Dillinger Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
During the Great Depression, infamous gangster John Dillinger (Warren Oats) made headlines robbing banks throughout the American Midwest. Despite he and his gang’s violent behavior, he became a Robin Hood-like folk hero when he courted publicity and flaunted his crimes against an unpopular federal government.
After years of paying his dues and helping his USC film school buddies as a writer, “Zen anarchist” John Milius was finally handed a chance to direct by Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures. He accepted a fraction of his usual writing fee for the right and began work on Dillinger in 1972. AIP wanted to tap into the transformative box-office impact of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which inspired a series of stylishly down-to-earth, rural crime films throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, while Corman himself found nominal success with a similar period piece called Bloody Mama (1970). Indeed, Penn’s film struck its biggest chord with the developing New Hollywood movement. Studios of all sizes approached Milius’ contemporaries to make more of the same. This resulted in the theatrical debuts of Terrence Malick (Badlands, 1973), Steven Spielberg Sugarland Express, 1974; noting that Duel was originally made for television), and Milius, as well as Martin Scorsese’s first gig as a director-for-hire (Boxcar Bertha, for AIP in 1972), and one of the biggest hits of Sam Peckinpah’s middle career (The Getaway, 1972).
Dillinger is sort of unique among the other Bonnie and Clyde “imitators” (a term that really only applies to these films from a distribution point-of-view), because it was also based on an actual American criminal-turned-folk-hero, rather than an amalgam or real people or a stand-in fictional character. And, just like Penn, Milius has romanticized the facts of the case, making the real-world gangster into more of a mythical figure that fit the modern politics of the New Hollywood movement (not to be outdone, he actually includes half a dozen other famed criminal figures in the fringes of the story). Of course, Milius’ politics were rarely in-line with his liberal peers and the affection with which he treats Dillinger’s anti-government crusade fits his anarchic worldview. At the same time, Milius is fascinated by the flaws and contradicting characteristics of supposedly heroic people (he wrote the subversive Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, the same year as Dillinger), so he isn’t changing the true tale for the sake of putting a criminal on a pedestal – something that seems to be the chief criticism of the film. There are many film versions of John Dillinger’s life story (Wikipedia lists as many as fourteen assorted big and small screen iterations), including some that are sorely concerned with authenticity. There’s plenty of room for Milius’ character-driven and drive-in-friendly rendition.
In fact, the entire film is brimming with a kind of playful irony that defines Milius’ writing, but had otherwise somehow escaped most of his work as a director. As a first-time filmmaker, he freely experiments with cinematic style without alienating a mainstream audience. He acknowledges the artificiality of period filmmaking, he turns the tone on a dime between comedy and drama without any warning, and stretches his modest budget well beyond its limits with black & white stock footage and still image montages. Despite some major dips in pacing (it feels longer than its 107-minute running time), it may even be my personal favorite of the films he has directed, because his choices don’t feel bound by a genre structure or even the demands of an air-tight screenplay. I also enjoy the fact that Dillinger connected to the emerging New Hollywood, the late AIP drive-in era, and the nihilistic westerns of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. The key associations are with Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) – both of which star Warren Oates. And, though nearly a decade separates them, Dillinger has conceptual ties to Walter Hill’s James Gang fable, The Long Riders (1980). Both films are the products of Peckinpah’s mythical westerns and defined by personality over historical truth, shocking violence, and casts of the best character actors money can buy.
Dillinger was available on anamorphic DVD from MGM in North America and Germany, and in Britain from Icon entertainment. I first saw it on Netflix streaming (probably five years ago), where it was presented in HD. Arrow has not simply recycled that transfer for this 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray debut – they’ve utilized a brand new 2K restoration of the original film materials. Unlike the most of Arrow’s Blu-ray’s North American Blu-ray releases, Dillinger isn’t going to be available in the UK (Icon might still have the release rights there). It’s not a perfect image, but it’s difficult to judge if the clarity issues have anything to do with the scan or the encode. Besides some big squiggly vertical lines around the 58-minute mark, there aren’t many major print damage artifacts. The whole movie is a little dark and the fine wide-angle details are a bit mushy, but these are both likely symptoms of the rough & tumble approach that Milius and cinematographer Jules Brenner took with the film – not to mention the fact that it had a pretty low budget. Given the purposefully foggy and off-the-cuff qualities of the photography, it actually seems that the hi-res scan really has captured every possible texture and pattern available. Grain levels are pretty thick, though, again, this is expected and it doesn’t cause any substantial discoloration or additional fuzziness. There are some edge haloes throughout the higher contrast shots, but these appear to be chemical rather than issues with digital compression.
Dillinger is presented in uncompressed LPCM and its original mono sound. The low budget filmmaking doesn’t lend itself to particularly dynamic sound. The issue here isn’t clarity or distortion (thanks to the lack of compression), but the echo and inconsistency of single microphone set-ups in tight locations. The advantage to the approach is that Milius and the sound designers are able to capture the authenticity of the performances without a lot of ADR, so the flatter range and reverb is acceptable. Where environmental effects are concerned – stuff like the music and clapping of a Tucson hoedown, and the explosive impact of machine gun fire – is plenty clean and loud. Barry De Vorzon’s score is sparingly used, usually to set tension or underline a comedic/tragic element, and has a decent sense of aural depth, despite its single channel treatment. There is also an option to watch the film with an effects and score only track, also in LPCM mono.
Commentary with Stephen Prince – The author of Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies (1998, University of Texas Press) is cordial and charming as he delivers oodles of information. The content includes behind-the-scenes information, critical dissection (apparently, I missed all of the John Ford references), and historical context for both the film and the actual Depression era that the film portrays.
Shooting Dillinger (12:00, HD) – In this new interview, director of photography Jules Brenner talks about working his way up from grunt work to a camera operator/DP, shooting Dalton Trumbo on Johnny Got His Gun (1971), Milius’ writing and filmmaking choices, and photographing Dillinger.
Lawrence Gordon: Original Gangster (10:10, HD) – Another new interview, this time with the film’s producer, who runs down the behind-the-scenes process, including hiring Milius, wrangling the wildman for his first directing assignment, the film’s budget (high for AIP at $1 million), finding Milius a cast & crew, and how Dillinger led him from AIP to a major Hollywood studio.
Ballads and Bullets (12:00, HD) – The final new interview features composer Barry De Vorzon, who also begins by discussing his early career. After his success as a songwriter, he found work composing for filmmaker Stanley Kramer, which led him to Gordon and scoring Dillinger. He then talks about the rural period music he chose for the film and his working process with Gordon and Milius.
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.