Including serious crime films such as “The Godfather” in 1972 and groundbreaking-but-they-didn’t-admit-it-then fare such as Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” from the year before, the early to mid-1970s saw an explosion in cinema that embraced violence. “Dillinger” from 1973 has the “action,” thin plot and continues many legends about the celebrated bank robber to make it memorable. Well, close.
(1973; rated R; 107 minutes; directed by John Milius and starring Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Michelle Phillips)
’70s VIOLENCE AND A WINNING SUPPORTING CAST
(NOTE: I expanded this review on Oct. 5, 2014)
“Dillinger” was another in a line of films that keeps someone who should just have been labeled a lowlife killer into the stratosphere of popular culture two generations after his death. John Dillinger became the man of the hour for newspapers and newsreels in the 1930s before being gunned down as celebrated federal agent Melvin Purvis closed in on him at the Biograph Theater in Chicago in 1934.
Like most films, this one has inaccuracies galore, but is very watchable especially because of Oates’ portrayal of Dillinger. “Dillinger” is pretty much a poor man’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” the seminal film about those celebrated bank robbers that won a pair of Oscars and was nominated for eight more (including for all acting, the director and best film). “Dillinger” didn’t win any Oscars or even nominated, but its thin veneer never put it in competition anyway.
“Dillinger” is a romanticized account of the crook’s criminal life with a straightforward plot that doesn’t need much explanation, so I’ll run through it by the work by the actors.
Oates breezes through this lightweight effort and is very effective as the bank robber. He was a favorite of legendary filmmaker Sam Peckinpah and offers a delightfully diverse career with turns such as Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” the comedy classic “Stripes” and back with Peckinpah for “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” Oates’ rough-and-tumble exterior was perfect for all of these. He was prolific, too, with a total of five film credits in 1973 alone and 124 in his career spanning four decades before he died at the age of 53 in 1982 of a heart attack.
Ben Johnson portrays the hard-nosed Purvis and plays his part to perfection. He’s all business with one focus: reel in wanted bank robbers, especially Dillinger. Johnson can be quite oily as he tries to get information but he’s got a very rigid core. It’s a type of role he reveled in from “The Getaway” with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw the year before and Steven Spielberg’s “The Sugarland Express” with Goldie Hawn the next year. Johnson was also in “The Wild Bunch” as well as a minor horror cult classic: “Terror Train” with scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis.
However, the real fun of “Dillinger” is its supporting cast. Let me run through some of them:
- Richard Dreyfuss, who has a short stint (no pun intended for the 5-foot-5 actor) as “Baby Face Nelson.” Dreyfuss just oozes energy in his limited screen time and you can easily see him looking for any excuse to burst out in this tiny role. Dreyfuss has also been in “The Goodbye Girl” and classics such as “American Graffiti” and “Jaws.”
- Oscar winner (not for this one) Cloris Leachman does a good job with her accent as “Anna Sage,” the infamous “Lady in Red” who betrays Dillinger. Leachman, most recognized from TV’s “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” has also been in “Young Frankenstein” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
- Michelle “Mamas and the Papas” Phillips is “Billie Frenchette” and is Oates’ girlfriend here. It’s not a very big part, but she’s the moth that ultimately draws him to the flame of his death. She has also been in “Forrest Gump” and a string of TV roles.
- Veteran supporting actor Harry Dean Stanton plays gang member “Homer Van Meter” and he, too, shows his considerable talent in this basically unremarkable film. Stanton was also in “Pretty in Pink” as well as “Kelly’s Heroes” (click here for my review).
- Geoffrey Lewis also does good work as one of the gang members and he has been in several Clint Eastwood flicks including “Every Which Way But Loose” as well as a string of TV roles and the really excellent TV movie “Salem’s Lot” about vampires.
- Steve Kanaly, who would soon be the supporting cast star on TV’s megahit “Dallas,” plays the affable and considerate “Pretty Boy Floyd.” You could probably dismiss his character’s murderous ways if you just judged him by Kanaly’s effort here. He was also in “The Sugarland Express” as well as a number of TV episodes.
- Frank McRae plays “Reed Youngblood” and is the only bit of diversity to this film. McRae has also been in “48 Hrs.” and “Rocky II.” He was especially funny in “Used Cars” with Kurt Russell (click here for my review).
It would have been nice to see a bit more time devoted to the scene where Johnson and Leachman talk as she betrays the notorious Dillinger, but deep characterizations will never be cited as a bright spot in this offering.
As happens many times with the supporting cast, Stanton has the signature line of the film: “Things ain’t workin’ out for me today!”
“Dillinger” is rated R for violence less than a PG-13 film today; for cursing less than a VH1 production today; and, by golly, they smoke and drink (but don’t take drugs since only big-city musicians did at the time). Yawn on the rating.
Additional cast notes (via IMDb.com and history from the Wiki listing about Dillinger):
- With this cast, you’ve got several who did work on episodes of “The Love Boat” (this is actually praise, not a criticism, since I enjoy the show). Here are the actors from the primary cast who appeared in episodes: Phillips (5), Leachman (3) and Kanaly (3).
- Dillinger loved the Chicago Cubs and while hiding out in June and July of 1934 attended games at Wrigley Field.
- Dillinger was shot six times in the back by three different agents (he did not draw his gun as the film depicts) but later the same Wiki story says that he was hit four times.
- Finally, from com: “The real Biograph Theater in Chicago, where John Dillinger was killed, was one of the longest-serving movie theaters in America. Built in 1914, it finally stopped showing movies in July 2004, when it was closed for renovation to a stage theater.”
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