History has a way of righting itself when it comes to the arts. Sometimes it restores clarity and reminds us of the great things out there we had forgotten and sometimes things are going too well so it’ll regurgitate something we tried to forget. But there’s usually some sort of balance.
Occasionally something falls through the cracks.
When Michael Mann’s aggressively mediocre Public Enemies plopped onto cinemas last year I expected to see some comparisons between the film and John Milius’s somewhat superior 1973 John Dillinger action-biopic, Dillinger. I was not so naïve as to think that your average filmgoer was a fan of – or even aware of – the Milius shoot ‘em up classic, but I figured the film would at least get some love from the critic community. Yet I did not read a single Public Enemies review that mentioned Dillinger, or even any related articles about Mann’s film. Further worrisome was my discovery that even among my film-fan friends, most were completely unaware that John Milius had ever made a John Dillinger movie. Something must be done!
With each passing year I worry that Milius is becoming best remembered as one half of the spellbindingly bonkers and amazing Conan the Barbarian DVD commentary, more so than as an actual filmmaker. Milius does fantastic commentaries – a perfect blend of writerly wit, thoughtful insight, and almost comically sincere poetic machismo. These are of course also the attributes that make him a unique and entertaining writer and director.
Much like Public Enemies, Dillinger follows the dual paths of bank-robber John Dillinger (played here by the incomparable Warren Oates) and G-Man hardass Melvin Purvis (fellow The Wild Bunch alum, Ben Johnson). The Mamas & The Papas’ Michelle Phillips makes her first major screen acting debut as Dillinger’s moll, Billie Frechette. Among Dillinger’s gang are character-actor greats Harry Dean Stanton and Geoffrey Lewis, not to mention Richard Dreyfuss as the hotheaded George “Babyface” Nelson, and Cloris Leachman as the Romanian madam who ultimately teams with Purvis to do Dillinger in.
Have you ever wanted to see Warren Oates beat the shit out of Richard Dreyfuss until Dreyfuss starts crying like a little girl? This is the place, my friend.
The film’s qualities are manifold, but none so blatantly apparent as the casting of Warren Oates as John Dillinger. I don’t think it is particularly important that an actor be a dead-on visual match for the historical figure they are playing, but Johnny Depp really didn’t have any of the physical essence of the real Dillinger. Depp is just too pretty. While Dillinger was considered attractive, it was a messier and manlier handsome. He was hard-life handsome. A dangerous handsome. And few actors have better embodied the life of hard-living bad men than Oates. He’s no glossy movie Dillinger. He is Dillinger.
Beyond the casting, Milius makes a lot of interesting choices in his presentation of John Dillinger. Dillinger’s first scene with Frechette reveals some important truths about the character – namely that beneath all the bravado he’s incredibly insecure. Drunk and flirting with Frechette in a bar, Dillinger is trying to play the fame card with her, hoping she’ll recognize him and be impressed. When he flatly asks her if she thinks he looks like anyone, she says Douglas Fairbanks. Pride wounded, Dillinger then pulls out his gun and robs the bar patrons in a tantrum. Then, in a further show of his power to Frechette, he throws the collected stack of dollar bills up into the air as he and Frechette leave, yelling to the crowd “I’m John Dillinger! And I don’t want you ever to forget it!” But of course he’s really saying that to Frechette. Then, when he drags Frechette back to his hotel room, the first thing he does is shave his mustache. Do I look like Fairbanks now? – he is clearly saying.
The characterization of Melvin Purvis is also interesting. Proclaiming at the top of the film – in a signature bit of manly Milius speechifying – that he is going to smoke one cigar from a box of Cubans a recently murdered coworker gave him over the dead body of every public enemy on the Bureau’s list, each big action set piece begins with Purvis getting handed his gun(s) and a lit match to fire up his giant cigar. This is vengeance, and Purvis seems to enjoy killing the criminals as much as they enjoy robbing banks. He gets off on his rivalry with Dillinger. This is best showcased in one of the film’s more memorable scenes: Dillinger brazenly takes Frechette to a fancy dinner club in Chicago (despite being a wanted man there), and is spotted by Purvis, who is eating with his fiancé at his own engagement party. Purvis sends Dillinger a magnum of fancy champagne, along with a note basically stating – You’re lucky I’m here with my fiancé. Next time I see you, I’m killing you. Enjoy the champagne. Enraged, Dillinger grabs Frechette and they leave, while Purvis dances with his fiance (dancing being the very reason Dillinger and Frechette went to the club).
Historically the film plays a little fast and loose with how things actually unfolded for Dillinger’s gang (some people die in the film who really died many years after Dillinger), but for the most part he does not take many liberties with Dillinger himself. Milius even works in a funny little dig on Bonnie and Clyde. When the couple comes up in conversation, Dillinger says “Small timers get into it; ruin it for everybody.”
Like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Dillinger features very unglamorous and jarring violence. The gun battles – of which there are many – never seem sexy or cool. They are chaotic and ugly. Yet the film is also incredibly funny, in particular Harry Dean Stanton’s prolonged and beleaguered attempt to escape capture after the infamous Little Bohemia Lodge gunfight (the only part of Public Enemies I really enjoyed), where he develops the catchphrase, “Things ain’t workin’ out for me today!”
I don’t want to oversell the film. I’m not saying it is a masterpiece. What it is, is a great B-picture, with a fantastic cast, some juicy quotable Milius dialogue, and some dandy action. It is a film deserving to be remembered and enjoyed. In fact, it’s available on Netflix instant watch, so why don’t you enjoy it right now!