Thursday, April 13, 2017

Public Enemy Number One

Film: Dillinger
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There’s something fascinating to me about early crime films. In truth, 1945’s Dillinger doesn’t really qualify as being that early, since it’s right in the heart of the noir era. It’s an interesting Oscar nomination, since it was produced by Monogram, considered one of the better poverty row movie studios, which is sort of like the best looking person at a school for the blind. Like many movies of the era, it’s almost ridiculously short, clocking in at a spare 70 minutes. To its great benefit, though, it packs those 70 minutes with as much as it can, which very much includes a lot that doesn’t really seem to have much to do with the real John Dillinger.

In that respect, Dillinger is more of a spiritual biography of John Dillinger than one based in fact. It would seem that only his name is accurate in terms of the people in his life. Some of the broad sweeps—early imprisonment and learning the craft of crime from other criminals while in prison—seem to be accurate as well, but it would seem that none of the details are the real thing.

We start with newsreel footage and the appearance of Dillinger’s father (Victor Kilian), who tells the movie audience (both onscreen and watching this movie) that John (Lawrence Tierney) seemed like such a normal boy, but he didn’t seem satisfied with life on the family farm. From there, we flash forward to Dillinger heading to Indianapolis. While out on a date, a bartender embarrasses him by not taking his check. Needing money quickly, he robs a grocery store and is immediately captured and sent to prison.

In prison, Dillinger has the fortune to be put in a cell with Specs Green (Edmund Lowe), who is tough and mean, but is also an experienced and intelligent bank robber. Soon enough, John is learning his trade under Specs and the rest of his gang: Marco (Eduardo Ciannelli), Doc (Marc Lawrence), and Kirk Otto (Elisha Cook Jr.). Since Dillinger is in for a much shorter stay, he promises to break them out once he’s sprung.

Free again, he starts his life of crime immediately, holding up a movie theater ticket office being run by Helen Rogers (Anne Jeffreys). Helen points the finger at him, but fails to identify him in one of the funniest police lineups in film history; the other guys look nothing like Dillinger. Soon enough, Helen is John’s moll and John is plotting to get Specs and the gang out of the joint. He does so by smuggling guns to them, and soon all five are out and planning new heists. Things in the gang change when John comes up with the plan to knock off a difficult bank. Since it was his plan, he challenges Specs’s control of the gang. In retaliation, Specs sets him up and gets him arrested.

But hey, we know Dillinger is going to get out and we know he’s going to get his revenge. We also know that eventually he’s going to be gunned down outside of a Chicago movie theater, so that’s where we’re headed. The movie takes a great deal of license with getting us to that point, of course, but it’s all in service of a story filled with violent action and crime.

Lawrence Tierney’s job is two-fold in Dillinger. First, he’s supposed to be devilishly handsome, and I guess he qualifies. Second, he needs to be brutal and violent, which he does, kind of. One of the major problems with Dillinger is that it never shows us any of the violence that happens. I realize this was 1945, but the movie shies away even from showing someone getting shot. In one scene, just after his release from prison, Dillinger walks into the bar that wouldn’t take his check. He more or less confronts the server who kicked him out and got him started on his life of crime. Dillinger shatters a beer mug and, we assume, smashes the guy in the face with it. We don’t see this. We see the shattered mug and then see a part of the guy sliding off the seat. I don’t expect to see blood and guts here, but for a movie about one of the most famous criminals in America’s wild 1920s, it’s surprisingly prim.

I also don’t really understand the presence of the Helen Rogers character except for the fact that every movie seemed to require some sort of romance element. They are clearly an unhappy couple. In fact at one point Helen wants to run away from the gang, and chooses the new guy, Tony (Ralph Lewis) as her way out. Once again, we don’t see the violence here, but it is presumed that Dillinger bumps off Tony with an axe.

The truth is that Dillinger wants to be a thrill ride of violent crime from America’s past, but it never really shows us anything. All of the violence is implied. That would be okay if the film was even remotely accurate to Dillinger’s actual life, but it isn’t that, either. So I’m left with wondering what the point of it is. It’s not accurate and it doesn’t offer the sort of thrills that people going to see a movie called Dillinger would want.

