By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Two Beers) -
Dillinger chronicles the violent life and death of bank robber John Dillinger (Warren Oates) and FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), responsible for hunting him down.
So rarely does the actual history behind any one person provide for a successfully dramatic film. From Wyatt Earp to Ray Charles, Queen Elizabeth to Al Capone, the truth is, no matter how well known, notorious and widely publicized a person’s life is it is hard to sustain the interest of a modern audience without significant use of dramatic license.
And sometimes they like to play the “making shit up wholesale” card…
Dillinger is no different, as it eschews history at just about every turn. With that said, it makes for one hell of an entertaining movie. Director John Milius’ film easily one-ups the similar Bonnie and Clyde in every way. It has gunfights that are still shockingly bloody almost forty years later, and energetic performances by Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and especially Harry Dean Motherfucking Stanton.
Early in the film Dillinger wastes no time kidnapping a girl, beating and (presumably though it is off camera) raping her. When she tries to escape, Dillinger tracks her down and drags her back into his life, only after realizing that he’ll never let her go does she relent and become his girlfriend. By contrast, Melvin Purvis and his fellow agents have zero qualms about gunning down unarmed assailants, many of whom have long since surrendered. In a world where the Bank Robbers are amoral rapists and the cops are glorified scalphunters, few characters are left to empathize with. And yet Milius takes care to humanize his characters. They are cruel and bloodthirsty, but the few quiet moments they allow themselves manage to put you into their shoes, if only for a moment.
The first-person narration Ben Johnson was forced to add into the film feels unnecessarily expository, as Milius already uses newspaper montages and conversational dialog to establish the setting. This is a forgivable flaw as it is Milius’ first film, and he clearly hadn’t quite learned to trust his audience.
The film also features a small comic-relief role played by Frank McRae that gets off to a good start, but quickly ventures into racially demeaning territory. This poorly realized character is soon killed off, which is unsurprising as it is uninspired. McRae could do decent dramatic and comedic roles, it is too bad that he often got put in the position of playing “token black guy”.
Even sadder, this is the nicest picture Google images has of the guy…
Very watchable entertainment, with blistering action sequences and strong performances.
Bonus Drinking Game
Bodycount Bingo: take a drink for each onscreen death (Total Count: 28, drink responsibly)
Take a Drink: for each use of “G-Men”
Drink a Shot: anytime the movie laughs in the face of history.