Director: John Milius
Screenplay: John Milius
Starring: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Michelle Phillips, Cloris Leachman, Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, John P. Ryan, Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Kanaly
Running Time: 107 mins
BBFC Certificate: 18
American International Pictures (AIP) were best known for their low budget B-movies, mainly produced (and sometimes directed) by Roger Corman and Alex Gordon during the company’s existence from the mid-50s to the end of the 70s. The genre cheapies they made launched the careers of many now respected and well-known filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma.
In 1973, AIP decided to splash out a bit (by their usual tight-fisted standards) and make a period gangster movie to attempt to replicate the success of Bonnie and Clyde. Executive producer Lawrence Gordon had been sent a script for Dillinger, a biopic of the famous gangster, and wasn’t impressed by the screenplay itself but liked the idea. So, he approached John Milius, who was making a name for himself as a screenwriter. Gordon knew Milius was itching to direct, so told him he could make his feature debut with Dillinger if he would agree to rewrite the script.
Milius was happy with this agreement and the film was released in the middle of 1973. It performed fairly well at the box office, kickstarting Milius’ career as a director.
Dillinger was one of the films Arrow released on Blu-ray exclusively in the US back in 2016, when they were first dabbling in that market. That same disc is now finally being released in the UK. Being keen to watch it for a while, I jumped at the chance of reviewing the region B disc.
The film is set in Depression-era America, a time and place where crime was rife and outlaws were becoming celebrities. One of the most well-known bank robbers back then was John Dillinger. Warren Oates, who was a dead ringer for the man, plays him here and we follow the criminal’s exploits alongside the efforts of ‘G-man’ Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) to stop him.
Along the way, we see the developing relationship between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips), a young woman the outlaw takes a shine to in a bar one night.
Dillinger isn’t quite the revelation that Bonnie and Clyde was six years years prior but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless. Leaning more towards the no-nonsense shoot-em-up stylings of the gangster flicks of old, it works particularly well as an action movie. Milius has always been known for his macho stylings (he made Conan the Barbarian for starters) and he directs the bank robberies and shoot-outs with great flair and energy. The squib budget must have been high as there’s a lot of blood spilt on-screen.
The era is well realised too, particularly in exteriors. DOP Jules Brenner does a wonderful job, working with Milius to capture some attractively composed images, often using available light to create a natural but romantically nostalgic look. This is matched by some very effective production design, that belies the relatively low budget.
The human drama is a little less effective. I took particular issue with the central romance. The first scenes between Dillinger and Billie see him basically abduct her and soon after physically abuse her. A couple of scenes later she seems totally in love with him. It’s a shaky and problematic transition that’s further soured by historical reports described in the disc’s commentary that in real-life Dillinger always treated Billie very well. You therefore have to question why Milius felt the need to include such disturbing behaviour against Billie in the film.
Michelle Phillips does a decent job of her poorly written part though. She was best known as a member of the Mamas and the Papas at the time and this was only her second role after a small part in The Last Movie. She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer for her performance in Dillinger and it led to a long career as an actress, largely on TV.
Most of the rest of the performers are strong too. Oates is perfectly cast as the lead, charismatic but tough, and Johnson plays it enjoyably large as his nemesis. The ever-reliable Harry Dean Stanton gets a reasonably decent role too and Cloris Leachman appears later in a small but important part. A young, pre-Jaws Richard Dreyfuss over-eggs his take on Baby Face Nelson but it’s still fun to see him going for it at this early stage in his career.
Overall, this cartoonish gangster movie might not be as groundbreaking or thematically rich as some of the films that inspired it, but it’s a lot of fun. Handsomely mounted, well-performed and loaded with action, it’s a first-class B-movie.
Dillinger is out on 3rd January on Blu-ray, released by Arrow Video. I never saw the original American disc but the transfer description and included special features suggest it’s exactly the same. It’s not one of Arrow’s finest looking transfers, with occasionally problematic heavy grain, as well as some mild fluctuation of colour and contrast. It can look a bit faded at times too and I spotted a couple of instances of lines on the screen but, generally, the film looks pretty good with a natural feel and reasonable detail. I’ve used screengrabs in this review to give you an idea. I found the audio slightly muddy in places, but this might be down to the original recording and style.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
– 2K restoration of the film from original film materials
– High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
– Original uncompressed PCM mono audio
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Audio commentary by Stephen Prince, author of Savage Cinema and Screening Violence
– Shooting Dillinger, an interview with director of photography Jules Brenner
– Original Gangster, an interview with producer Lawrence Gordon
– Ballads and Bullets, an interview with composer Barry De Vorzon
– Still gallery
– Theatrical trailer
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips
Stephen Prince’s commentary compares the film with the real story of Dillinger, as well as discussing Millius’ directorial and writing styles, making for a fascinating listen.
The Barry De Vorzon interview is decent too. He tells of his background and relationship with Milius. He’s honest about his strengths and weaknesses too.
The Larry Gordon interview, like the De Vorzon one, is short but enjoyable and particularly affectionate towards Milius.
The Jules Brenner interview is also well worth a watch. He discusses his techniques used in the film, which are interesting to hear about, and he also has a few fun anecdotes to share, including the fact that he played a small role in the film.
I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.
It’s a decent release then, of an enjoyable gangster romp. Well worth a look.