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Film / Dillinger

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"My buddies wanted to be firemen, farmers, or policemen, something like that. Not me. I just wanted to steal people's money!"
John Dillinger

A 1973 biopic/gangster film chronicling the life of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger. Directed by John Milius, the film focuses of the Dillinger gang's crime spree through the Midwest during the early 1930s and FBI agent Melvin Purvis' dogged pursuit of the criminal.

Warren Oates portrays the gangster as a larger-than-life celebrity who is both feared and revered by the public. Dillinger is an egotistical mastermind who believes his own press and views himself as an immortal force of nature, the "best damn bank robber" around. On the flip side, Ben Johnson plays FBI agent Purvis, who sees it as both his duty to apprehend the notorious criminal as well as a personal quest to seek vengeance for the Kansas City Massacre, a violent attack that left several federal agents and police officers dead. Cloris Leachman portrays brothel owner Anna Sage, who agrees to finger Dillinger for Purvis in the hopes of preventing her deportation from the U.S.


The film also stars former The Mamas & the Papas singer Michelle Phillips as Dillinger's girlfriend Billie Frechette, and features early performances by Richard Dreyfuss and Steve Kanaly in meaty supporting roles.

Compare the 1945 Dillinger made by Monogram Pictures, which unlike this version's more realistic portrayal, has the title character as a blood-thirsty maniac. The big-budget Michael Mann-directed Public Enemies (2009) would also cover similar territory, somewhat glossing over Dillinger's character. Milius later wrote two made-for-TV sequels, Melvin Purvis: G-Man and The Kansas City Massacre, starring Dale Robertson as Purvis. (Steve Kanaly appears in the first film, but as a different character.)


Dillinger contains examples of:

  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: John Dillinger was an infamous bank robber and killer during his day, but because of limitations in federal laws at the time, the FBI was not able to pursue him. He eventually broke one law that allowed the feds to chase him: driving a stolen car across state lines.
  • Badass Boast: Dillinger is known to deliver these on occasion.
    Dillinger: Now nobody get nervous, you ain't got nothing to fear. You're being robbed by the John Dillinger Gang, that's the best there is! These few dollars you lose here today are going to buy you stories to tell your children and great-grandchildren. This could be one of the big moments in your life; don't make it your last!
  • Bank Robbery: John Dillinger's claim to fame, and by his own admission, what he's the very best at.
  • Call-Forward: "One of these days, a broad's going to let him down." Anna Sage did just that.
  • Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: All of the robbers tend to have this outlook on life, until the shooting starts...
    Dillinger: All my life I wanted to be a bank robber. Carry a gun and wear a mask. Now that it's happened I guess I'm just about the best bank robber they ever had. And I sure am happy.
  • Finish Him!: Nelson's cruel but probably smart recommendation when a gutshot Carroll is crying out in the hotel.
  • Guns Akimbo: Purvis takes on killer Wilbur Underhill while dual-wielding two Colt 1911s. Pretty Boy Floyd also prefers to use two 1911s in gunfights.
    • Nelson faces down FBI agent Sam Cowley with a Tommy gun in one hand and a pistol in the other. This doesn't end well for either of them.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Baby Face Nelson has this in spades. Mows down an entire street full of people during a robbery because he's pissed the bank's alarm has been tripped. Spends a considerable amount of the film screaming and threatening to shoot people. Truth in Television, as Nelson was notorious for wanton and unnecessary violence.
  • Historical Beauty Update: Inverted with Melvin Purvis, who was considerably younger than he is portrayed here. Averted with Dillinger himself, as Warren Oates bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Dillinger.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Dillinger and his gang are shown to be the ones committing the Kansas City Massacre, which to this day the participants of have not been proven. While the FBI claimed that Pretty Boy Floyd was present (something that Floyd denied to his dying breath), the FBI never accused Dillinger for the Massacre.
  • Hollywood History: Like most films based on a true story, the movie plays fast and loose with the facts. The movie blames Dillinger for the Kansas City Massacre; while its participants were never definitively proven (Pretty Boy Floyd was a suspect, and to this day the FBI maintains that he was a participant), not even the FBI accused Dillinger. Several criminals are depicted as working together when in reality they weren't members of the gang at the same time, like Homer Van Meter and Harry Pierpont. Pretty Boy Floyd was never a member of the Dillinger gang. Dillinger is shown to outlive several gang members when in Real Life he actually died first. Like several other films about Dillinger, it shows the Little Bohemia shootout (which also occurs during the day, rather than at night as historically happened) as a bloodbath which results in the death not only of two FBI agents and several bystanders but also most of Dillinger's gang. Plenty of other examples as well. (Also see the Dawson Casting entry on the Trivia page.)
  • Inspector Javert: Purvis' whole relationship with criminals, particularly Dillinger. Has an obsession with hunting down those he feels are responsible for the Kansas City Massacre.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: The whole opening credit sequence plays over a montage of photos from the Great Depression, as the camera pans and scans them. The effect keeps going over the beginning of Purvis's narration, with photos of the Kansas City Massacre as Purvis talks about how he swore vengeance.
  • Mohs Scale of Violence Hardness: It rates a pretty hard 6, due to the numerous blood squibs that don't exactly spurt or splatter blood in an obvious, explicit manner.
  • More Dakka: At the start of the film, the gang members seem content using Tommy Guns, handguns and shotguns for pulling off their bank jobs. As law enforcement and civilians become more violent toward them, many switch to the heavy-hitting BAR M1918 automatic rifle.
  • Not Quite Dead: Baby Face Nelson seems to be in the standard Dies Wide Open position on the ground. But as the FBI guys approach him, his chest heaves and he squeezes off one last burst from his machine gun.
  • Only I Can Kill Him: Purvis says he swears personal vengeance on several criminals, with Dillinger as he personal Arch-Nemesis. During the stakeout at the Biograph movie theater, Purvis instructs his men that when he identifies Dillinger leaving the theater, he'll light a cigar, which is the signal to swoop in and arrest him. Despite this, he walks up to Dillinger and goads him into going for his gun before personally gunning down the gangster himself.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Pretty much Purvis' attitude toward the legality of FBI agents killing Dillinger, who up until that point hadn't violated federal law.
    Samuel Cowley: Can't touch Dillinger, no federal offense; he doesn't deserve to be there. I don't want anyone up there I can't legally shoot!
    Melvin Purvis: Shoot Dillinger and we'll figure out a way to make it legal.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Happens to Billie Frechette. Within moments of getting her alone in his hideout, Dillinger punches her for the first time. Later a weepy Billie, with two black eyes, is begging to go home. After that, however, she's his loyal, loving moll.
  • Take That!: A few negative comments toward fellow bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde by Floyd and Dillinger could be taken to be a subtle snipe at the earlier film. This might also have basis in reality; Dillinger was rumored to have despised the pair due to their extreme violence.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: How Pretty Boy and Homer Van Meter go down.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Van Meter, who's normally one of the more moderate members of the gang, foolishly opens fire on a town filled with farmers. Unfortunately for him, every shop in town has NRA posters on the front windows...
  • Villain Protagonist: Despite being the main characters, Dillinger and his gang are flagrant thieves and killers.
  • Would Hit a Girl: This Dillinger is a meaner version than the dashing cavalier played by Johnny Depp. He punches Billie in the face.


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