Actors: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton, Michelle Phillips, Richard Dreyfuss
Synopsis: Nobody did it like Dillinger
Director John Milius gives us a “Dillinger” that is fascinating for its speed, action and firepower. Dillinger (Warren Oates) and company rob banks and get shot up in dashes across the Depression countryside in vintage cars to vintage music on a gory road that ends in Dillinger’s bloody finish outside that Chicago movie house in 1934. However, it is never explained why or how Dillinger chose that path. “I sure am happy. I just want to steal people’s money,” says Dillinger. As depicted in scenes shot in and around Enid, Okla., members of his gang (Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, et al) are just as callous and equally happy in their work.
Warren Oates’ Dillinger is tough and homespun. He, pushes Baby Face Nelson around and is sentimental about visiting his folks. He is roughly affectionate with his girl, but there is something missing is this characterization. The film captures the look of the nineteen-thirties, but its violence dominates the film and the players who are largely undefined. We see Dillinger as a fairly decent man who became something of a folk hero with more modesty than Bonnie and Clyde (whose adventures he follows in the newspapers). He brags sometimes, but with reason, and he’s not a sadistic killer. He’s a professional. He has killers in his gang, however, and is enraged when Baby Face Nelson gets trigger-happy.
The film perfectly captures the local colloquialisms, the mannerisms, and casting is near perfect, from the lead to supporting characters, primarily because the actors don’t look like actors, they look like ordinary early-twentieth-century common folk. They are certainly representative of the time period with crags and wrinkles in their faces and in their hardened eyes. The Dillinger gang, other than Richard Dreyfuss’ George “Baby Face” Nelson, operate almost like a family. We believe that they care for each other, are courteous to their women and, on occasion, to the common folk. And while they are desperate killers, they seem to delight and enjoy the entire affair and even know that the end is always near.
It’s a brutal film with a lot violence, sexual aggressiveness and death. There is no internal conflict to go “straight” or escape from his past. Dillinger says to his lover, Billie Frechette, “All my life I wanted to be a bank robber. Carry a gun and wear a mask. Now that it’s happened I guess I’m just about the best bank robber they ever had. And I sure am happy.” We look at him and think that he is hardened. And if Oates’ Dillinger makes a compelling anti-hero, Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis is a great foil. He pursues Dillinger with almost T-800 Model 101 efficiency and the folksiness of a John Ford character. His mission is to eradicate Dillinger his gang. However, Milius never makes him unwavering in his mission, and both the FBI and the gangsters develop a form of mutual and deadly respect.
All in all, the film is a fun and nostalgic romp. The protagonists are clear in their intentions— they’re outlaws. The antagonists are the system that will systematically track them down and kill them. No one will be left alive. The Dillinger gang will meet a gruesome end, but they will not go quietly.