During the Great Depression, when bank robbers were regarded as rock stars, John Dillinger was Mick Jagger. Portrayed by some of the popular press as a Robin Hood, Dillinger was a failed machinist who was kicked out of the Navy and turned to crime. By accounts of the day, he held up about 20 banks and four police stations, twice escaped from jail and murdered more than a dozen people.
It all ended on July 22, 1934, when Dillinger was caught leaving a Chicago movie theater and shot three times by federal agents. One bullet passed from the back of his neck through his left eye, killing him instantly.
The death scene, the autopsy and the aftermath became a circus. To this day, there are urban legends regarding everything from speculation that the real Dillinger actually escaped the G-men’s trap to the size of his sexual organ.
It’s all great grist for a movie—well, maybe not the sex organ part. And the story has been told by Hollywood at least eight times, starting with 1945’s Dillinger, starring Lawrence Tierney in the lead (you probably know Tierney as a much older man, plotting the heist in Reservoir Dogs). The roster of actors who’ve portrayed “The Jackrabbit Gangster” includes Mark Harmon, Robert Conrad and Martin Sheen. The most recent attempt was made by Johnny Depp in 2009’s Public Enemies, a film you will not find listed in our Top 100. More about that coming up.
The best job, for our money, was turned in by Warren Oates (a veteran character actor best known for Westerns) in 1973’s Dillinger, a low-budget shoot-’em-up inspired by the success of Bonnie and Clyde. The movie focuses on the last year of Dillinger’s life, opening with a daring Indiana bank robbery (“I’d like to withdraw my entire account,” he boasts) and ending with that movie theater ambush by the United States Bureau of Investigation (forerunner to the FBI).
Dillinger is a B-movie and doesn’t attempt to be more than that. There is not a lot of back story, and not much motivation beyond the character’s oft-repeated line of, “I like to steal people’s money.” But the 107-minute string of robberies, escapes and gun fights works because of an excellent cast and because Director John Milius (Red Dawn, Conan the Barbarian) knows how to shoot a violent action film.
It opens with that bank stickup, as Dillinger tells petrified patrons, “Don’t worry folks. These few dollars you lose here today will buy you stories to tell your children and grandchildren. This could be one of the big moments of your life—don’t make it your last.”
This is a criminal who clearly enjoys his work. Over time, he amasses a gang, which includes Baby Face Nelson (a young Richard Dreyfuss, before his breakout role in American Graffiti), Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly). If nothing else, you’ve got to love this band for its nicknames.
He also collects a girlfriend; prostitute Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips, formerly of The Mamas and the Papas), who provides the film with a chance to humanize Dillinger.
The movie gives you a good sense of why crime was so rampant in 1933-34, the worst years of the Depression. For one, the criminals owned better cars and weapons than most police departments, which made escape a snap. And local cops were hindered by jurisdiction limits, which meant that a robber often just had to get across state lines to halt the pursuit.
Enter the Feds. The Inspector Javert to Dillinger’s Jean Valjean is Melvin Purvis, the lawman who became famous for hunting down public enemies. Another topnotch Westerns regular, Ben Johnson, plays Purvis and is so good that you ignore that he’s nearly twice as old as Purvis was at the time of the events.
Purvis is steady and cocksure and downright mean. He has a great ritual in the film (if not in real life) of having an aide pass him a gun and light his cigar right before he enters the fray. You quickly figure that someone’s going to die each time that stogie gets fired up. And you edge up on your seat.
Fine art this isn’t. But Dillinger works because the action is fast-paced and the acting is first-rate. The criminals come across as human beings—ranging from essentially decent folks to sadistic thugs. It’s a fun watch.
Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s big-budget 2009 remake of the story. Despite the casting of Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as Purvis, despite modern special effects and better sets, Mann’s movie comes across as a brooding meditation (and an overly long one at that).
Both films are loaded with historical inaccuracies, but we’ll opt for the low-budget effort that brings a sense of humor and doesn’t try to be too cool for its own good. The 1973 version of Dillinger will give you a sense of the man, his legend and the era that spawned them.
HIT: Warren Oates is ideal for the role, not the least reason being he actually looks like the real John Dillinger (as opposed to, say, Depp). Look up photos of Oates and Dillinger. You’ll be amazed at the resemblance.
MISS: Dillinger plays fast and loose with the facts. We could recite all the discrepancies, but why ruin the fun? Suffice it to say, you should never attempt to write a school paper off this movie.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Speaking of events that never occurred, consider what might be the film’s cleverest moment. Dillinger escorts his girlfriend, Billie, to a Chicago restaurant, where Purvis happens to be dining. Rather than ruin his own evening, Purvis (there with his fiancée) just sends Dillinger a bottle of champagne and his business card. Dillinger accepts the gift and nods back, suggesting the two men are destined to meet again. The scene implies that big-time cops and outlaws had a sense of mutual respect in the 1930s. And, of course, it’s complete fiction.
BEST LINE: Dillinger: “All my life I wanted to be a bank robber. Carry a gun, wear a mask. Now that it’s happened, I guess I’m just about the best bank robber there ever was. And I sure am happy.”
Billie: “Is that what you wanted to be when you were a kid?”
Dillinger: “Yep, my buddies all wanted to be firemen or farmers or policemen or something like that. I just wanted to steal people’s money.”
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The disclaimer read after the closing credits, which was written by J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI chief sent producers a letter of protest during filming in 1972 just weeks before his own death. Although Hoover’s demands for script changes were turned down, Milius agreed to have a narrator voice Hoover’s words of disapproval.
“Dillinger was a rat that the country may consider itself fortunate to be rid of,” Hoover’s statement reads. “And I don’t 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.”
REALITY CHECK: Dillinger was gunned down in July on a day the temperature in Chicago reportedly reached 81 degrees. So why are all the G-men shown wearing winter woolen overcoats as they wait for Dillinger to emerge from the movie theater?
BODY COUNT: Twenty-eight. Fairly evenly divided between robbers and lawmen, with a few innocent victims thrown in.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: High. Flesh splatters and shooting victims show pain (one bad guy literally cries as he dies). In the cruelest moment, a woman crossing the street is run over and dragged as the gang’s getaway car flees a bank robbery.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Against a background of Depression America, where legendary status is bestowed on anyone who can beat the system, Dillinger and his gang rob banks with one eye already on posterity. Milius rightly makes no apology for endorsing the mythic qualities of his characters and setting his film firmly in the roots of American folklore.”—Time Out London
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Milius, who penned the screenplay for Dillinger as well as directing it, left a long legacy in Hollywood as a writer. He thought up the line, “Go ahead, make my day,” for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and also wrote the classic USS Indianapolis monologue in Jaws.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Any number of old-time gangster biopics that didn’t quite make it onto our list. One solid effort is B-movie king Roger Corman’s Machine-Gun Kelly, starring Charles Bronson as the title character. “Without his gun he was naked yellow!” blares the trailer promoting this low-budget thriller.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]