Monday, June 13, 2011
Dillinger - 1945
“Dillinger” (1945) is a fast-paced “B” movie that stands out as the first dramatization on the life of real-life gangster John Dillinger, and takes much of its energy from the infamy of his headline grabbing career.
What seems most interesting about this movie, apart from the rather psychopathic characterization actor Lawrence Tierney gives his character, is the not-quite-documentary, not-quite-noir look of the film. It is missing that stylish, guilty-pleasure treatment of the more famous gangster films of the 1930s, such as the very film John Dillinger saw just moments before he was gunned down by FBI agents in 1934: “Manhattan Melodrama” with Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. Have a look at our discussion of that movie here.
The capture and killing of John Dillinger occurred July 22, 1934, only some 11 years before “Dillinger” was made, at Chicago’s Biograph Theater. Have a look here for photos and our recent discussion on the Biograph.
Though the real John Dillinger was reportedly not the psychopath Lawrence Tierney modeled him to be, the post-War film seemed to have done with bank robbers as Robin Hood figures, whose problems stemmed from troubled childhoods on the wrong side of the tracks, who needed only the love of a good woman and a helping hand from a friendly priest to set them on the path of salvation…even if that conversion began only on death row.
Mr. Tierney gives a riveting performance, if not as John Dillinger, then as a reasonable facsimile of a guy hell-bent to make his mark on his particular world.
“Shane” here, round out the gang. These men are fictitious characters, based on Dillinger’s real associates, but no real names or situations are used. Some scenarios are manipulated for dramatic effect. For instance, later on in the film, Tierney carves a gun out of a piece of wood while in jail (how a fellow inmate got a knife to whittle is not explained), and breaks out when the guard thinks it’s real. Actually, John Dillinger did once escape from a jail when his lawyer smuggled into him a wooden gun.
Tierney is paroled before the rest of the gang, and he smuggles weapons to them so they can break out of prison. There is a power struggle between him and Edmund Lowe, who is the senior member of the group. Lowe is eventually dethroned by Tierney when the men give him their confidence as a result of Tierney’s imaginative and successful bank robbery schemes.
“Pride of the Yankees” (1942), and “Casablanca” (1943), and others. Elisha Cook, Jr. calls them Mom and Pop.
When Eduardo Cianelli grows restless in the rural hideout and complains of the noise of the crickets, Edmund Lowe sarcastically fires back, “Why don’t you complain to John? He’ll knock them off for you.” The gang is growing nervous about Dillinger’s fits of temper and his readiness to use his gun. Soon, he shoots Edmund Lowe dead, kills another for trying escape the hideout, and when Elisha Cook, Jr. is killed in a heist, Mom and Pop show a little gumption and try to call the police on the phone. Tierney murders them both.
Cut to six months later, June 1934, and he has grown his familiar mustache (though Tierney looks nothing like Dillinger). Stir crazy and out of cigarettes, he says to Anne Jeffreys, “Let’s go to the movies.”
Though it’s a black and white movie, we are informed Miss Jeffreys’ dress is red. This is to foreshadow again the actual circumstances (though much twisted) of Dillinger’s demise. He was turned in by the so-called Lady in Red, but in real life this was not his girlfriend at the time; it was a brothel owner, originally an immigrant from Europe, who made a deal with the FBI to lead them to Dillinger in exchange for not deportng her.
When Dillinger leaves the movies, he is shot dead in the alley, with the same $7.20 he had in his wallet as at the beginning of the film.
“Dillinger” is a hybrid between something documentary and something noir, and never really achieving either, but it was explosive enough in its day to draw the criticism of religious groups, and to be banned for two years from being shown in Chicago by the Chicago Censorship Board.