Why to watch Dillinger: Once it starts, it doesn’t stop.
Why not to watch: For a film filled with violent material, it doesn’t show much.


  1. I didn't know much about Dillinger before watching this so the incongruities didn't bother me too much though it plays like fiction a great deal of the time. I found out how far afield it went afterwards when I did a little research on him-something the writer apparently felt no need to bother with!

    But considering it is a Monogram feature that's not surprising, true they caught the bigger falling stars on their way down-Kay Francis finished up her career in three of their programmers-but even though they weren't as cheapjack as PRC and that lot they wouldn't have the resources nor the care of production to spare on such things as precision in fact.

    My main takeaway from this was Tierney. In that aspect the film gets it right-he's rough guy persona and ways are a perfect fit for Dillinger, or any of the other many gangster roles he was usually cast in. From what I've read about him a very real reflection of his real life self.

    1. I know nothing about Tierney, so it seems that perhaps he was typecast.

      You're right--it does play like fiction. I think that's because it's almost entirely fiction. It's true in the very broadest strokes and fictional in pretty much every other way.

  2. How does this movie stack up to the Johnny Depp/Christian Bale version?

    1. The Johnny Depp version is certainly flashier, and I think it's probably a lot closer to the truth. It's certainly more entertaining.

  3. The first time I met Lawrence Tierney was at a revival house showing of a double feature of Dillinger and Born to Kill. He spoke about the films for a few minutes between the features. And I went over and talked to him for a bit.

    He was kind of scary.

    After that, I ran into him in Hollywood quite a few times. He lived just a few blocks from me, and I would see him on the bus or I would see him in front of the run-down hotel where he lived (on Vine, just a half-block from Hollywood Boulevard). He always recognized me even though he never remembered my name.

    He liked to talk about gangsters. He knew a bunch of them personally. He said he was in Bugsy Siegel's house just before he was killed.

    And he got offended when I asked him about Mad Dog Coll. It's Ted Coll. He got the name Mad Dog because of a misunderstanding. It was an accident that he machine-gunned a bunch of school kids. It could happen to anybody.

    And he told me that Dutch Schultz wet his pants and begged his killers not to hurt him when they gunned him down in the bathroom at the Chop House.

    I saw him at the revival house (the New Beverly Cinema) quite a few times. He was friends with the owner. One time I saw him in the lobby after a showing of The Killer (with Chow Yun Fat). Tierney hated it. He thought it was stupid. He had a bunch of scabs on his forehead and the side of his head. I think he was still getting in fights even though he was in his 80s.

    As for Tierney's movies, I highly recommend The Devil Thumbs a Ride. I suspect it was one of Tierney's favorites as well. He spoke very highly of it. With a gruesome but playful smile, he said "In that one, I play a REALLY bad guy."

    1. Very interesting. The only really famous person I've spent any time with is Dennis Hopper, at least in terms of movie personalities. I can't claim to know him, but I did spend an entire day with him. He was a peach of a person and I liked him quite a bit.

    2. In Patton Oswalt's book about being a movie addict, he describes going to the New Beverly Cinema to see Citizen Kane, and Lawrence Tierney was sitting close by and making comments about it. It's pretty funny.

      When I lived in Hollywood, one of my neighbors said he had been pretty good friends with Dennis Hopper in the early 1960s and he always talked about how nice and soft-spoken Dennis Hopper was.

    3. He was a super nice guy, very genuine and very nice to me when he didn't really have to be. It's always nice when people turn out like that.

  4. I found this version to be okay, but like you, oddly sanitized. Tierney did a good job, but needed better (more accurate) material. In my opinion, the 1973 version starring Warren Oates is the superior version. I don't think Oates qualifies as devilishly handsome, but me (and the film) more than make up for it in the brutal violence department.

    1. The lack of violence is very strange for this, since that's what it trades on. There's far more violence in Little Caesar or the original Scarface, and both of those films are a good decade or more older than this one.