I was working on a short movie when I was in film school and I needed the sound of gun shot, so I went to Video Station and rented Dillinger, the 70s version, directed by John Milius. I chose it because I remembered watching it in high school and being astounded by the endless shootout scenes. They were riotous cacophonies of nonstop gunfire – pistols, shotguns, machine guns. So understand that first: this is a violent film. In addition to being shot, people get beat up and run over by cars. But it’s a rather beautiful film, too, with carefully composed and atmospheric shots showing the Midwest as it might have looked in the Great Depression. And between the outbursts of riotous violence, there are scenes of almost hypnotic quiet and artful pacing. The influence of the great Italian cinema of the 60s, most notably Antonioni and Bertolucci, seems clear here, and Milius is in this 1973 movie no doubt trying to keep pace with the young American auteurs of the “New Hollywood” – Terrence Malick, Arthur Penn, John Schlesinger. And Francis Ford Coppola, with whom Milius would later collaborate on Apocalypse Now. I caught it on a late show when my parents were out of town and I had the whole house to myself, and I was absolutely mesmerized by it, which, considering that I had a powerful stereo and a dozen or so other cable channels vying for my attention says a lot, I think, about its aesthetic appeal.
Still, I can’t overstress that this is a violent and macho film that’s not even remotely politically correct – the women characters are beaten often and hard, and their only reaction, other than tears, is a sort of resigned gratitude, and in one scene the movie’s lone black character gets angry but is offered chicken and he calms down right away. Despite his work on Apocalypse Now, which would seem to suggest an artistic bent, Milius’s career milieu has stayed more or less in the realm of adventure, violence and manliness, and Dillinger fits right in. Dillinger, played brilliantly Warren Oates, is an anti-hero whose lack of classic handsomeness is compensated for with undiluted confidence and unlawful bravery. All his life he wanted to not only be a bank robber but to be the best one America had ever seen – a legend. He’s pursued by Melvin Pervis, the original FBI “G-Man,” played by Ben Johnson (whose performance calls to mind Hank Hill of King of the Hill, only a lot meaner). His sole aim is to shoot Dillinger himself in vengeance for the death of a friend and colleague in the legendary Kansas City Massacre, and to smoke a cigar over his dying body. Yet this is Milius’s big attempt at art cinema, and beyond the plot and the Hollywood shoot-em-up conventions there’s a kind of cinematic music going on in the images and editing and the texture and mood of the scenes. Though not consistently gorgeous throughout, the way other great films of the time were (Godfather, Godfather II, Badlands), it has moments, many of them, as well as some terrific montages of black-and-whites of those very hard times.
Also, like almost all movies from bygone days about bygone days, the film offers an interesting perspective on the changing times. Watching it recently, I couldn’t help but think about the current debate on gun laws, in no small part because of the many references in the film to the NRA – the New Deal one, the National Recovery Administration. It was the very real gun battles that this film is was based on that that lead to our country’s earliest gun control measures, the ban on machine guns from the general public. As I watched I wondered if the stories in this film are what today’s NRA have in mind they talk about the Second Amendment as a safeguard against a tyranny, if this is the kind of the world they want us to go back to (remember that it was a long succession of Republicans in the White House who lead us to the Great Depression). Maybe the violence between the feds and the freedom-loving bad guys that makes this film so exciting and loud, maybe that’s the kind of America Wayne LaPierre wants us to live in again.- Joe Miller