Dillinger (1973 film)

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Promotional poster
Directed by John Milius
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff
Lawrence Gordon
Buzz Feitshans
Robert Papazian
Written by John Milius
Starring Warren Oates
Ben Johnson
Harry Dean Stanton
Cloris Leachman
Music by Barry De Vorzon
Cinematography Jules Brenner
Edited by Fred R. Feitshans Jr.
Distributed by American International Pictures
Release dates
  • 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 gangster film about the life and criminal exploits of notorious bank robber John Dillinger.

It stars Warren Oates as Dillinger and Ben Johnson as his pursuer, FBI Agent Melvin Purvis. It contains the first film performance by the singer Michelle Phillips as Dillinger's moll as 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, 1933-34.

The film features 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, but died before the film's release. The written words of Hoover are read at the film's close by 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.



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. Samuel Z. Arkoff said that AIP approached him with the offer to direct Dillinger if he would write the script "for a fraction of his usual price."[3]

The project was announced in April 1972.[4]

"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."[5]

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 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."[5]

Milius says he wanted to make a movie about Dillinger because "of all the outlaws, he was the most marvellous".[6] 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[5]

Michelle Phillips claimed she got cast by pretending to be half Cherokee, like her character.[7]


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 and the old iron truss bridge near Mannsville, Oklahoma in the South, the Skirvin Tower ballroom, and the Midwest Theater in Oklahoma City, filling in as the Biograph.

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.[5]


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.[8]

Fiction vs Facts[edit]

  • 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.
  • A Chicago bank Guard 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
  • The Little Bohemia Lodge Shootout implies that about four of the Dillinger gang are killed {including Herbert Youngblood} and half a score of federal agents were casualties. In fact in the raid the first three men being shot {by mistake by the FBI} were two YCC workers and a local resident {1 killed and two wounded} while lawman casualties were three-one FBI agent killed; one FBI agent wounded {Dazed} and one constable critically wounded}
  • Homer Van Meter is shown escaping from Little Bohemia and then being killed by Iowa Vigilantes. In fact he was killed in St. Paul, Minnesota. {Dillinger gang member Tommy Carroll (criminal) was mortally wounded during a shootout with police in Waterloo Iowa June 7, 1934}
  • Charles Makley is shown dying of a wound and buried in a grave by Dillinger; in fact Mackley was killed September 22, 1934 while trying to escape from prison. {Dillinger gang member John Hamilton (gangster) did die of wounds and whose remains were later found in a grave}


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

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 (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 04 Aug 1974: 202.
  4. ^ Murphy, M. (1972, Apr 14). CALL SHEET. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/156924730?accountid=13902
  5. ^ a b c d Norma, L. B. (1973, Jan 28). Movies. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current File) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/170336444?accountid=13902
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ 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?accountid=13902
  8. ^ Ken Plume, "Interview with John Milius", IGN, 7 May 2003 accessed 5 January 2013
  9. ^ "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p 50

External links[edit]