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Dillinger [1973] (DVD)

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Genre: Action & Adventure / Theatrical Release: 1973 / Director: John Milius / Actors: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Michelle Phillips, Cloris Leachman, Harry Dean Stanton ... / DVD released 2000-09-19 at MGM / Features of the DVD: Closed-captioned, Colour, DVD-Video, NTSC, Widescreen

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      10.12.2009 09:09
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      A decent but unremarkable gangster movie

      A review of just the film. A region 1 DVD can be imported via amazon for about £3.

      Made in 1973, this is a retelling of the career of John Dillinger and his gang, and the FBI agent who set out to stop him. I recently read a book on the subject, and remembered quite liking this film when I saw it years back, so thought I'd revisit it. Dillinger, as I'm sure everyone knows, was a famous criminal in Depression America. He and his gang robbed banks, killed people, and generally ran amuck. FBI agent Melvin Purvis led the pursuit. I suspect everyone knows how this one ends, although I won't give it away just in case.

      Although it's not wildly inaccurate - people's names are at least correct - there are a lot of historical falsehoods here, and having just read a very comprehensive book about the real deal, these rather grated. The lead actors were much too old. Dillinger's gang is fictitiously expanded to include Pretty Boy Floyd, presumably because he was another famous outlaw of the era. The gang also gains an unlikely black member. I can appreciate changing round a few things to make for a better film, but there's a ridiculously long gunfight towards the end, with a body count to rival the Somme, which stretches credulity (with good reason; it didn't happen) and ultimately pissed me off a bit. I daresay if I hadn't just read up on it I wouldn't have noticed, though.

      Still, for a low-budget AIP film by a reasonably untested director, this isn't too bad just as a piece of entertainment. It was presumably made to cash in on the success of Bonnie And Clyde, although it was about five years too late to ride that particular bandwagon. The director was John Milius, the Movie Brat who never quite made it (he later directed Conan the Barbarian and co-wrote Apocalypse Now, but never hit the heights Lucas, De Palma, or Spielberg did). The film drags in places - it's almost two hours long, and could easily have lost ten minutes - but mostly it cracks along nicely enough. This is unsurprising, as there's a lot to get through.

      Although a lot of people die, and some of the gunfights are quite bloody, this is a bit tame after famous blood baths like The Wild Bunch. As this is set mainly in rural and small-town locations, it resembles a Western more than a traditional gangster movie, and the gunfights reflect that. They're just not as exciting as they feel they ought to be. The film's period trappings are all reasonably convincing, with a lot of emphasis on vintage cars and tommy guns. The music is similar, usually vintage songs like We're In The Money, and ambience is added by old photos and snippets of newsreel footage (including one photo of FDR in which he looks uncannily like Aleister Crowley).

      The tone of the film is very uncertain, though. At times it seems to be trying to reinvent Dillinger and his gang as countercultural free spirits, as Bonnie And Clyde did with its protagonists. But it has far too much sympathy for the cop, Purvis, for him to be a straightforward representative of The Man. Dillinger himself is correctly presented as an unsentimental but showy gunman. But the film suddenly starts trying to wring sympathy out of the plight of the characters towards the end. As Pretty Boy Floyd flees the Feds during the climax, the film breaks out the mournful harmonica and guitar music, as if we're suddenly meant to have an emotional attachment to Floyd that the film simply hasn't bothered to build up. This kind of inconsistency abounds, and it's not helped by the film's failure to give anyone expect Dillinger, Billie (his girlfriend) and maybe Purvis a credible personality.

      Where this film does score is its cast. Dllinger is played by Warren Oates, one of my favourite American character actors (he was a favourite of Sam Peckinpah, and also turns up in Badlands). Although he's too old, he does look like Dillinger (more so than Johnny Depp does). He makes the character's swagger and braggadocio convincing, and we like him without ever necessarily sympathising with him.

      Purvis, his arch-enemy, is played by veteran Western actor Ben Johnson (who played Oates' brother in The Wild Bunch). He really is much too old - the real Purvis was only 30 at the time. And while in the film, Purvis is a model of driven professionalism, in real life he was a bungling oaf. In the film Purvis goes into battle with all the invulnerable gusto of The Punisher, which is unlikely, to say the least. Still, Johnson was an old pro, and has the presence to make Purvis feel a bit like the force of nature he's obviously meant to be.

      The supporting cast is unusually decent for a film like this. Richard Dreyfus, a few years before real stardom, is very good as the psychotic Baby Face Nelson. Harry Dean Stanton, always watchable, is one of the other robbers. Cloris Leachman cameos as 'the woman in red' (an important part of the Dillinger myth). Billie, Dillinger's girl, is played by Michelle Philips, formerly of the pop group The Mamas and Papas. (She was the step-mother of McKenzie Philips, whose autobiography had all that, y'know, bad stuff in it...). She's OK as Billie, but we can never quite believe in their relationship.

      This isn't a bad film, but it isn't particularly good either. I liked it a lot more when I was 15 or so, and suspect that's the ideal age to see it - before you're too picky about what constitutes an exciting gunfight, and before you worry too much about things like decent characterisation and historical accuracy. Worth a look if you stumble across it on TV, but not worth going out of your way for.

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