John Milius is best known as a screenwriter, having penned the scripts for Dirty Harry, 1941, The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean and Apocalypse Now. As a director Milius is often overshadowed by his contemporaries George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, though his first feature, Dillinger (1973) is on par with both The Rain People (1969) and THX:1138 (1971).
Hot on the heels of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967), Dillinger follows the formula almost exactly. The main difference is in the style of Milius’ telling of John Dillinger’s story. Milius colors his film with devices and techniques established in the early Warner Bros. gangster films like Public Enemy (1931) and Little Caesar (1931). From the use of montage to the larger than life portrayal of Dillinger, Milius’ film behaves as a unique piece of film revivalism rather than homage. Most films that employ such techniques cannot escape the homage, clumsily cutting from a modern film vernacular to an older one. Milius blends the old Warner Bros. tactics with the graphic violence and manly machismo of a Sam Peckinpah film (even casting Wild Bunch (1968)co-stars Warren Oates and Ben Johnson opposite each other as Dillinger and G-Man Purvis). The result is not just a modern reimagining of an often-told story, but of a genre of filmmaking.
A close examination of the violence in Dillinger is telling of two things. First, the violence is realistically bloody, and the perpetrators of this violence are depicted as psychologically corrupt. This places Dillinger firmly within the popular aesthetic dominating American cinema in the early seventies, the outsider anti-hero versus the establishment. Secondly, like the Cagney films of old, violence is treated not just as tragedy, but also as comedy. Richard Dreyfuss’ Baby Face Nelson brings a light air to his handgun violence, evoking the antics of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Milius has played up the comedy of his violence beyond the expectations one has for a Cagney film to balance the amount of gore a film made in the seventies was allowed.
The main reason Dillinger is often overlooked is that it is an American International Pictures release. Since Bonnie & Clyde, Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman had been producing a string of B-Movie imitations, of which Dillinger was, supposedly. Unlike Arkoff’s other efforts, Big Bad Mama (1974), Dillinger has a distinct style. Revisionist through and through, Milius set out not to reinvent the language of his genre (the gangster film), but to update it.
Dillinger may evoke classic film aesthetic tendencies and contemporary trends, but it also provides the critic with a blueprint with which to analyze John Milius’ later films. Like all of Milius’ work, as both a writer and a director, Dillinger is a film about a singular man, who has surrounded himself with an entourage of friends, who endeavors to fulfill some other worldly objective, Dillinger and his gang wish to live as bank robbers, caught up in the romanticism of Jesse James and Butch Cassidy during the Great Depression. The odds are against Dillinger just as they are against Lt. Willard in Apocalypse Now. Both characters finish their journeys alone; their “gangs” having been killed along the way, reaching their objectives only to find out they have failed on some level (Dillinger literally, Willard spiritually). This is the vital theme to all of Milius’ work. In an America tainted by Vietnam and Nixon, Milius embraces the John Huston notion of masculinity with gusto, though Milius’ romanticism is colored by the tragedy of Peckinpah’s archetypal formula of a “man out of time”. Like Peckinpah, and eventually Huston (Fat City, Under The Volcano), Milius does not believe there is a place for the “larger than life” male in the seventies.
Milius’ distinct perspective of the male image in American cinema reflects a trend in film. As the seventies progressed, male figures who were once romanticized like John Dillinger and Billy The Kid fell from filmic prominence. These figures of old were replaced by new and more sensitive models of masculinity, such as Sylvester Stalone’s Rocky, Warren Beatty’s John Reed, and Woody Allen. It seems logical that feminism and other activist programs paved the way for this shift, causing a decline in pictures made in both the gangster and western genres, a symptom of sociological progress.