Willie Sutton robbed banks during the Depression because, he explained, "That's where the money is." Former Indiana farmboy John Dillinger also knew where the money was. And his string of early-1930s heists, murders and daring jailbreaks were so bold and notorious he became Public Enemy #1. Dillinger, Oscar-nominated* for its screenplay, is the bullet-paced story of the man whose crimes captivated and terrified the nation. Lawrence Tierney plays the title role, breaking free of screen anonymity and moving into a 50-year tough-guy career that would include 1947's Born to Kill and 1992's Reservoir Dogs. Perhaps it was a brutal early prison stretch that turned Dillinger from kid to killer. Perhaps he was a murderous thug to his core. Either way, Dillinger presents his story with film-noir style and lets you decide.
Jean-Luc Godard dedicated his first film, Breathless
, to Monogram Pictures, and Dillinger
(1945) was probably the main reason why. Short and brutal, like the Depression outlaw's brashly improvisatory career, Max Nosseck's picture was a bit of an outlaw enterprise itself. In the '40s the major Hollywood studios had all taken a vow of chastity when it came to glorifying the headline-grabbing gangsters of the previous decade; Monogram ignored the embargo and barreled ahead, grabbing some headlines of its own and more box office than usual for a Poverty Row operation. Philip Yordan's script was Oscar-nominated (on the DVD's commentary track he co-credits his friend William Castle, director of Monogram's excellent When Strangers Marry
), though the film has a patchwork feel to it, as if assembled and reassembled on the run. Directed by Max Nosseck, it's a hypnotic mix of bargain-basement filmmaking (lotsa stock footage and stark, minimalist sets), astute ripoff (the rain-and-gas-bomb robbery sequence from Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once
), and Brechtian bravura. The storyline actually scants the ultraviolence (no Bohemia Lodge shootout) and all-star supporting cast (no Pretty Boy Floyd, no Baby Face Nelson) of Dillinger's real life--likely a matter of cost-cutting rather than abstemiousness. Newcomer Lawrence Tierney nails the guy's coldblooded freakiness and animal magnetism, and the supporting cast includes such éminences noirs as Marc Lawrence, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Elisha Cook Jr. Producers Maurice and Frank King would make the great Gun Crazy
four years later. --Richard T. Jameson