Dillinger (1973 film)

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Promotional poster
Directed by John Milius
Produced by Buzz Feitshans
Written by John Milius
Starring Warren Oates
Ben Johnson
Michelle Phillips
Cloris Leachman
Music by Barry DeVorzon
Cinematography Jules Brenner
Edited by Fred R. Feitshans Jr.
Distributed by American International Pictures (theatrical)
MGM (Home video)
Release date
  • July 20, 1973 (1973-07-20)
Running time
107 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1 million[1]
Box office $2 million (US and Canada rentals)[2]

Dillinger is a 1973 American gangster film about the life and criminal exploits of notorious bank robber John Dillinger. It stars Warren Oates as Dillinger, Ben Johnson as his pursuer, FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, and Cloris Leachman as the "Lady in Red" who made it possible for Purvis to kill Dillinger. It also features the first film performance by the singer Michelle Phillips as Dillinger's moll Billie Frechette. The film, narrated by Purvis, chronicles the last few years of Dillinger's life (depicted as a matter of months) as the FBI and law enforcement closed in. The setting is Depression era America, from 1933 to 1934, with largely unromanticized depictions of the principal characters. It was written and directed by John Milius for Samuel Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures.

Retired FBI Agent Clarence Hurt, one of the agents involved in the final shootout with Dillinger, was the film's technical advisor. The film includes documentary imagery and film footage from the era. It includes a verbal renouncing of gangster films written by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover: he was scheduled to read it for the film, but died before it started production. Hoover's text is read at the film's close by voice actor Paul Frees.

The film was followed by two made-for-TV spin-offs: Melvin Purvis: G-Man (1974) (teleplay written by Milius) and The Kansas City Massacre (1975), both directed by Dan Curtis and each starring Dale Robertson as Purvis.


"Indiana, 1933". During the Great Depression, various bank robbers and other outlaws have become folk heroes due to public distrust of financial institutions and the law. Following the Kansas City Massacre in June 1933 in which several law enforcement offers were killed brazenly in broad daylight, FBI field office chief Melvin Purvis decides to personally hunt down the men he deems responsible: Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Lester "Baby Face" Nelson, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, "Handsome" Jack Klutas, Wilbur Underhill and John Dillinger. During a meeting with fellow FBI agent Samuel Cowley, Purvis makes it clear he seeks personal vengeance and that he's willing to use extralegal measures if necessary.

Dillinger is in the midst of his criminal career, accompanied by Homer Van Meter, Harry Pierpont, Charles Mackley and others and is very braggadocios about his exploits. He meets Billy Frechette at a bar and immediately takes a liking to her, but becomes nonplussed when she doesn't recognized him and robs the bar patrons to impress her. She becomes his lover, accompanying him and his gang on their exploits. During one robbery in East Chicago, the gang loses Mackley and several others, forcing the gang to scatter.

It is during this time that Purvis has begun his purge of the gangsters, hunting down and killing Underhill and Klutas and capturing Kelly. He's unable to move against Dillinger and the others as they have not violated federal laws yet. While lying low in Arizona with the rest of the gang, Dillinger is captured by the local authorities and transported to Crowne Point, Indiana. While imprisoned there, Dillinger makes a daring escape after carving a bar of soap into the shape of a gun and fooling the guards into releasing him. It is during this escape that Dillinger finally commits a federal crime, driving a stolen car across state lines.

He takes a fellow prisoner Reed Youngblood with him, and they eventually meet back up with the gang, including new members Nelson and Floyd. They start a crime spree across the Midwest to the chagrin of Purvis, angry and jealous of the how the media romanticizes their exploits. The gang's luck runs out following a bank robbery in Mason City, Iowa, which leads to a violent shootout ending in Youngblood's death and the wounding of another member. While staying at the Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin following the heist, Purvis leads a team of FBI agents on a raid of the lodge, costing numerous agents lives and sending the gang scattering again. During this chaos, Pierpont, Nelson, Van Meter and Floyd are all hunted down by either federal agents or local vigilantes and summarily killed.

While hiding in Chicago, Dillinger makes the acquaintance of a brothel owner, Anna Sage. Purvis, sensing an opportunity, offers to protect Sage from being deported if she'll help finger Dillinger. While attending the gangster film Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph Theater, Purvis and his men get into position to capture Dillinger as he, Sage and a female acquaintance exit the theater. At the last minute, Purvis instead goads Dillinger into going for his gun and then shoots the gangster down in the alleyway.

In the epilogue, it is revealed the Sage was eventually deported back to Romania despite Purvis' promise, Purvis eventually committed suicide after retiring from the FBI, Frechette ended up dying penniless, and that Dillinger's likeness is now used for the FBI's targets during shooting practice.

