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December 6, 2016

Movie Review: Dillinger (1973)

Directed by John Milius

Review by Greg Goodsell

Every bit as ruthless as the mobsters he swears he will kill in order to smoke cigars over their still warm corpses, Edgar G. Hoover right-hand man Melvin Purvis (Ben Jonson) sets his sights on bank robber John Dillinger (Warren Oates). Dillinger and his gangster cohorts Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly). These hoodlums pose a massive threat to the security of Depression Era America in many several ways, Purvis notes in his ponderous narration. These criminals provide escapist copy for the garish tabloids, Purvis says, perhaps inspiring the poor-but-honest to leave their lives of quiet desperation to begin their own lives of crime. He vows to make sure that Dillinger and clan, after a shootout costing the lives of six government men, die in the most sordid and least romantic ways possible – fueling a cross-country manhunt with few survivors.

As others have pointed out, Dillinger could have been entitled Purvis and had been no more off the mark. As played by venerable character actor Johnson, never better, the ostensible “good guy” wants to wipe away the bad guys on the physical plane and more importantly, from the nation’s newspaper and radio waves. In a scene that capably illustrates this struggle of the hearts and minds of the impoverished American public, Purvis tries to impress on a young boy that he’s out to rid the land of bad men – while the young tyke admit that all he really wants to do is grow up to be a bank robber. Those who say that criminals were glamorized with the advent of television or recent social media platforms are again, proven wrong. Oates, in the role of the lifetime, frequently breaks the “fourth wall” to address his victims that his robbery will provide stories to be passed along to their children and grandchildren.

Dillinger is a significant film in the history of American International Pictures. Tiring of making low-budget exploitation films that delivered loads of violence, AIP took a gamble with this film – hiring on acclaimed scriptwriter John Milius to direct, and hiring a topline cast including the likes of Harry Dean Stanton and Cloris Leachman and its most expensive budget to date, a little over $1 million. Dillinger in effect became a historical period piece on important themes, i.e , crime does not pay – while delivering loads of violence. Make no mistake, Dillinger has many scenes of lyrical, photographic beauty courtesy cinematographer Jules Brenner but even this hardened reviewer was taken aback by all the graphic shootouts and scenes of casual brutality. Dillinger engages the mind but definitely tosses quite a few bullet-ridden bodies to the grindhouse groundlings in the process. As the filmmakers point out on the extras in this Arrow Video Blu-Ray point out, Dillinger should not be approached as being historically accurate – but a good time is guaranteed for all.

Arrow Video continues in their long line of excellent releases with this packed-to-the-rafters Blu-Ray. There is an audio commentary by Stephen Prince; a 12-minute interview with cinematographer Brenner, “Shooting Dillinger.” There is a 10-minute interview with AIP executive, “Lawrence Gordon: Original Gangster.” There is also an interview with musical composer Barry De Vorzon, “Ballads and Bullets,” in which the longtime film scorer talks about melding period music with the expected orchestral score. To this end, there is an isolated music and effects score, a stills gallery and the film’s theatrical trailer.

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