Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dillinger (King Brothers/Monogram, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a movie I’d actually videotaped earlier: Dillinger, the 1945 Monogram version with Lawrence Tierney in the title role and Anne Jeffreys as his girlfriend (they meet when he holds up the movie theatre at which she’s working in the box office, and she gets him off the hook when she gets such a bad case of the hots for him that she backs off the positive identification she had made of him earlier — happens all the time, at least in Hollywood’s version of the criminal life). Surprisingly, the film had some major names attached to it: Dimitri Tiomkin did the music (not that it sounded all that much better than the dreary library-stock music Monogram usually used) and the director was Max Nosseck, a refugee who’d had a major reputation in France as a director of slow, moody thrillers.

Unfortunately, any attempts at atmosphere or style Nosseck may have been tempted to try for were lost in the unrelenting cheapness and tackiness of Monogram’s production, with its liberal use of clips from other movies — not only did they copy one entire robbery out of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once eight years before, they printed the stock footage so that the frame jumped as it ran — and its flat, clear photography (only one scene — showing Dillinger hiding out, just before his death — has that kind of shadowy, maudit quality Nosseck and the other 1930’s French thriller directors so loved) undermines any attempt to make this more than a gangster potboiler with an imposing name in the title.

A pity this microbudget production wastes not only a good story but a good cast (Elisha Cook, Jr. and Eduardo Ciannelli are especially effective in supporting roles) — a pity, too, that the Production Code people flatly prohibited the studios from making a Dillinger movie for a full decade after he was killed by FBI agents in 1934; one can only dream of what kind of a movie Warners might have been able to make of the Dillinger story in the late 1930’s when the actor who so strongly resembled Dillinger that his entire early career in films was built on the resemblance — Humphrey Bogart — was still available for this sort of thing (not that Lawrence Tierney was bad — actually his portrayal was good, though his career proved limited because all he could be was a tough guy, whereas Bogart could have sounded more depths in the role). — 1/16/98


The film I picked out was Dillinger, the 1945 Monogram version (there’ve been at least two “open” Dillinger biopics since: a 1973 version directed by John Milius with Warren Oates as star, and the currently in-release Public Enemies, directed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp). I just got this from the Columbia House DVD Club along with two recent movies that have been on my want-to-see list, The International and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, and almost certainly Warners, the current holders of the Monogram catalog (at least those parts of it that haven’t lapsed into the public domain), reissued it on DVD now to take advantage of any interest in John Dillinger among moviegoers from the promotion of Public Enemies.

Incidentally, everyone in this movie pronounces “Dillinger” with a soft “g,” which according to biographer John Toland (whose book The Dillinger Days would have made an excellent basis for a Dillinger movie, though the film it did inspire wasn’t about him at all; Toland periodically cut in the stories of other notorious gangsters of the period, and his descriptions of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow inspired the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde) was wrong: the Dillingers were descendants of German immigrants and pronounced the name German-style, with a hard “g.”

I’d seen the 1945 Dillinger before and not been especially impressed, even though it was clearly reaching beyond the usual Monogram tackiness: the director was French émigré Max Nosseck, the writer was Philip Yordan (who actually achieved an Academy Award nomination!), there was an original music score by Dimitri Tiomkin (though it wasn’t recorded especially well and ended up sounding much like the usual Monogram sludge anyway) and the supporting characters included Edmund Lowe, Eduardo Ciannelli (whose role here as one of Dillinger’s henchmen must have had him looking nostalgically back on the days when, as a Lucky Luciano-based character in Warners’ Marked Woman, he had run the entire underworld in New York City!) and Elisha Cook, Jr.

Dillinger was played by Lawrence Tierney, who gets an “introducing” credit here and was apparently as tough off screen as on — he got into a lot of real-life fights and other embarrassing situations, behaving as much as possible like the tough guy he played in his films without actually becoming an outlaw — and he’s certainly good casting for the part, though one still regrets the 10-year ban on Dillinger as a movie subject imposed by the Production Code Administration after the real one was killed in 1934 because it cost us the putative Dillinger movie Warners could have made with the actor who was almost literally born to play the part, Humphrey Bogart. (I once read a biography of Dillinger by Ovid Demaris which featured a cover photo that looked astonishingly like Bogart — though the resemblance between the two wasn’t as great by the time Dillinger died because he’d had a bad plastic surgery job and the leftover scars were clearly visible in the photos of his corpse — and in any case it was Bogart’s resemblance to Dillinger that launched his career: it won Bogart the Dillingeresque role of Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest on both stage and film, and the part made him a star.)