J. Edgar Hoover's postscript, voiced by Paul Frees[edit]

Dillinger was in production during early 1972, more than a year before its Dallas premiere on June 19, 1973. J. Edgar Hoover, who died on May 2, 1972, wrote a denunciation of the film's glamorization of gangsters. Hoover's message is delivered by voice actor Paul Frees after the end credits have stopped rolling:

"Dillinger was a rat that the country may consider itself fortunate to be rid of, and I don't sanction any Hollywood glamorization of these vermin. This type of romantic mendacity can only lead young people further astray than they are already, and I want no part of it."


Period music[edit]



In the early 1970s, John Milius was one of the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood, selling his scripts for Jeremiah Johnson and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean for record sums. He was unhappy with the way both films turned out, however and wanted to turn director. He approached Samuel Z. Arkoff of AIP with the offer of writing a script "for a fraction of his usual price" if he could direct.[3]

Milius says AIP gave him three choices - Blacula, Black Mama, White Mama or "a gangster thing with Pretty Boy Floyd or Dillinger. I looked at the gangsters of the early thirties and the one that had the most appeal was Dillinger. It was a subject I never would have chosen myself but it allowed me to show how good I could do a gunfight. It was a showcase to show everyone I could make it cut together, make the story hold and make the actors act."[4]

The project was announced in April 1972.[5]

"My father always predicted I would wind up in San Quentin by the age of 21," said Milius. "I wouldn't want to disappoint him too much. So here I am... directing a film about John Dillinger, the greatest criminal that ever lived."[6]

Milius cast Warren Oates in the lead. Milius had wanted Oates to play the lead role in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. "I write all my things for Warren Oates or young John Wayne types," he said. "Or sometimes Clint Eastwood. He looks good holding a gun. But to me John Wayne is the ultimate American hero. Not because he's big and tough but because he's sentimental. My pictures are sentimental, idealistic. I deal with values of friendliness and courtliness and the family and chivalry and honour and courage - not just guts but bigger than life courage. Nobody today writes movies in the style that I do. Nobody. I write characters that are strong and direct, superindividuals. The people in my movies fear no one but God."[6]

Milius says he wanted to make a movie about Dillinger because "of all the outlaws, he was the most marvellous".[7] He elaborated:

People admired and respected Dillinger for being the greatest criminal. They admired him because he could get away with it. Because he did it well and he did it with style. And also because he enjoyed his work. I've made a myth out of him but not a romantic myth like Bonnie and Clyde. Dillinger is a tough guy he's a Cagney. I'm not at all concerned with showing his early life or explaining how he got that way. What I'm interested in is the legend. That's what this movie is, that's exactly what it is. It's not a character study or a Freudian analysis; it's an American folk tale[6]

Michelle Phillips claimed she got cast by pretending to be half Cherokee, like her character.[8]


Filming took place in late 1972. Dillinger was filmed in its entirety in Oklahoma.

Much use of various local landmark buildings were used in the filming from Jet, Nash, Jefferson, and Enid, Oklahoma in the North, to Ardmore, the Chickasaw Country Club which served as Dillinger's Wisconsin hideout, and the old iron truss bridge near Mannsville, Oklahoma in the south, the Skirvin Tower ballroom, and the Midwest Theater in downtown Oklahoma City, filling in as the Biograph. The house at the end of the movie was filmed in Dougherty, Oklahoma.

Many local would-be actors wound up immortalized on film, such as the warden of the prison, who was in real life, an Enid, Oklahoma postman.

"It's my first time as director and I think I did an excellent job because I had such a superb script," said Milius.[6]


Milius later said in 2003:

I look at it today and I find it very crude, but I do find it immensely ambitious. We didn't have a lot of money, or time, and we didn't have such things – we only had so many feet of track, stuff like that. So I couldn't do moving shots if they involved more than, what, six yards of track. We never had any kind of crane or anything. That's the way movies were made then.[9]

By 1976 Variety estimated the film had earned $4 million in rentals.[9]

Evaluation in film guides[edit]

Steven H. Scheuer's Movies on TV (1986–87 edition) assigns Dillinger 2½ stars (out of 4), opining that "Warren Oates gives a fine performance as Dillinger, but the script leaves no room for insight into the character and thus makes him merely a cartoon book villain". Scheuer ends with, "[W]ritten and directed by John Milius, then 29 years old. Impressive debut in some ways." Leonard Maltin's TV Movies & Video Guide (1989 edition) gives a slightly higher 3 stars (out of 4), describing it as a "[H]eavily romanticized gangster movie" that "is aided by some of the roughest, most violent gun battle ever staged on screen. The last sentence indicates that the "[S]tory follows Dillinger midway through his bank-robbing career up until his death outside the Biograph Theatre." By the 2014 edition, Maltin revised the earlier sentence to indicate, "is aided by some rough, violent gun battles."

