Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dillinger (1973)

          Action auteur John Milius couldn’t have picked better subject matter for his maiden voyage behind the camera. A gun nut with an astonishing gift for imbuing dialogue with macho poetry, Milius clearly found kindred spirits in the real-life figures of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger and his relentless pursuer, FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Crafting one of his finest scripts (high praise, considering he wrote Apocalypse Now and Jeremiah Johnson), Milius deftly parallels Dillinger’s heyday as the scourge of the Midwest with Purvis’ methodical annihilation of public enemies. Milius depicts Dillinger as a flamboyant iconoclast doomed by his greed and his sociopathic rage, and he depicts Purvis as a patient lawman who never hesitates when he gets a crook in his crosshairs. So even as the film hurtles through exhilarating crime-spree passages, there’s a sense of impending doom that colors everything down to leading man Warren Oates’ animalistic performance as Dillinger. As a result, the whole movie feels like a slow burn leading to the legendary explosion of violence that happened in 1934 when Purvis came face-to-face with his elusive quarry outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater.
          Making the most of the minimal production resources available to this tightly budgeted American International Pictures production, Milius employs a spare visual style in order to focus on the Spartan elegance of his dialogue and the violent ballet of his expertly staged gunfights. Incisive lines permeate the picture, like Purvis’ plan of attack (“Shoot Dillinger and we’ll find a way to make it legal”) and a bystander’s rationale for why a group of strangers must be gangsters (“Decent folk don’t live that good”). Keeping his tendency for romanticism in check, Milius integrates ugly elements like Dillinger’s rough treatment of women, the excruciating deaths of gunshot victims, and the carnage visited upon innocent bystanders. So while the filmmaker clearly gets a charge out of the larger-than-life duel between Dillinger and Purvis, he can’t be accused of making the outlaw life attractive. Oates commands the screen, presenting a potent strain of dangerous charisma in every scene, and iconic Western actor Ben Johnson is a perfect complement as Purvis—Johnson’s stoicism sharply contrasts Oates’ hyperkinetic quality.
          Playing members of Dillinger’s gang are an eclectic bunch of actors, including Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Kanaly, Frank McRae, and John P. Ryan; the standout sidekicks are Geoffrey Lewis and Harry Dean Stanton, both of whom deliver funny, tragic performances. Cloris Leachman pops in for a tasty cameo as the infamous “Lady in Red” who accompanied Dillinger to the Biograph, and gorgeous pop singer Michelle Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas) is unexpectedly good in her first real role, as Dillinger’s longtime girlfriend, Billie Frechette. FYI, a year after this feature was released, a TV pilot called Melvin Purvis: G-Man hit the small screen, with Dale Robertson taking over Johnson's role; Milius co-wrote the script and Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis was the producer-director. A second Robertson pilot, made by Curtis without Milius involvement and titled The Kansas City Massacre, appeared in 1975, but the proposed series never materialized.

Dillinger: RIGHT ON

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