**/**** Image B Sound B- Commentary C+
starring Lawrence Tierney, Edmund Lowe, Anne Jeffreys, Eduardo Ciannelli
screenplay by Philip Yordan
directed by Max Nosseck
by Alex Jackson You have got to be shitting me. This is Lawrence Tierney? The guy who played Joe in Reservoir Dogs and Elaine's dad on "Seinfeld", that Lawrence Tierney? The Lawrence Tierney with whom modern audiences had come to be acquainted was a goat-munching ogre; in Reservoir Dogs Mr. Orange characterized him as the real-life Thing, and indeed the only way to describe late-period Tierney is as a superhuman being. Lawrence Tierney is to heavies as Marilyn Monroe is to bombshells and Casablanca is to the movies themselves--that is to say, a conglomerate of all that have ever existed. Like Marilyn Monroe and Casablanca, Tierney is essentially an impersonal and even rather cornball artificial construction, but along those same lines, he's also a deeply iconic one. Caricature is, after all, a kissing cousin to archetype--and archetype is one of the essential ingredients of pure cinema.
Yet Dillinger-era Lawrence Tierney, circa 1945, is pretty much your standard-issue tough guy--serviceable but rather unremarkable. I guess I can detect a semblance of his older self around the face: there is no expression through the eyes or the mouth; he looks as if he has been chiselled out of stone. He's void of fear, pain, compassion--a consummate Unfuckable. That's good. What isn't so good is his head full of hair. Going bald helped attract attention back to his mug and cement his similarity to, well, Thing. Hair anchors him in the realm of mortal men--it makes him look as though he'll bleed when you prick him. The secularization of Lawrence Tierney continues with his voice. Young Tierney doesn't have that sand-papery growl familiar from Reservoir Dogs. Instead, it's a nasally wise-guy whine in the James Cagney/Edward G. Robinson mold, which I guess is what the Poverty Row filmmakers were shooting for, anyhow.
Tierney's Dillinger is unlikeable and dumb, which is a retroactive watering-down of his monstrous and slightly senile Joe from Reservoir Dogs. The aged Lawrence Tierney was inhuman in an expressive way that sort of reminded of the classic movie monsters like King Kong and Frankenstein's Monster. One could relate to him as a perpetual outsider. Young Lawrence Tierney, however, is little more than a common hood. He sort of inhabits this no man's land where he's too dumb to admire and not dumb enough to engender our sympathy.
The modesty of the young Tierney persona seems to be the central contributing factor towards the overall failure of Dillinger. As with Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, Dillinger basically revolves around a black hole. Like Anderson, Dillinger director Max Nosseck at least attempts, albeit with less success, to neutralize the fundamental emotional engagement of his audience by filling up the margins of his film with an array of distractions. There are some good moments of sheer insanity littered throughout: the fast-motion shot of a speeding car; the explosion of tear gas into the streets; and a sequence where Dillinger breaks out of prison with a wooden gun painted black with shoe polish.
The violence has a brutality to it that really pushes the limits of the Hays Code. Perhaps the best scene in the film is the one where Dillinger finds a waiter he deems responsible for sending him to jail and kills him with a broken beer bottle! We don't exactly see the actual attack--Dillinger thrusts the bottle towards the camera and then we cut to a tablecloth slowly being pulled off the table. The scene is pretty crudely done, but that detail with the tablecloth gives it a genuine pop. Because there was no penetration, per se, the censors let it pass; Dillinger illustrates that Film 101 dictum that dancing around the naughty bits tends to produce a stronger effect than explicitly showing them.
Dillinger and his gang will occasionally attack the elderly. During a getaway they run over a crawling old man and late in the film Dillinger executes a couple whose home they have taken over as a hideout. I was rather surprised to discover that these scenes deliver the same kinky kick as those of child endangerment in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds. I guess that our culture really does sanctify the elderly, who are roughly as physically vulnerable as our children and thus represent something sacred in the social fabric that our villains callously disregard. Assaulting old people: now there's a patch of nerve endings that has long since gone unmanipulated.
Alas, these peripheral bits and pieces lack the strength to upstage Dillinger's weak centre. John Dillinger's bank robberies of the 1930s are a ripe topic in that the public wasn't terribly outraged by them. In fact, they got a vicarious thrill from seeing the banks get fucked over: As many Americans saw their homes, farms, and businesses foreclosed on and their life savings evaporated, they probably saw it as only natural that the bastards get what's coming to them.
There seem to be a number of angles from which one could approach this material, and Dillinger never really finds the right one. The middle-of-the-road banality of evil in Tierney's Dillinger prevents him from becoming a straightforward folk hero (à la Bonnie and Clyde), but on the other hand, it also prevents him from becoming an indictment of antihero worship (à la The Devil's Rejects). The film threatens from time to time to exhibit some degree of self-knowledge concerning Dillinger's iconic status. It begins in a theatre with an audience watching "highlight" reel of his life in crime and it ends in a theatre with Dillinger himself watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon, laughing as the giant villain battles our rodent hero. But of course the young (and, at this point, secular) Lawrence Tierney is too small a screen presence to properly evoke the character's larger-than-lifeness.
And besides, there is a sense that the filmmakers want to have their cake and eat it, too. I can't think of an ending simultaneously more right and more wrong than when the cops shoot down Dillinger and empty out his pockets to the tune of seven dollars and twenty cents, which is the exact same amount that he went to jail for! This is too portentous an irony to support a reading of Dillinger as a revisionist gangster film (meaning that the secularization of the Dillinger iconology is the actual point). I mean, do cops really keep a verbal record of the contents of the deceased's pockets right there on the crime scene?
This suggests that the message is "crime doesn't pay," as Dillinger has ended up precisely where he started out. But combined with an earlier scene where he listens to "Silent Night" while hiding out and the information in the beginning that he came from a good family out in the Midwest, I think that the filmmakers, trying to milk the sequence for tragedy, are positing that he lost his soul in his greed for the high life. I was reminded of how Bob Guccione prefaced Caligula with a title card saying: "What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" -Matthew 16:26--then cut to Caligula in the midst of sex-play with his sister. Nosseck forgot to provide the good Dillinger before the bad to illustrate the apparent character arc.
Warner Home Video issues Dillinger on DVD both as a stand-alone title and as part of their five-disc "Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 2." The occasionally unstable 1:33:1 transfer has its share of scratches but is altogether passable, although the Mickey Mouse cartoon, perhaps aided by its simplicity of contrasts, looks absolutely gorgeous. While the Dolby 1.0 mono audio sounds a tad bit tinny to my ears, I don't know how much of this can be contributed to composer Dmitri Tiomkin's shrill score. It's consistently clear, at least, if slightly faded due to age.
The only extras are the film's theatrical trailer and an audio commentary by John Milius. Milius is predictably useless; his only credentials for recording the track appear to be that he directed 1973's Dillinger starring Warren Oates, as there isn't a lot of insight and there are quite a few gaps in the track. Still, Milius cruises by on cuddly-old-man machismo--it's like watching a movie with your grandpa. A moment where Milius observes that a subplot about a grape obsession never pays off and he briefly recites some of the grape-oriented dialogue made me laugh out loud in semi-recognition. Um, maybe you had to be there. Milius's observations are interspersed with excerpts from an interview with screenwriter Phillip Yordan, who's around just long enough to tell a Lawrence Tierney story and mention how he co-wrote the script with William Castle (yep, that William Castle). Though I would have preferred a good documentary on the film, all things considered Warner has given Dillinger a treatment a notch better than it deserves. Originally published: September 5, 2005.