His Story is Written in Bullets, Blood and Blondes!
By Ed Garea
Dillinger (Monogram, 1945) - Director: Max Nosseck. Screenplay: Philip Yordan. Cast: Lawrence Tierney, Edmund Lowe, Anne Jeffreys, Eduardo Ciannelli, Marc Lawrence, Elisha Cook, Jr., Ralph Lewis, Victor Kilian, Ludwig Stossel, & Constance Worth. B&W, 70 minutes.
John Dillinger was one of the most charismatic gangsters who ever lived. Because of his positive notoriety, the Hays Office banned any Hollywood studio from capitalizing on his name. This was well before Dillinger met his death outside in Biograph Theater in Chicago at the hands of the FBI. Adding strength to the ban, J. Edgar Hoover made it known to Hollywood that any studio making a Dillinger biopic would lose the cooperation of the FBI, which counted for a lot in those days. The studios, for their part, complied, even though a Dillinger-esque character might slip through every once in a while, such as Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest (1936) and Bogart again in High Sierra (1940). Though Warner Brothers produced both films, the studio quickly disavowed any connection or resemblance between the characters and Dillinger.
But come the ‘40s, America was at war, fighting bigger gangsters. Independent producers Frank and Maurice King decided the time was right to take a chance, and secured the cooperation of Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Upon learning of this, the Hays Office sent Monogram a reminder to keep their film within the established guidelines that were set forth in the special regulations regarding crime in motion pictures. Thus, the script by Philip Yordan (with unbilled assistance from the young William Castle) steered a wide berth from many of the known facts of Dillinger’s life and career. In fact, it could be said that any resemblance between the Dillinger of the film and the real Dillinger was only coincidental. The Dillinger of the film is a cold-blooded killer, a highly unpleasant person. The real Dillinger, by contrast, was a bank robber who was not a killer by nature, a charismatic Jesse James type who stole from the hated banks.
The original thought of the producers was to tell the story from the point of view of Ana “Anna Sage” Cumpanas, the Romanian madam who sold Dillinger out to the FBI in return for a promise not to be deported - a promise the government did not keep. She is renowned in popular culture as The Woman in Red, for the red dress she wore so the FBI could pick out Dillinger. In reality, her dress was orange; it only looked red under the lights of the theater marquee. In this way, they didn’t have to mention Dillinger by name, and could thus escape any interference from the censors. But Yordan thought Dillinger was the compelling character, and that patrons would prefer his story instead of a disguised gangster yarn.
For the role of Dillinger, Monogram head Steve Broidy wanted Chester Morris. But the King brothers pointed out that Morris would be too expensive and, if Broidy wanted him so badly, Monogram should pony up the required salary separate from the film’s budget. So there went Chester Morris. The King brothers wanted Lawrence Tierney, an unknown contract player from RKO, to play the title role. He had been signed by RKO in 1943 and had gone through five films without being credited. His best known of the bunch was his performance as a sailor in producer Val Lewton’s Ghost Ship, where he plays a luckless sailor crushed to death in the coils of the ship’s anchor chain. He finally received ninth billing in Lewton’s JD epic for RKO, Youth Runs Wild (1944). As he wasn’t used much at RKO, Tierney began to spend his time at Monogram, looking for parts, and that was where the King brothers met him. They wanted him right away for the title role. They liked his swagger and his tough guy persona, already established this early in his career. Broidy nixed the choice, not wanting to give top billing to an unknown. But the King Brothers were persuasive: Tierney cost less than half the salary of Morris and, if Broidy didn’t accept the choice, they would take the production elsewhere. Broidy liked the script and didn’t want to lose the picture. On the other hand, he didn’t want to commit a lot of money to what could well be a hard film to sell, so he budgeted the project at $65,000, which was fine by the King brothers, as they had a deal for a percentage of the gross. As he saw the dailies, Broidy’s enthusiasm for the project grew and he raised the budget to a final number of around $192,000.
