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This is gonna be one of the big days in your life. Don't make it your last...
on 24 June 2009
Doubtless inspired by the success of then-recent `period' gangster films such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, American International Pictures' 1973 film Dillinger is a somewhat derivative, rough-around-the-edges biopic of the famous Depression-era outlaw; however, it is also one of the most overlooked and underrated movies of the early 1970s. John Milius' film stars Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, who had previously appeared together as the Gorch brothers in Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece The Wild Bunch, as John Dillinger and his nemesis, FBI agent Melvin Purvis. With a strong supporting cast featuring Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, Cloris Leachman, and Richard Dreyfuss (as Baby Face Nelson), this vibrant, energetic movie is ripe for re-discovery.
Despite its 1930s' setting, Milius' film resembles less Bonnie and Clyde, and more a film that also appeared in 1973, Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; both movies share a theme of duality between the outlaw and the pursuing lawman, with the hunter obsessively tracking his quarry whilst envying his individuality and ill-gotten celebrity. Weapons enthusiast Milius stages his movie's many shootouts with remarkable intensity and realism, whilst the film's quieter sections are underlined with some wicked black comedy, and scenes of real emotional tug (especially memorable is the death of Pretty Boy Floyd, played by the little-known Steve Kanaly).
The film is not perfect. As a history lesson it is somewhat unreliable, and both lead actors, though excellent, are a little too old for the characters of Purvis and Dillinger, who were, respectively, thirty and thirty-one at the time Dillinger was killed (this is especially true of Johnson, who was in his mid-fifties when the film was made, and looks it). However, these are the only real complaints; unlike the distinctly underwhelming Michael Mann epic Public Enemies, Milius' version of the Dillinger legend does exactly what it sets out to do, and deserves to find a new audience on DVD.