Thursday, June 11, 2009


With its succinct, no-nonsense title, 1945's Dillinger promised a crisp, newsreel-esque bio of its famous subject, then dead just over a decade but still fresh in the public's mind as an enduring legend of the thug lifestyle. The film fulfills this modest goal, but not much more. At just 70 minutes, the film moves at a brisk pace, but it's somewhat paradoxical in that it feels too superficial, like a clip reel rather than a fully developed narrative, and yet at the same time it has excess fat and contrivances that could easily be trimmed away. The film opens, confusingly, with a framing story in which an audience in a movie theater watches the end of a movie about Dillinger, only to have Dillinger's dad stroll out onto the stage, awkwardly fumbling with his hat, speaking like a down-home old-timer about his wayward son. This metafictional framing device placed 1945 audiences in the strange position of watching a supposed 1930s film audience watch another film about Dillinger, whose crime spree was then still in process. It's a bizarre opening, and swiftly forgotten, but it does rhyme in an off-kilter way with the film's justifiably famous ending, its most potent sequence, in which an incognito Dillinger, disguised with a wispy mustache and round dark glasses, goes to the movies himself.

The film's arc basically takes the audience from watching another audience watch a movie about Dillinger, to watching a movie about Dillinger themselves, to finally watching Dillinger watch a movie. As much as anything, it's a movie about watching, about the cinema, which Dillinger reportedly loved so much that he modeled his tough guy persona on the actions of Hollywood gangsters and gang bosses. It was the movies that drove him to his death, as well, possessed by a fatal desire to see Myrna Loy on screen in Manhattan Melodram, the film he was watching when the law finally caught up to him, ending his crimes and his life. It's a romantic death for the cinephile, to die because of a profound love of movies, and it's fitting that this film about Dillinger should concern itself so with the stuff of movies.

Even so, the introduction's weird cinephiliac meta devices quickly give way to a direct recounting of the life of John Dillinger, as portrayed by Lawrence Tierney, getting his first break as a star actor. Tierney's a perfect Dillinger, and by far the best thing about the film. Even when the plot breaks down or rushes by too fast, Tierney's clenched jaw and sinister stare are electrifying. He plays Dillinger as a man who's challenging the whole world, the kind of guy who ends every sentence with an implicit "oh yeah?" — a dare to stand up to him, to cross him, to risk his deadly ire. He's quick with his mouth and even quicker with his gun, a deadly and conscience-free young thug who sets off on a life of crime seemingly as a whim, because it's a way to get some money initially, and then maybe just because he can. Tierney's got the requisite swagger, with the smug smirk of a cocky young punk who thinks so highly of himself that he transforms his ambitions into reality: he thinks himself the number one crook and soon enough becomes it.

With the exception of Tierney's rough-edged performance and the punchy rhythms of the final sequences, however, the film is largely too clipped and rushed to make much impact. Tierney's fiery, but his Dillinger is a flat cipher, his motivations murky and his transition from a would-be stock broker to a criminal mastermind abrupt, to say the least. His gang is ably portrayed by a group of capable character actors, most notably Edmund Lowe and Elisha Cook, Jr., and a torchy but badly underused Anne Jeffreys as Dillinger's lover Helen. There's only so much this fine cast can do, though, with the film's prosaic script, functional dialogue and lack of real dramatic tension. It's a convention of films like this to condense long periods of time via montages of several different bank jobs, but in this case the whole film comes across as an extended montage with no fully developed scenes.

Director Max Nosseck does have an inventive eye for staging scenes. An overhead shot of an armored car robbery provides a perfect view of the mayhem Dillinger unleashes, with smoke streaming everywhere from the explosives his gang sets off, while they subdue the van's guards and make off with the cash. Of course, there's also the frantic but precise staging of Dillinger's final showdown, where he spots the law closing in by catching their reflection in a mirror. But Nosseck's eye for details is often lost in the rush, and the film is ultimately sunk by its overly generic narrative and hurried pacing. The film also deals with violence mostly by keeping it offscreen, rarely showing the bodies, often holding a closeup on Dillinger's eyes as he fires his gun or, in one instance, shoves a broken beer mug into someone's face. There's a raw brutality to the film that must have made it shocking at the time, though today the film merely seems to be skittish about making its central figure too unlikable by fully showing the consequences of his violent actions.


Joshua said...

My main problem with this film is its simplicity; every scene feels like it is leading to the next one, it's strangely false and inorganic. Each development in Dillinger's life depicted seems only to explain his next move, chipping away at the 'why'. It's a very artificial way to move the movie forward. That said, I do have an appreciation for the scenes in and of themselves, and you're right in pointing out Tierney as the film's most worthy asset.

As good as Tierney is, however, I have to say that I love Warren Oates in the seventies version of Dillinger much more. Then again, I consider that version superior in *almost* every way, up to and including the Hoover voiceover at the end.

bill r. said...

though today the film merely seems to be skittish about making its central figure too unlikable by fully showing the consequences of his violent actions...

That's been my problem with the depiction of Dillinger over the years (and I can't stand Bonnie and Clyde, by the way), one which Mann's new film, if it's faithful to Bryan Burrough's superb book (which is to say, to the facts), should redress.

Ed Howard said...

Joshua, that simplicity was exactly my problem with this film as well -- it's so schematic and artificial.

Bill, I'm looking forward to the Mann film as well, which is probably why I watched this now. I'm curious to see how Mann will handle this familiar and oft-told tale.

Dave said...

A most timely review with Mann's 'Public Enemies' coming out in just a couple of weeks. I can agree that this one is somewhat so-so, but definitely worth seeing.

I have high hopes for the Mann film, who has some movies that I genuinely love (Heat, Last of the Mohicans). Hopefully this one is enjoyable.

Richard Bellamy said...

An enjoyable and informative review. I also enjoy Warren Oates as Dillinger. As for the upcoming Dillinger movie, I look forward to any movie directed by Michael Mann.

Sam Juliano said...

As always an exceedingly excellent piece of film criticism here at ONLY THE CINEMA. Alas, I can't disagree one iota thoughout this, although as you yourself note it's hard not to be taken with the fiery Tierney (a great actor), or the always-engaging Elisha Cook Jr. But it seems you went on to say that Tierney may have victimized with the material, as his performance isn'gt altogether convincing. But here is the passage I am nodding my head with a smile to:

"At just 70 minutes, the film moves at a brisk pace, but it's somewhat paradoxical in that it feels too superficial, like a clip reel rather than a fully developed narrative, and yet at the same time it has excess fat and contrivances that could easily be trimmed away."

Mykal said...


Gene Tierney had absolutely nothing in common with the real John Dillinger - Dillinger was kind of a hick lothario with a pencil thin mustache, shit-eating grin, and smart-ass rural-patter. Tierney was straight-lipped urban tough and preferred speaking in 3 or 4 word commands. Despite this, Tierney was born to play Dillinger. As you say, Tierney as Dillinger doesn't give much away with regard to internal motivations, but for me that makes his performance somehow more terse - more interesting and a kind of Dillinger of the imagination.

I can't think of another American actor, before or sense, that might have really robbed a bank. -- Mykal