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Retro Review: John Milius’ “Dillinger” Explodes Onto The Screen Via Arrow Video!


Steve Johnson skips horror and delves into depression era crime with a look at Arrow Video’s release of John Milius’ “Dillinger,” starring Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Dreyfuss.

Here’s a quick synopsis before we crash through the doors guns blazing:

NOBODY DID IT LIKE DILLINGER! The runaway success of “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967 proved massively influential: it made stars of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, introduced a new form of violence to movies, and inspired a stream of imitators, including “Bloody Mama,” Martin Scorsese’s “Boxcar Bertha” and the directorial debut of John Milius with “Dillinger.”

Milius presents John Dillinger as an almost mythical figure, tracing the rise and fall of the Depression era’s Public Enemy Number One as he takes on the banks and the G-men, led by the infamous Melvin Purvis.

Starring Sam Peckinpah favorites Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as Dillinger and Purvis, and with a supporting cast including Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Dreyfuss and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, Dillinger is a top drawer gangster picture: explosive, stylish and hugely entertaining.

REVIEW: It is no secret my favorite genre in film is horror, but this week I’ve taken time off from blood and guts. Well, I didn’t venture too far from blood. John Milius’ “Dillinger” recounts the personal life and violent exploits of notorious depression era bank robber John Dillinger during the final days of his tear across the Midwest. This film represents John Milius’ first foray into directing major motion pictures and he delivers a straightforward action film that is equal parts charm and violence.

Available now from Arrow Video!
Available now from Arrow Video!

Dillinger begins with the charismatic criminal robbing a bank and quickly escalates from there. What follows is a film that, despite his violent trappings, essentially portrays Dillinger as a folk or anti-hero. It is clear Milius has an affection for the real-life criminal. Warren Oates delivers a fantastic performance as the titular law breaker and eerily looks like Dillinger. Look it up. It will blow your mind. On a side note, while watching the film, I kept racking my brain as to where I have seen Oates before and it hit me. Oates portrayed Sgt. Hulka in “Stripes.” Anyway, back to the review. Dillinger’s nemesis in the film is FBI agent Melvin Purvis, who is played by Ben Johnson. Johnson delivers an amazing performance and comes off as more of a villain than law enforcement agent. His ritualistic and personal killings of not only Dillinger’s men, but other prominent criminals of the time brings a darkness to the character you don’t feel with Dillinger. There are also excellent performances by the surrounding cast including Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis and Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson. Be on the lookout for a Cloris Leachman cameo at the end of the film.

This just wouldn’t be a gangster film without violence and, trust me, this one brings it. I was shocked at the level of violence. There are ample gunfights and car chases strewn throughout the entire run time of the film. When the bullets fly, so does the blood. I almost forgot, numerous innocent bystanders and cops also get violently run over by vehicles. On a completely different note, the choreography of the gun battles and cinematography in the film is top notch. Dillinger alternates between being brutal to completely beautiful at the drop of a dime. Milius knocked it out of the park in his directorial debut.

This Blu-Ray & DVD set includes a brand new 2K restoration of the film. It seems redundant at this point, but Arrow has once again delivered an amazing presentation of a film. There is little doubt this is the best this film has and will ever look. The contrast between the rural mid-western settings, bright red blood, and the big city lights of Chicago pops off the screen and is amazing. The audio is presented in its original mono format. I would love to hear how this film would sound with a new 5.1 mix. The already amazing sounding gun battles and car chases would have benefitted greatly from an updated mix.

With this set you get a few decent special features, beginning with a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips. I really dig reversible cover art and love what Phillips brings to the table with his design featuring the titular character standing front and center with a tommy gun. You also get a great collector’s booklet containing new writing by Kim Newman on fictional portrayals of John Dillinger, plus an on-set report containing interviews with writer-director John Milius and others, illustrated with original production stills. While there are no featurettes, if you are a fan of audio commentaries, there is a decent one here by Stephen Price, author of “Savage Cinema” and “Screening Violence.” Three newly-filmed interviews with the film’s director of photography, Jules Brenner, producer, Lawrence Gordon, and composer, Barry De Vorzon, offer up inside information into the production of the film. These three gentlemen mostly sing the praises of John Milius and discuss how the film came together to become a surprisingly polished piece of cinema despite limited resources. Rounding out the special features are a theatrical trailer, an isolated music and effects track, a stills gallery, and optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.

I absolutely love this film. If you’re a fan of true crime and gangster films, this one is for you. Run out and throw your hard earned, hopefully not stolen, money down on Dillinger. — Steve Johnson, Gangster of Love