Six years after Arthur Penn’s hugely influential and Oscar-winning crime saga Bonnie & Clyde took Hollywood by storm and ushered in a new era of filmmaking, the notorious screenwriter John Milius made his directorial debut with Dillinger. This grisly thriller tells the tale of the titular bank robber who became something of a folk hero back in the 1930s – going on to be played by Johnny Depp in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.
“Being a director is the only way anyone will listen to you in Hollywood“, Milus said. “It’s the next best thing to being a star“. With gangster films at the peak of their popularity, American International Pictures offered Milius the chance to direct one if he would also write it for a fraction of his regular fee. Choosing Dillinger as his subject because he was a “pure criminal” with seemingly no moral compass rather than a Robin Hood-type, Milius made his debut behind the camera with retired FBI Agent Clarence Hurt (involved in the final shootout with Dillinger) serving as technical advisor.
With a towering performance from Warren Oates as the titular criminal and a supporting cast including Ben Johnson, Richard Dreyfuss and the ever-reliable Harry Dean Stanton, the film is unmistakably 1970s for better and worse. The film veers wildly between forgotten gem and trashy B-movie, with a quasi-documentary approach that is very hit-and-miss. The film is more of a curiosity piece than one to truly enjoy or ever consider revisiting, but for those who are interested, Arrow Video have finally brought their initially US-exclusive 2016 Blu-ray release to the UK. Boasting a stunning 2K restoration and some fascinating interviews that offer critical insight into the film’s historical context, Dillinger’s Blu-ray release is certainly solid. It’s just a shame that the film itself is so inconsistent and messy, and ultimately feels underwhelming – despite brief glimmers of potential that just disappoint viewers with what could’ve been.
The film closes with a quote from J. Edgar Hoover – “”Dillinger was a rat that the country may consider itself fortunate to be rid of, and I don’t sanction any Hollywood glamorization of these vermin. This type of romantic mendacity can only lead young people further astray than they are already, and I want no part of it” – and it’s the most interesting and memorable part of the film, giving you an idea of how these sort of gangster films were met by authority at the time. But beyond that, it’s all just a little bit of a mess. Dillinger is certainly an interesting film, but there’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of it.