[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]
That our final glimpse of John Dillinger should be out of focus is appropriate. Dillinger promised to be an exciting directorial debut for John Milius—promised especially hard in the first quarter of an hour—and the role of Dillinger himself presented Warren Oates with the perfect opportunity to etch one of the great characterizations of the American screen, as well as to win widespread recognition at long last. That Oates has failed to achieve either scarcely seems his fault since, whenever he is given screen time, he hovers on the verge of discovering a dangerous and original persona—and, it must be added, he looks historically perfect, unsettlingly so. But Dillinger and anyone else resembling a character are essentially lost sight of, except as gunmen and targets, from about the midpoint of the film onward—that is, starting with the Mason City, Iowa, massacre. The mayhem is powerfully filmed and individual shots are often vividly visualized, but Milius fails completely to give sequences or whole sections of the film any cohesion or sense of purpose beyond slam slam slam.
Perhaps he’s not intended to be a director, but he remains an interesting figure on the Hollywood horizon. Writer of Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and co-writer of Jeremiah Johnson, he’s on record as deploring the fact that hardly anyone is even trying to make movies on the legendary scale of The Searchers these days. His Dillinger is a legend-obsessed man who leans into the audience’s collective kisser and jovially suggests, “This could be one o’ the biggest moments in your life.” Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), the FBI Midwest Chief whose personal war on “them rats” like Wilbur Underhill, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and “Handsome Jack” Klutus is intercut with Dillinger’s own career, is similarly concerned with getting his fair share of public glory. Milius’s concept of individualism seems inextricably bound up with an awesome love of armament (he was once interviewed on a shooting range), yet his people are most alive—for me—doing something besides blasting. The initial bank holdup is managed with a fine sense of humor and audacity, the audience being placed in the position of the bank teller. This is followed (after the credits) by a freakishly hilarious sequence almost worthy of Peckinpah wherein a Dillinger lieutenant tries to intimidate an old gas station attendant who isn’t impressed enough to glance his way: the outlaw ends by (1) getting no gasoline, (2) tossing a fistful of money into the old guy’s lap, and (3) shooting apart a gumball machine in a grotesque effort to save face. Immediately thereafter, without any preparation or introduction, Dillinger has already met his moll-to-be Billie Frechette in a saloon where he passes himself off as the senior Douglas Fairbanks, then terrorizes the patrons of the joint into remembering his real name.
Then, as with so many American-International Pictures that begin with crazy scenes and extraordinary behavior that promise a fascinating film if followed through, the movie dodges into the formulaic and the derivative: music and visual effects from Bonnie and Clyde, a Mickey Rooney imitation by Richard Dreyfuss as “Baby Face” Nelson (Rooney played the title role in Don Siegel’s film about that outlaw). Its main virtues grow out of the casting: of Oates; of wholesome-looking Steve Kanaly as the shambling, well-mannered, all-American “Pretty Boy” Floyd; and of two increasingly visible character actors, Harry Dean Stanton and Geoffrey Lewis, as Dillinger cohorts Homer van Meader and Harry Pierpont, respectively. Ben Johnson makes a massively relentless Purvis, but Milius the director can’t quite evoke from Sam the Lion the devious, pathological puritan (and implicit closet queen) Milius the screenwriter seems to have had in mind.
Screenplay and Direction: John Milius. Cinematography: Jules Brenner. Editing: Fred R. Feitshans Jr. Music: Barry DeVorzon. Production: Buzz Feitshans.
The Players: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, Michelle Phillips, Steve Kanaly, Richard Dreyfuss, John Ryan, Frank McRae, Cloris Leachman.
Copyright © 1973 Richard T. Jameson