Friday, June 27, 2014

DVR Diary: DILLINGER (1945)

It's hard to believe that the King Bros's poverty-row biopic, a prestige picture for lowly Monogram, was once controversial. Compared to John Milius's 1973 Dillinger and Michael Mann's 2009 Public Enemies, Max Nosseck's picture is a harshly unromanticized view of its subject, emphasizing John Dillinger's essential viciousness and pettiness as Nosseck's successors do not. The viciousness was part of the problem, however. By 1945 standards Dillinger is a very violent movie, and violence has always been crucial to movies' alleged glamorization of criminals. For those who decried that glamorization, and saw it at work in Nosseck's film, the way a gangster story was told often belied its moral. A wise old man of Hollywood saw the danger.

What gangster film doesn't want to tell the audience that Crime Does Not Pay? The proof was the dead gangster at the end of the picture. It was the same way in comic books. At the time Dillinger came out, a comic called Crime Does Not Pay was arguably the most popular title in the country. Yet crime comics were as controversial as crime movies, and for the same reason. The problem was sensationalism and violence. No matter what your ostensible message is, all the shooting and killing could make a different impression on impressionable youth. What does it matter that crime does not pay if violence becomes an end unto itself? From the time of the first crime movies, the great fear has been that violence will inspire violence, that impressionable youth will imitate what thrills them on screen. In more modern terms, Dillinger may die at the end, but while he's killing and robbing kids may find him cool.

Later Dillinger films practically invite you to find the man cool,but Nosseck's film takes more of a Crime Does Not Pay approach. As you can read above, Monogram defended its picture as "the greatest indictment of crime ever produced." And to be fair, the picture goes out of its way to portray Dillinger as a loser, a broken man in his last days, talking big briefly about forming a new super-gang but quickly deferring the event to the following year he'll never see. As played in his introductory role by Lawrence Tierney -- given unusal billing apart from the other actors and after all the other opening credits, with a fanfare of thunder and lightning - John Dillinger is a jerk who never forgets a slight, the kind of man who remembers being called a chiseler by a waiter years afterward and returns to kill the offender who had probably forgotten him within hours. He's an ingrate who bullies and eventually kills his bank-robbing mentor Specs Green (Edmund Lowe). He's kill-crazy in a way the real man really wasn't. I doubt anyone watching the film found him admirable, but some may still have enjoyed the film's violence for its own sake, tame as it is by 21st century standards.

It's tempting to treat Dillinger as a film noir since Dillinger is undone by a woman. Nosseck and writer Phillip Yordan sacrifice history to dramatic unity by making the "Lady in Red" who betrayed Dillinger in Chicago a longtime girlfriend (Anne Jeffries). She's one of his first stick-up victims, a ticket seller for a movie theater -- there's a movie motif throughout, befitting the man who met his end outside the Biograph Theater -- who's turned on by him enough to back out of identifying him in a police lineup. She proves as cynical and materialistic a customer as her boyfriend, blatantly taking up with another man after Dillinger's arrest in Tucson and finally betraying Dillinger for no other reason than the $10,000 reward money once she realizes he's washed up. In a way Dillinger starts as a Crime Does Not Pay morality play and ends up as something closer to a noir. It's telling that the film forgets its initial framing device. We open in a movie theater watching a newsreel account of Dillinger's exploits. Then an old man walks onstage and identifies himself as Dillinger's father. He explains that his son grew up like any ordinary kid, but as an adult simply never got used to the routine of doing the same thing every day. You may assume that we'll return to Papa Dillinger for the moral of the story, but the film ends with the cops' blunt inventory of the dead Dillinger's worldly possessions. On the surface this is a Crime Does Not Pay moment, but Yordan and Nosseck, or a studio editor, decided against giving anyone a definitive last word. As a result, the last we see of Dillinger is a broken man betrayed by his girl once he's used up and out of money. It looks almost as much like victimization as retribution. Rather than glorifying Dillinger, the picture makes him almost pitiable at the end. It was perhaps too subtle a statement of the Crime Does Not Pay argument for the movie moralists to recognize, and the audiences those moralists were afraid of probably only cared for the violence.

The 1945 Dillinger sets itself up as an epic with that thunder-and-lightning opening, but it falls short of the folk-epic quality of the Milius and Mann films. While the role of Dillinger made Tierney a short-lived star, and earned him a part in Reservoir Dogs nearly forty years later (his character says someone is "as dead as Dillinger"), the young actor is neither the perfect fit that Warren Oates was for Milius nor the cool icon Johnny Depp was for Mann. Tierney simply contributes a degree of brutality that was unusual and thus fresh for the time, but hasn't dated well. Nosseck surrounds him with ace character actors: Specs Green's gang includes Eduardo Ciannelli, Elisha Cook Jr. and Marc Lawrence, who are all fine, though the final scenes with Tierney and Jeffries probably have the best acting in the picture. I would say this Dillinger has value for illustrating what the culture thought of the man a decade after his death, but the controversy suggests that the culture still wasn't sure what it thought of John Dillinger. It was easier simply to treat him as a legendary outlaw the further we got away from his own time. This Dillinger also illustrates a new uncertainty about how to portray criminals in general, and that tension between moralizing and noirification will probably keep the film interesting to film buffs for as long as the categories matter.

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