background, there is not sympathy, empathy, and eventually interest involved with the man. The beginning of the film is an exercise in choppy editing and stiff scenes until we get to the actions sequences. It makes me wonder what was left on the cutting room floor.

Ben Johnson plays a great Melvin Purvis, a wonderful character name if I didn't know the person existed in real life. While he should be our hero, Purvis is shown to be just as violent as Dillinger. Milius plays with us, with Purvis showing no mercy for some criminals, yet sparing others, without any kind of explanation. We know Purvis as well as we know Dillinger.

What does Milius leave us with? Incredible shootout sequences. There is a giant gun battle at a house that takes forever and is worth every minute of film. The film is violent and does not flinch when it comes to showing the death and destruction done by both sides of the law. Milius' direction is good, and his fuzzy Depression era vistas are pretty to look at. The cinematography is great, as is the set design and costuming.

The rest of the supporting cast is fine, and full of some recognizable names. Michelle Phillips is okay as Billie, although this moll type part is old hat. Harry Dean Stanton is funny as gang member Homer, his final scene is one of the best in the film. Cloris Leachman, then a recent Oscar winner, has just two scenes as Anna, I would have liked to see more. Oates is simply the best Dillinger ever portrayed on film. Tons of character actors populate the rest of the cast: Geoffrey Lewis, John P. Ryan, Steve Kanaly, Frank McRae, Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson, all good.

With "Dillinger," you get a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have incredibly violent shootouts that took many lives. On the other hand, you have no reason to care about these characters or their internal motivations. Maybe we know how Purvis felt about Dillinger after all. (* * *) out of five stars.