Needless to say, Yordan’s script has only a bare resemblance to the facts of Dillinger’s life; though like the real one, the movie Dillinger meets some ace bank robbers while in prison for a minor stick-up, joins their gang and ultimately takes it over, evades state and local cops throughout the Midwest only to be nabbed in Tucson, Arizona, gets sent back to jail in his native Indiana, escapes by using a wooden gun he made in his cell, is finally tracked down by the FBI and shot to death outside a movie theatre showing the 1934 MGM production Manhattan Melodrama (a gangster film — what else?). Dillinger has some of the usual Monogram tackiness — notably the Farmers’ Bank robbery sequence, which was lifted almost completely from Fritz Lang’s 1937 classic You Only Live Once (just a couple of crude cut-ins of Tierney and Cook serve to integrate it into the main action) and printed in a jumpy, off-sprocket fashion at that (a technical glitch I was hoping would have been addressed in this DVD transfer — it wasn’t, and the original trailer, included on the DVD, also included shots from this jumpily reproduced clip from another, greater film) — but it also has some surprisingly substantial sets, notably the prison interiors (though they may have just rented space at a major studio that had standing prison sets already), a quite good cast and a relatively literate script.

Where it falls short of the film it could have been is in the pace — the movie has some individually exciting moments but just sort of rambles on between them, and one misses the sheer energy with which Warners would have staged this script — but I still found myself liking it a good deal better than I had before. The excellent DVD transfer helps a lot — for the first time I got to see this in a print that did full justice to Jackson Rose’s chiaroscuro cinematography — and among the good points are Anne Jeffreys, an unjustly neglected actress who plays a (fictitious) girlfriend of Dillinger’s who ultimately becomes the fabled “Lady in Red” who set him up to be killed by the FBI; she manages to capture the emotional tumult inside this basically decent person who finds herself irresistibly attracted to a kill-crazy thug. The supporting cast in general live up to their reputations, though Dillinger’s relationship with Kirk Otto (Elisha Cook, Jr.) is pretty straightforward and doesn’t have the deliciously homoerotic aspects of their subsequent teaming in the otherwise disappointing Born to Kill. Edmund Lowe is particularly good as Specs Green, the expert who’s Dillinger’s cellmate and teaches him all he needs to know about bank robbery (though Dillinger never thinks to ask him, “Hey, if you’re so good at it, what are you doing here in prison with me?”) and tells him, “Never kill somebody except for a reason” — advice Dillinger, of course, ignores.

Needless to say, a lot of the potentially fascinating angles that could be taken on Dillinger aren’t followed up in this movie — there’s only a hint of the media frenzy around him (though there’s an early establishing shot of Dillinger and a date at a movie theatre where the featured attraction is Dillinger’s actual father, hosting a newsreel about him); there’s nothing about the clash between local law enforcement and the FBI (when I read Toland’s The Dillinger Days I remember thinking that the movie I’d like to have seen made from it would have been called Dillinger and Leach — Leach being Matt Leach, head of the Indiana State Police, who became personally obsessed with Dillinger and, after the FBI took over the manhunt for him, got so paranoid about Hoover’s G-men that he actually urged Indianians not to cooperate with FBI agents),and I also fear that the release of the Public Enemies movie may have discouraged Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City — the marvelous book that combined the story of a real-life Chicago serial killer, H. H. Holmes, with the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair — from doing the obvious follow-up: a conflation of Dillinger’s story with that of the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition, also in Chicago, which Dillinger actually attended frequently.

The 1945 Dillinger was made at the height of the film noir era and is sometimes referred to as a noir (though The Film Noir Encyclopedia doesn’t list it), but it doesn’t really have the moral ambiguity needed for noir and, despite the credit to a French director, only one sequence — Dillinger alone in a cheap hotel room shortly before his death, lonely, miserable and frustrated despite the amount of money he’s stolen and the public assumption that he’s living the high life — even looks like a scene from a French thriller, Nonetheless, the 1945 Dillinger is a quite competent movie and Tierney plays the part as well as anyone except Bogart could have at the time — and it helped producers Frank and Maurice King and screenwriter Yordan achieve major-studio careers. — 7/16/09