THE FILM 4/5
“I know I ain’t gonna live forever, but I’d be a fool not to try.”
The runaway success of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 proved massively influential: it made stars of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beauty, introduced a new form of violence to the movies, and inspired a stream of imitators, including Bloody Mama, Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha and the directorial debut of John Milius, Dillinger. Milius presents John Dillinger as an almost mythical figure, tracing the rise and fall of the Depression era’s Public Enemy Number One as he takes on the banks and the G-men, led by the infamous Melvin Purvis. Starring Sam Peckinpah favorites Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as Dillinger and Purvis, and with a supporting cast including Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Dreyfuss and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, Dillinger is a top drawer gangster picture: explosive, stylish and hugely entertaining.
In 2009, Michael Mann had hoped to tell the definitive story of the most famous bank robber perhaps ever—Public Enemies. With Johnny Depp as the John Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his love, and Christian Bale as “G-Man” Melvin Purvis, the potential was there for not just another solid crime thriller from the director of Heat and Collateral, but for a new classic to stand alongside the great period crime films like The Untouchables, Road to Perdition, and more. Unfortunately, Public Enemies proved to be, er…the nice way of putting it would be an underwhelming disappointment, when taking into account the pedigree involved in bringing it to the screen. It’s hard to gauge how much of Public Enemies’ audience was aware that the story of the John Dillinger Gang had already been told nearly forty years prior, written and directed by John Millius. It’s also hard to gauge how many people realize just how much better Dillinger is. The film opens with a sequence which sees this version of John Dillinger, played by Warren Oates, ordering a bank teller to make with the cash, even though he’s at this moment breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience. “Nobody get nervous, you ain’t got nothing to fear,” he tells us. “You’re being robbed by the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is!” This opening scene alone is better than the best parts of Public Enemies.
Back-to-back viewings of Dillinger and Public Enemies will tell a pretty similar story, though in different ways, and utilizing a different timeline of events. Like Public Enemies, however, Dillinger presents its title “character” as a charming, lively, no-nonsense bank robber more interested in stealing from the federal government than from the pockets of the individual. Oates’ take on Dillinger might be a bit more true to life, presenting him as someone who takes what he wants—including women—by force. The start of the union between himself and Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips) ain’t exactly romantic, as its more akin to a kidnapping, and the black eye she later sports is dismissed as a “marital disagreement,” The usual suspects are there: Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton), Harry Pierpont (Geoffrey Lewis), Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly), Baby Face Nelson (an irascible Richard Dreyfuss), with Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) pursuing them all.
Dillinger unfolds in a docudrama fashion similar to Roger Corman’s period Chicago gangster flick The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, relying on voice-over to provide fact-based narration that propels the narrative forward (supplied by Ben Johnson’s Purvis). Being that more time is spent with the gang than with the FBI agents hunting them down (very little time is spent on investigatory techniques; mostly these confrontational scenes begin with the agents already at the scene), it’s easy to determine that Millius was infatuated with these criminals and less so with “the law.” Ben Johnson certainly offers a gruff performance as Purvis—one punctuated with glee each time he takes the life of a criminal and lights a cigar in celebration. In fact, one of his final scenes has him promising the woman who ultimately gives up Dillinger’s location that “no harm” will come to him, with Pruvis stating he wants to take him in peacefully. Whether this is something the real Purvis had promised and subsequently defaulted on, or was a cinematic creation to heighten Millius’ seeming skewering of the FBI of that time period, that moment pushes Johnson’s Purvis from a relentless law agent to an Ahab-like figure pursuing a personal vendetta. (Historically, Purvis does not fire the fatal shot.) (Also, interesting, two historical accounts slightly differ in Dillinger’s final moments—some claim he realized the agents were there and attempted to pull a gun from his coat pocket; another claims he did successfully retrieve his gun and ran into a dark alley, intent on shooting his way out of the situation. Both Dillinger and Public Enemies have him being shot down in the street with no attempts to take him alive. This, likely, leans closer to history than what “history” claims.)
Dillinger’s post-Little Bohemia shootout finale takes a bit more time to draw to a conclusion, as we see each of the Dillinger Gang’s surviving members disperse and attempt to elude authorities, and it slows the film’s pace somewhat, but the before mentioned theater assassination punctuates the film and allows it to end on a somewhat somber (and violent) note. (The whole film, in fact, boasts much more violence than Public Enemies—with no cheap CGI blood to offend the eye.)
THE PICTURE 4/5
Arrow Video presents a 2K transfer struck from original film materials. The 2K mostly impresses, but offers some inconsistency with its overall appearance. Grain prominence fluctuates from scene to scene (which is fairly normal for films of this era), but thankfully never becomes overwhelming. However, in certain scenes, it’s gone altogether. Certain scenes–like when Dillinger and Billie meet at the bar he then “robs”—look very very good. Colors hew toward sepia, likely in an attempt to embody the time period. There were no instances of print damage, marring, cigarette burns, etc. Dillinger was a somewhat low budget production, and Millius an untested but still competent director, and this new transfer mostly represents that.
THE SOUND 4/5
No issues with this audio at all, except for those that reflect the original audio presentation. Dialogue never suffers, and in fact receives some pretty stable prominence. Every so often a line will peak and sound unnaturally loud, but otherwise no issues. The musical score by Barry Devorzon sounds fine and marries well into the audio environment.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 4/5
The commentary by film historian and author Stephen Prince is absolutely exhaustive, and with him reading from prepared materials, sounds more like a college lecture than a casual film discussion. Still, the information on hand is pretty valuable, especially when he calls out certain scenes during which Millius is paying homage to the films that inspired him—most of them westerns.
The interviews with producer Lawrence Gordon and director of photography Jules Brenner also provide some good background. Gorodon talks somewhat of American International Picture’s beginnings and working with legendary producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, and of how Dillinger was AIP’s first “prestige” film. Brenner talks about how he became a DP, his reverence for actors, and working with Millius, whose idolization of the John Dillinger Gang was pretty apparent during production.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
— Brand new 2K restoration of the film from original film materials
— Audio commentary by Stephen Prince, author of Savage Cinema and Screening Violence
— Newly-filmed interview with producer Lawrence Gordon
— Newly-filmed interview with director of photography Jules Brenner
— Newly-filmed interview with composer Barry De Vorzon
— Stills gallery
— Theatrical trailer
— Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips
— Collector’s booklet containing new writing by Kim Newman on fictional portrayals of John Dillinger, plus an on-set report containing interviews with writer-director John Milius and others, illustrated with original production stills
DISTRIBUTOR: Arrow Video
THEATRICAL DATE: July 20, 1973
VIDEO STREET DATE: April 26, 2016
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC; 1080p; 1.85:1
AUDIO: English: LPCM Mono
SUBTITLES: English SDH
RUN TIME: 107 mins
DVD COPY: Included
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: N/A
The John Dillinger Gang story has been told numerous times already, and it’s safe to assume Public Enemies won’t be the final word on the subject, all the Depps and Bales notwithstanding. Dillinger, however and so far, is the best attempt. Historical inaccuracies and somewhat broad character archetypes aside, it’s a captivating, violent, well-made, and mostly accurate account on the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is.
(Thanks to Body Count Rising for the screen grabs.)
Arrow Films, an all-rights multi-platform distributor of feature films and TV series who specialize in releasing some of the best content from around the world to UK customers and beyond, are now providing domestic releases in North America through MVD Entertainment. Arrow’s global reputation as one of the finest labels in the world has come about through consistent high quality product and a focus on fan-based products always at its core.