Thursday, September 3, 2009

Film Review: DILLINGER (1973, John Milius)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 107 minutes.
Tag-line: "...he was the gangster's gangster. "
Notable Cast or Crew: Warren Oates (BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA), Harry Dean Stanton, John P. Ryan (IT'S ALIVE, RUNAWAY TRAIN), Geoffrey Lewis (MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL), Richard Dreyfuss, Cloris Leachman (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN), Michelle Phillips (SHAMPOO), Ben Johnson (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW). Directed and written by John Milius (RED DAWN, FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER, BIG WEDNESDAY, CONAN THE BARBARIAN).
Best one-liner: "Okay, boys; let's go make a withdrawal."

John Milius, with his "men's men" (or "gangster's gangsters" in this case) and bloody shootouts, is often compared to Sam Peckinpah. And while the comparison is apt, most are content to pin him down as merely a Second Amendment-lovin' reactionary, and leave it at that. But there's a humanist inside Milius, a lover of nature, a quiet observer of humanity's (violent) inclinations. And in this respect, I would compare him equally to Terrence Malick. (And also in their propensity to use Harry Dean Stanton, Warren Oates, Nick Nolte, and windswept, amber waves of grain.) DILLINGER, Milius' feature film (directorial) debut, is an excellent fusion of 30's gangster pic and the existential 70's 'road trip drama.' Oates' Dillinger is smarmy, full of hubris, and ultimately an asshole ("this is gonna be one of the big days of your life..."): it's brutality, to be sure, but it's brutality with élan.

Harry Dean Stanton is a gang member with a bad attitude, a giant sombrero, and brimming pathos; Richard Dreyfuss is appropriately psychotic as Baby Face Nelson; and Ben Johnson is steely and appropriately detached as Melvin Purvis.

What a lineup: Oates, Stanton, Lewis, Ryan.

The mantra for the film (quite literally at one point) becomes "hard times"- Dillinger doesn't have to do much conniving to find willing accomplices or make a prison warden take his "cut" of a robbery made during an escape. As a Dust Bowl ragamuffin fittingly observes, the only difference between the bank robbers and the FBI is that you "Have to go to school to be a G-Man." There's no joy to be had in seeing anyone get shot here, be it lawbreaker or lawman; characters scream in agony as they die, and no one dies easy. It's a film full of unexpected emotional weight- Dillinger's homecoming to a resigned, sad, tolerant father, or Harry Dean Stanton intoning "things ain't workin' out for me today" in a way that truly no one else could. Four stars.

And stick around after the end credits to hear J. Edgar Hoover denouncing the film (in true a-hole form).

-Sean Gill


Rob J said...

Vastly superior to the lacklustre remake of 2009, Warren Oates gives a powerful reminder of why there isn't any current actor today who has matched his world weary persona.

A great 70s film which is well worth viewing.

Sean Gill said...

Truly one of the greats- and I'd have loved to have seen him collaborate with John Milius on other projects (aside from this and *ahem* '1941').