Mick Martin's & Marsha Porter's DVD & Video Guide (2007 edition) puts its rating still higher, at 4 stars (out of 5), concluding that "John Milius made an explosive directorial debut with this rip-roaring gangster film featuring Warren Oates in his best starring role. As a jaunty John Dillinger, he has all the charisma of a Cagney or a Bogart."

Among British references there was not much enthusiasm for the film, with David Shipman in his 1984 The Good Film and Video Guide giving 1 (out of 4) stars, specifying that Baby Face Nelson is portrayed by "Richard Dreyfuss acting away like mad". Shipman further notes that "[T]here are a great many gun battles and since this is an exploitation movie there is much twitching and shuddering till the bodies lie still. There is also much borrowed from Bonnie and Clyde."


  • Theodore "Handsome Jack" Klutas is shown being killed by Melvin Purvis; in fact Klutas of The College Kidnappers was killed by Chicago Police on January 6, 1934
  • Wilbur Underhill is shown being shot and killed by Melvin Purvis, in fact Underhill died on January 6, 1934, of wounds inflicted more than a week previously by an inter-jurisdictional group of law officers led by FBI Agents T.H. Colvin and Frank Smith, a survivor of the Kansas City Massacre. Purvis had nothing to do with the apprehension.
  • In this film and in a related John Milius film Melvin Purvis: G-Man George Machine Gun Kelly is shown being hunted down and captured by Purvis September 26, 1933; in fact Kelly was captured by the Memphis Tenn Police and the Birmingham Alabama Office of the FBI . {Also Kelly's alleged quote "Don't Shoot G-Man" is apparently a myth}[10] Ironically the Dillinger movie newsreel footage of Dillinger being transported from Arizona is actually that of Kelly being extradited![11]
  • A Chicago bank guard named O'Malley is killed by the Dillinger gang during a robbery attempt. In fact William Patrick O'Malley was a member of the East Chicago Police force killed January 15, 1934. Likewise Dillinger gang member Eddie Green is shown being killed in the getaway; in fact Eddie Green (criminal) was killed in March 1934.
  • Dillinger gang member Herbert Youngblood is shown being killed during a bank robbery by the Dillinger gang in Iowa. In reality Youngblood had been killed alone in a gunfight with police in March 1934.
  • The Little Bohemia Lodge shootout was filmed at the Chickasaw Country Club near Ardmore, Oklahoma. The shootout implies that about four of the Dillinger gang are killed and half a score of federal agents were casualties. In fact the first three men shot in the raid were two YCC workers and a local resident shot by the FBI by mistake (one killed and two wounded), while one FBI agent was killed, one FBI agent was wounded, and one constable was critically wounded.
  • Homer Van Meter is shown escaping from Little Bohemia and then being killed by vigilantes in Iowa, which was filmed in Dougherty, Oklahoma in the foothills of the Arbuckle Mountains. In fact he was killed in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dillinger gang member Tommy Carroll was mortally wounded during a shootout with police in Waterloo, Iowa on June 7, 1934.
  • Charles Makley is shown dying of a wound and being buried by Dillinger; in fact Mackley was killed September 22, 1934 while trying to escape from prison. Dillinger gang member John Hamilton did die of wounds, and his remains were later found in a grave.
  • Pretty Boy Floyd is shown being shot at by about a dozen FBI agents; in fact there were only about four FBI agents present. Likewise he was killed Oct 22, 1934-after Dillinger was killed July 22, 1934.


Dillinger was released to DVD by MGM Home Video on August 12, 2003 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD and by Arrow Video (under license from MGM) on April 26, 2016 as a Region 1 widescreen Blu-ray & DVD combo pack.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ A Million-Dollar 'Dillinger' by AIP Haber, Joyce. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 13 June 1973: g18
  2. ^ 'Big Rental Films of 1973', Variety, 9 Jan 1974 p19
  3. ^ The dime-store way to make movies-and money By Aljean Harmetz. New York Times 4 Aug 1974: 202.
  4. ^ Gallagher, John (1989). Film Directors on Directing. ABC-Clio. p. 174-175.
  5. ^ Murphy, M. (1972, Apr 14). CALL SHEET. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/156924730
  6. ^ a b c d Norma, L. B. (1973, Jan 28). Movies. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current File) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/170336444
  7. ^ Segaloff, Nat, "John Milius: The Good Fights", Backstory 4: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1970s and 1980s, Ed. Patrick McGilligan, Uni of California 2006 p 290
  8. ^ Mann, R. (1978, Apr 02). Michelle phillips: She's got high hopes. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/158579408
  9. ^ Ken Plume, "Interview with John Milius", IGN, 7 May 2003 accessed 5 January 2013
  10. ^ FBI page of Kelly's capture!
  11. ^ IMdb Dillinger

External links[edit]