(1945) dir. Max Nosseck
In preparation for the coming Michael Mann directed Johnny Depp film about John Dillinger, Public Enemies (2009), arriving this summer, I decided that I would delve into the prior bio-pics about Dillinger to be ready and all viewed-up for an informed slant on the new one (which looks quite good from the trailers). It’s kind of the opposite approach that I developed going into my Jesse James film venture a year or so ago, in which I caught up with the history after the latest film had come out.
Dillinger, like James, is (or was) a figure of populist account, a criminal who caught the public’s fancy, and like other bank robbers such as Bonnie & Clyde, The Ma Barker gang, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and George “Baby Face” Nelson, were big Depression/Prohibition Era heroes/villains for the public. So, to me, it’s an apt trope and analogy.
Some years ago, I think I saw the 1973 film by John Milius and starring Warren Oates about John Dillinger, which at this point isn’t available from Netflix, disappointingly. It followed along the styles of using significant facts, notable tales to create the story of the true American anti-hero, and probably falling more closely with a film like Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Dillinger, I assumed would be more akin to the gangster films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and probably more like the earlier of the Jesse James films I’d seen. However, it’s kind of disappointing, really. It’s not great thing of art, more a standard-issue quality B-movie of the time, a genre flick with all the ear-marks of a workman-like production. Nothing is particularly inventive. But beyond its qualities or lacking qualities, it’s also not cut of the cloth of idolatry that makes the anti-hero film intriguing. In fact, it makes Dillinger not to be a “Robin Hood” type, but just a surly, unlikeable criminal and killer.
The film, from what I’ve read, is not one that is particularly historically accurate either. It’s highlights feature Dillinger’s escape from jail using a gun that he carved out of wood and blackened with shoe polish, and his infamous gunning down in front of the Biograph cinema, betrayed by “the lady in red”.
It’s not the best of films, not even really all that interesting, and perhaps made somewhat redeemable if being able to see the John Milius film before the new one comes out.