Judge Maurice Cobbs was disappointed not to see the scene where the FBI took "Li'l Dillinger" as a trophy after Dillinger was killed.
His story is written in bullets, blood, and blondes!
Well, not really.
The movie Dillinger bears only the most tenuous resemblance to his real-life counterpart. The cold-blooded sociopathic killer presented in this 1946 noir is about as different as you can get from the daring, congenial bank bandit who eschewed violence as much as possible (due, no doubt, to his strict Quaker upbringing) and who traveled with the elite of the bank robbery community: Homer Van Meter, Harry Pierpont, Fat Charley Mackley, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby-Face Nelson. But bullets, blood, and blondes make for good B-movie noirs, and so (as so rarely happens with the movies), the real story must fall by the wayside and make way for a whirlwind of a two-fisted potboiler that Dillinger himself might have actually enjoyed, and perhaps did; there are persistent attempts to refute the official FBI claim that Dillinger was shot to death outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre, a testament to the bank robber's status as a pop culture icon.
It's not surprising that somebody would want to make a movie about Dillinger—after all, the man was a legend in his own time, an American folk hero who made the ladies swoon and won the admiration of the public (much to the chagrin of the authorities). And Dillinger's exploits had already inspired quite a few classic gangster movies, like G-Men and High Sierra. But this rather weak offering from El Cheapo outfit Monogram Studios is pretty low-end as far as the technical and production values are concerned, heavy on stock footage, stiff acting, and ripped-off sequences. It's a bad movie, even for a B-movie. So I suppose the fact that it marks the motion picture debut of noir legend and real-life jerk Lawrence Tierney, probably best known to today's audiences as Joe Cabot in Quentin Tarantino's breakthrough hit Reservoir Dogs, is why it must be considered a classic of the genre.
Tierney was the real deal, a grade-A hell-raiser, twice as tough as a boiled owl and meaner than diarrhea. A six-foot-one-inch mass of pure venom who could eat Russell Crowe for breakfast and pick his teeth with Sean Penn. As Dillinger, he brings a spectacularly feral presence to the screen, practically radiating malice from his cold, cruel eyes, with his features etched in a permanent scowl. Tierney's incredible screen presence and the wild, pulpish cheapness of the movie are the principal attractions to this otherwise forgettable feature. Tierney is joined in his debut by some established B-movie faces, featured as members of the gang that Dillinger eventually takes over: Specs Green (Edmund Lowe, Murder in Times Square), Marco Minelli (Eduardo Cianelli, Sky Raiders), and Doc Madison (Marc Lawrence, Johnny Cool), and what would a film noir be without Elisha Cook Jr., here playing grape-loving Kirk Otto, waiting to get bumped off? They're all very broadly drawn but memorable criminal types. Anne Jeffreys is Helen Rogers, who gets robbed by Dillinger while working at a movie theater but is taken in by his ferocious charm and becomes his gun moll. Obviously, she repented of her criminal ways after being roughly romanced by Dillinger; she would go on to portray Dick Tracy's girlfriend Tess Trueheart in two of the 1940s B features.
The movie has an almost primitive charm of the type usually reserved for pulp novels or, going a little further back, penny dreadfuls. The print is as good as it's probably gonna get, which may have to do, I suspect, with the condition of what the studio had to work with, but somehow the scratched and speckled print actually adds to the charm of the movie, such as it is. The mono sound is adequate, but not great; the nicest thing that I can say about it is that you can hear all the dialogue and sound effects. The lone special feature is a commentary by two-fisted director John Milius, who directed the 1973 Dillinger and here offers very little of interest or value, making this a great idea that becomes terrible because of the execution. More interesting are the occasional excerpts from audio interview segments with the screenwriter, Philip Yordan, who died in 2003. The original theatrical trailer is also included.
"DILLINGER reached unmatched heights of daredevil ruthlessness!" proclaims the trailer. Although this may accurately describe the real-life Dillinger, the movie version falls markedly short of this goal. If you've been looking for a movie that will get your friends interested in classic noir…this ain't it, despite the Tarantino connection. But it does have its charm, and Tierney's incredible screen presence certainly makes this release worth it for gangster movie fans and noir junkies. And besides, if you don't watch it and like it, Tierney will probably come back from the dead and kick your ass.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by John Milius, Director of the 1973 Dillinger, with Excerpts from Screenwriter Philip Yordan
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