The bullet-ridden, bloodied bodies that lay lifelessly at the end of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) marked a bold new era for mainstream American cinema. By the time John Milius’ Dillinger lands six years later, so many shots fire and wounds open that Milius seems dedicated to numbing his audiences to the violence on display. Granted, we as the modern audience have now seen far worse on our screens than what occurs here. These days the controversy of films like Natural Born Killers (1994) feel like centuries ago. Heck, even despite the bemoaning of current era PG-13 blockbusters, a decent amount of volatile aggression lies in many of them. But with Dillinger, there is just so much violent behaviour. One could swear that every scene starts or ends with a gunfight.
Not that the self-proclaimed “Zen anarchist” gives a flying sex act. Milius’ persona and body of work are fascinated by violence and gunplay. Considering the previously mentioned blockbusters it is difficult to see when audiences will see a film like Dillinger, made by a man like Milius any time soon. The first answer is nearly always Tarantino, yet if the director’s retirement talk is to be believed, then any other answer feels fuzzy.
The infamous Robber John Dillinger has appeared on the silver screen a few times. The most recent being Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009): a more romanticised version of The Great Depression-era criminal. Public Enemies is infatuated with combining digital video, period detail and pensive stares. It is also still really entertaining. The best way of describing the 1973 interpretation of the character? Hell in a handbasket. A film that, like its director, gleefully throws caution into the wind. Public Enemies wants to earn the antihero vibe, having pretty boy Johnny Depp gaze wistfully into the midwestern middle distance. Dillinger starts with confrontation. With no desire to be handsome. Amusingly, Mann briefly appears on the 2013 Milius documentary of the same name, mentioning that Milius’ entry into the ailing film studios was a radical change and something you do to get out of a slump. He ain’t wrong.
Let’s take a small look at the film’s introduction. Landing us right amid The Great Depression, the film opens plainly behind a bank teller’s desk. A snooty older lady is in the centre of the frame. She proceeds to make a withdrawal. Her rudeness to the unseen teller already places a viewer at odds. Milius positions the camera in a way that feels as if her passive-aggressive ramblings are addressing us. A figure stands behind her. She moves along after exchanging less than pleasantries with the softly smiling, confident man behind her – Dillinger (Warren Oates). He addresses the teller. Far more pleasant. It almost feels like the film is breaking the fourth wall. Then he robs the bank. The demeanour changes, but the confidence remains. “This is gonna be one of the big moments of your life. Don’t make it your last.” Warren Oates snarls the line directly to the audience in full close-up. The film is as combative as the filmmaker. They were born to cause conflict.
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Warren Oates has more going for him in this role than a striking resemblance to the real-life gangster. Oates plays the character on the edge of charming and sadistic. The viciousness from Oates separates his portrayal from the likes of Depp. Lines of dialogue are spat out as savagely as the multitude of bone-breaking bullets that rattle out of the various Tommy guns. His half-smile is as wicked as old scratch himself and the feeling that the man will snap at any minute always feels apparent. And snap he does. Thirteen minutes into this movie, he beats his future girlfriend, Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips). This type of aggression Milius loads into the film by the barrelful. He also injects the film with fragile despair. Something that strangely feels less significant in the likes of Bonnie and Clyde.
“Decent folk don’t live that good!” utters Big Jim Wollard (Read Morgan) as he watches Dillinger having a jovial time in Mexico. A killer line. It rolls off the tongue as so much of the Milius written dialogue does, but it also suggests a sinister notion about law-abiding folk. Are only the wicked allowed to thrive? The question seems compounded often. Sometimes it’s the thieves themselves. “I’m already a murderer, I might as well be famous!” yells gang member Reed Youngblood, in a small moment that feels still all too relevant to today. Other times it’s via the members of the public who watch Dillinger’s gang rile through their poverty-stricken towns. Purvis tries to win over a dusty faced child to the side of the law. The child converses with him, unimpressed with the G-men and wishes to be more like Dillinger when he grows up. Why hit the books and be destitute when you can rob banks and dine well? Milius’ film marks the desperation of the times throughout. Possibly more so than Authur Penn’s trailblazer.
The despair even comes through in the look of the film. Milius’ film is a medley of hazy, muted tones over Bonnie and Clyde’s bolder Technicolor. The film’s sand dry look, along with the wide-open landscape shots, and multiple gunfights give it a feel more akin to the wild west than a more typical “gangster” feature. The addition of multiple newsreels and stock footage gives the impression that Dillinger truly wishes to be the defining film on the man.
Whether or not the film is the last word on the “Gangster’s Gangster” is a question best left to the historians and those who have seen the plateful of Dillinger’s features. However, Milius’ version of Dillinger is one of cynical brutality and all-encompassing nihilism. This is an enjoyable film, in which no one within it is having any fun. There is a tiny but telling scene in which Purvis spies Dillinger and Billie dining in the same fancy restaurant by chance. He buys them champagne as tribute. Much to Dillinger’s offence. There’s little honour between the two. Dillinger is showing off his ill-gotten gains. Purvis quickly highlights Dillinger’s final destination. The scene crackles electric with tension. It’s hell for both of these people. Great for us to watch.
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There’s not a ton of extras on this Arrow Video disc, which is a slight disappointment. One wonders if there was difficulty getting hold of John Milius in any shape or form. We get a bunch of small interviews with cinematographer Jules Brenner, who amusingly reminisces on Milius as “a little flirtatious” and that he was far more interested in the script and character over the visual. An interview with producer Lawrence Gordon highlights Milius as “a handful” but seems truly happy with what Milius did with the picture despite not being paid his usual fee. Musician Barry De Vorzon rounds up the interviews with another talking head about the film’s music. The interesting thing about both Brenner and De Vorzon is they both mention how they did their best to utilise both light and music as in screen or “source”. The extras are rounded off with a commentary by Stephen Prince, an image gallery, music and effects track and trailers. If one is looking to seek out more about Milius, then the 2013 documentary of the man is a perfect companion piece to the man’s directional debut.
Dillinger is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.