Dillinger (1973) movie poster

(1973) dir. John Milius
viewed: 07/09/09

A great cast does not a great movie make.

Earlier this year, I watched Dillinger (1945), another bio-pic about the populist American criminal, John Dillinger, prepping to watch the new Michael Mann film, Public Enemies (2009), starring Johnny Depp.  It seemed like an interesting idea, since I ended up doing this whole Jesse James thing a year or so before.  Sadly, though, these Dillinger films have not been so up to snuff.

I’d thought that I had perhaps seen this film back about 15 years ago, but when I watched it presently, it really didn’t seem too familiar.  I’m not sure what film I saw that I thought might have been this one, but I had remembered liking it.  I have to say, that this John Milius film feels like a hack-job in a lot of ways, and I don’t think I would have recalled it fondly.  So who knows?

The film stars Warren Oates, who has become a favorite of mine over the years.  He was in a number of great films, including The Shooting (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and Cockfighter (1974), to name a few.  It’s also got Harry Dean Stanton (who seems to have been the same age all his life) and features a young Richard Dreyfuss as “Baby Face” Nelson.  The film also has a good general cast including good performances by Ben Johnson, Geoffrey Lewis, Michelle Phillips, and Steve Kanaly.  Cloris Leachman plays “the lady in red”, with a nearly hilarious German/Austrian accent which would have better suited a Mel Brooks film than this one.

I was having a hard time putting my finger on exactly what was wrong with this picture, but even on wide-screen, it felt like a TV movie and the cinematography seemed highly lacking, framing shots of moments that could have had power in someone else’s hands, played like stock drama and some of the dialogue felt flat, too.  The whole thing was a bit of a drag.

I was thinking that it was going to be a bit more like the Arthur Penn classic Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and perhaps that was a bit of the aim.  It was striking me that a number of films were made around this time highlighting the populist criminal heroes of the Depression era and before and I was thinking that perhaps there was some sort of counter-culture identification with outsiders, especially anti-establishment, working-class heroes who were explicitly outlaws.  The Depression Era bank robbers were idolized because of American’s anger at the bank failures and the loss of money, the failure of the government to protect it, but also toward their star quality.

It’s an interesting trope, and like the work of Andrew Dominik, whose excellent films Chopper (2001) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) analyze the character of criminal hero-worship, I think there is a lot to investigate.

Well, I’m still eager to see Public EnemiesDillinger (1973) hasn’t daunted me.

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