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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!
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 Investigation.
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, Dillinger rates:
Supplements: Commentary with John Milius
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 16, 2005