Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Legendary wheeler-dealer screenwriter and producer Philip Yordan got his start with this patchwork gangster saga, the first since the advent of the Production Code to defy the unofficial ban on movies glamorizing real criminals. Independent producers Maurice and Franklin King made a bundle on this wildly overachieving Monogram release; it barely hangs together as a narrative yet was nominated for the Best Screenplay of 1945!
At a 'crime does not pay' theatrical presentation, Pa Dillinger (Victor Kilian) relates the tale of his son John (Lawrence Tierney), a hick who learned the ins and outs of robbery in the State Pen. His teachers were the veteran criminals Specs Green (Edmund Lowe), Marco Minelli (Eduardo Cianelli), Doc Madison (Marc Lawrence) and Kirk Otto (Elisha Cook Jr.). Springing them from jail, Dillinger helps the gang cut a swath of holdups through several states. Dillinger is captured in a dentist's office but uses a carved wooden gun to break out again, and brings his girlfriend Helen Rogers (Anne Jeffreys) along on his robbery spree.
Philip Yordan talked his way into this screenwriting job, and reportedly also insisted that the
almost unknown actor Lawrence Tierney play the title role. Ever since 1935's G-Men
(which recounted much Dillinger lore), J. Edgar Hoover successfully lobbied that crime
films should praise only lawmen. There were a few films made about mythical gangsters but the
major studios stayed clear of the ripe opportunities in such authentic names as Pretty Boy
Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly. The poverty row Monogram studio was technically not part of the
agreement and Yordan and the King Brothers saw no impediment to using gangland's biggest name
as a box office attraction.
The actual heyday of the rural bandit gangsters lasted scarcely two or three years. Celebrity
rebels Floyd, Ma Barker, Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson were always on the run from state and
federal law agencies that operated under few legal restrictions. If anything, J. Edgar Hoover
used the bandits as PR to build support for and increase the power of his Federal Bureau of
As explained by disc commentator John Milius, Dillinger includes a few facts from
the robber's life but doesn't even try for accuracy in either incident or atmosphere. Dillinger
and his cronies were mostly mid-western hicks but they act and dress just like the generic
characters in other poverty row movies, with little regard for period accuracy. Character
development is almost non-existent. Sixth-billed Lawrence Tierney scores as the handsome
and brutal lead but is no better defined than the rest of the players. Anne Jeffreys' movie
theater cashier is woefully underwritten, and the other gang members are just a selection
of well-chosen faces. Elisha Cook Jr. is forever eating grapes, a foible that doesn't pay off.
Edmund Lowe's sneaky Mr. Big is also denied a satisfying resolution.
In terms of storytelling, Dillinger is borderline incompetent. An ill-explained stage
show starts a flashback story that is never resolved - the screen never returns to Dillinger's
dad finishing his tale. Other story elements are equally weak, but the most obvious
visual crutch is the film's overuse of stock footage. The tiny key cast enacts the core
drama in dull sets, with almost all of the police involvement and shoot-'em-up action
represented by roadblocks and squad cars recycled from older films. A big chunk of the
borrowed footage comes from the 1937 Fritz Lang film
You Only Live Once. Most
of an entire scene, a tear gas robbery of an armored truck, is lifted almost intact. The
editors even have the audacity to include Lang's camera move to Henry Fonda's eyes peering
out the back of a getaway car, and pass them off as Lawrence Tierney's.
Knowing that memories of the real Dillinger were only eleven years old, Yordan includes
sketchy references to major episodes in Tucson and Little Bohemia while leaving out crowd
scenes or shoot-outs that might tax the budget. Most violence happens off screen or at
least out of the frame. Dillinger shoots an old couple in cold blood and murders an unlucky
waiter (Lou Lubin of The Seventh Victim) with a broken beer mug, a shocking scene for
1945. The famous Chicago rub-out finale at the Biograph theater is vivid but rushed, perhaps
to convince the Code officials that Dillinger wasn't being glamorized.
Warners' DVD of Dillinger is part of their Film Noir Two boxed set, following up
on the surprise success of the first collection last summer. Since it is really a gangster
story and not a film noir, it's not the best choice for inclusion. The transfer is
excellent, and the movie is in good shape except for a second or two in a stock footage
robbery scene where the image jumps rather erratically. Dimitri Tiomkin's patchwork score
leads with a strong title theme.
Besides a trailer, the main extra is a commentary from John Milius, writer-director of
American-International's interesting 1973 Dillinger movie. Milius talks about the real
history of the Dillinger case but knows very little about the writer Phillip Yordan's
version, not even info like the You Only Live Once connection that usually gets
mentioned even in cursory overviews. He keeps asking what movie the stock footage comes
from. A lot of his comments are just uninformed and thoughtless. Milius laughs that a bank
robbery stock shot is from some prison movie, when a closer look reveals that the scene in
question is clearly the inside of a bank. The only actor he mentions besides Tierney is
Elisha Cook Jr.. Milius sets up a handful of recorded comments from Yordan, who speaks a bit
about his relationship with the King Brothers and Lawrence Tierney, and offers just a few
words about the blacklist. The prolific Yordan was a regular script factory in the 1950s,
fronting for some writers and farming out scripts that ended up with his name on them,
although written by others. Blacklist researchers are just now getting to the bottom of some
of the stories behind Yordan's many credits.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Commentary with John Milius
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 16, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson