Dillinger (1973) Blu-ray Review: Times Were Tough, So He Got with the Times!

Arrow Video brings us John Milius' directorial debut, featuring eager performances by Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton, and Richard Dreyfuss.
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Never one to take a backseat to a popular genre, the always active brains behind the once prolific American International Pictures ‒ Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson ‒ instantly knew a moneymaker when they saw (or thought of) it. Even after Arkoff's production partner left to form his own company in 1972, only to unexpectedly leave this world from a brain tumor a few months later, Sam Arkoff continued to switch on that proverbial green light to many a low budget offering from seasoned industry professionals and total wannabes alike. And it was in July of 1973 that one of AIP's most profitable pictures of the 1970s hit silver screens near and far. The subject? None other than the infamous Depression-era gangster himself, John Dillinger.

Hollywood's obsession with early 20th Century outlaws first came to fruition during the Great Depression itself, as a handful of lawless men and women dared to defy a rocky government; only to be idolized onscreen by a few of contemporary cinema's biggest leading players. Decades later, after several assassinations and revolutions shook the late '60s and energy crises all but crippled the economy in the '70s (and, OK, maybe the breakaway successes of huge hits such as Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Godfather had something to do with it, too ‒ after all, it was an AIP picture!) it seemed only fair for Sam Arkoff and AIP to grab a stool and jump under the recently stuffed cash cow.

The directorial debut of prolific screenwriter John Milius, AIP's 1973 crime drama Dillinger takes all of the more profitable moments from the aforementioned cinematic ilk ‒ you know, the more exploitative moments of violence and such ‒ onerously removing more classic, refined dramatic motion picture traits such as character development and historical accuracies in the process. But of course, this was He Who Also Wrote Apocalypse Now's first project as an "actual" filmmaker (because writers are seldom praised for creating things other folks tend to profit off of). It was also an AIP flick, which meant there wasn't a whole heck of a lot going on in the budget department; ergo, Milius had to rely more on style over substance.

And yet, unlike Michael Mann's 2009 look at Dillinger, Public Enemies ‒ a film I saw, reviewed, and promptly forgot about because there simply wasn't much to remember about it ‒ Milius' Dillinger has plenty of memorable moments. Take, for example, the casting itself. The one and only (late) Warren Oates, who bore more than a passing resemblance to the real life public enemy himself (really, it's kind of eerie), not only takes the spotlight here, but constantly shoots the bulb out and demands someone replace it so he can do it again and again as John Dillinger. Mustering every single ounce of pomposity as the usually sublimely subtle performer could do, Oates ‒ despite being too old for the part ‒ handles his piece like a pro, even when he delivers his grim grimace right into the ol' camera lens.

Joining Oates as his faithful gang of misfits is the unbeatable duo of (the late) Geoffrey Lewis and Harry Dean Stanton ‒ who also appeared with Mr. Oates in Monte Hellman's indispensable Two-Lane Blacktop ‒ each of whom are given equal moments to show off their skills and shine. In a turn that probably isn't very coincidental at all, just like the aforementioned Hellman's 1971 masterpiece, a popular singer/songwriter of the time ‒ in this instance, Ms. Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas ‒ is cast as Warren's love interest, Billie Frechette. And, much like Bonnie and Clyde's accentuated unveiling of a fresh young talent named Gene Wilder, Milius' Dillinger brings in some newb who called himself Richard Dreyfuss to play Baby Face Nelson.

Further additions (and future subtractions) from the gang include the great Frank McRae (Used Cars), the always underused Steve Kanaly as Pretty Boy Floyd, and John P. Ryan as Charles Makley. Meanwhile, as these terrors tear up the countryside, a determined (and very at home) Ben Johnson leads his G-Men in an unrelenting plight to plow down the baddies just as soon as they can. Though he had won an Oscar two years before for his supporting role in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, Johnson's appearance here marked the beginning of a notable B movie phase for the actor (including several cult favorites by Charles B. Pierce). Nevertheless, the venerable tough guy calls the shots (literally, in some cases) as Melvin Purvis. (The fictionalized caricature of Purvis would return in two followup TV movies ‒ one written by Milius himself ‒ with Dale Robertson in the lead).

Rounding out the ensemble is Cloris Leachman (who was also seen in The Last Picture Show, and co-starred in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein with Gene Wilder a year later) as the infamous Anna Sage ‒ aka "The Lady in Red" ‒ who helps Purvis track down not only his sworn enemy, but also a fine ending to a fun excursion from the troubles of an increasingly crazy outside world. Songwriter Barry De Vorzon (whose ears helped create the amazing assortment of tunes for one of the decade's best-known inner-city selections, Walter Hill's 1979 phenomenonal cult classic, The Warriors) provides one of his earliest motion picture soundtracks here. Mr. Barry also appears onscreen in this Arrow Video offering, wherein he reminisces about his work on the film.

Two other onscreen participants, cinematographer Jules Brenner and co-producer Lawrence Gordon, are seen respectively in their own featurettes, and offer their own enjoyable tales of reflection. Film critic/historian Stephen Prince lends his thoughts and words to the cult classic in an audio commentary. Additional supplemental materials are in the guise of a gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and a music/effects audio track in LPCM Mono. The main movie itself also sports an LPCM Mono selection (with optional English SDH subtitles), and accompanies a 1080p 1.85:1 transfer, which was painstakingly preserved by a team of devoted individuals. That said, the extensive wear and tear to the original interpositive used to make this release can be seen by those of you with keen eye (or four, like me).

Of course, whenever anyone spots a discrepancy in the picture here ‒ or even if you find yourself overwhelmed by the long bloody shootouts or gratuitous scenery (and cigar) chewing lining the film from the get-go ‒ all you truly have to do is just silently, lovingly whisper three little letters to yourself: "AIP."

It's all the explanation one will truly ever need with a fun flick such as Dillinger. Enjoy.

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