The film opens with the conclusion of a newsreel detailing Dillinger’s criminal exploits. Dillinger’s father talks to the movie’s audience about his son, describing his youth as uneventful, but noting that John was headstrong and ambitious.
Cut to a speakeasy in Indianapolis, where John is drinking with his date. She wants another drink and John tells the waiter that he’s short of cash but can write a check. The waiter, a hard-ass, tells him it’s a cash-only joint. John wants to leave, but his date insists on ordering another drink. John excuses himself, telling her he’ll be right back with some money. He heads to a nearby grocery store and robs the owner, fooling him into believing he has a gun. On the way out he runs into two cops, who arrest him and note that he only got $7.20 in the heist.
Sentenced to prison, John gets off on the wrong foot by trying to bully his cellmate, who knocks him cold. Later, John learns that his cellmate is none other than “Specs” Green (Lowe), one of the nation’s premier bank robbers, and quickly makes up to Specs, who in turn, introduces him to his gang: Marco Minnelli (Cianelli), Doc Madison (Lawrence) and Kirk Otto (Cook, Jr.). Talk about an all-star roster of B-movie criminals. John, whose sentence is much shorter, vows to help them escape once he’s paroled.
As soon as he is freed, John holds up a movie theater box office, after flirting with the ticket seller, Helen Rogers (Jeffreys). Although Helen recognizes him from a mug shot, she says she cannot identify him during a line-up, and Dillinger goes free. Afterward, Helen goes out with John. Several more successful robberies give Dillinger the wherewithal to carry out his escape plan, which involves sneaking in a barrel carrying firearms to the gang while they’re working in the quarry. They shoot their way to freedom, and with Dillinger, commit a series of daring bank robberies.
But the gang learns that all but John have been identified by one of their victims. Specs sends John out to case their next target, the Farmers Trust Bank. On the way, however, Dillinger stops in at the speakeasy where the waiter had given him such a hard time during the movie’s opening scenes. Dillinger invites him to sit down for a drink, then breaks a bottle and shoves the bottle into the man’s face.
Posing as a customer, John checks out the bank, reporting to the gang that it has a sophisticated security system. Specs wants to bring in outside help, given the security and John’s trigger-happy disposition, but John convinces the crew that he has a better plan. The gang uses gas bombs to rob the bank and flee to their hideout, where John takes over leadership of the gang from Specs, taking his double-cut as well. The group splits up for a couple of weeks, reuniting at a lodge run by the Ottos, Kirk’s foster parents. Learning the law is closing in, the gang heads to the West, robbing banks there. In Tucson, Dillinger visits a dentist to see about a toothache. As John is about to be put under, the police burst in and arrest him.
This leads to a scene in prison, where we see Dillinger whittle the wooden gun he later uses to make his escape. Reunited with the gang, Dillinger’s first order of business is to kill Specs, who he has figured out betrayed him in Tucson. He then shows the boys his plan to rob a train with a huge payout. But during the robbery, John is wounded and Kirk is killed. The gang, with new member Tony (Lewis), flees back to the Otto’s lodge, where Helen is staying. With Kirk dead, the Ottos have no qualms about turning the gang in, but as they are making the call, Dillinger overheads them and kills them both. John then stops Helen from sneaking off with Tony, and as the police close in on the lodge, he and Helen escape in a car. The rest of the gang surrenders, but John and Helen make it to Chicago, where they find a place to lay low.
It’s July 1934. John is Public Enemy Number One and the authorities are offering a reward of $15,000, dead or alive. John, feeling antsy, decides to go to a movie with Helen. However, he is unaware that, in the meantime, she has sold him out to the FBI. As they exit the theater, FBI agents spot Helen, who is wearing a red dress for easy identification. As they close in, Dillinger tries to shoot his way out, but is gunned down. In the final irony, the agents go through his pockets and discover he has only $7.20 on him.
I mentioned before that the film played loose with the facts about Dillinger’s life. The part in the beginning with Dillinger’s father was true, as mentioned earlier. Dillinger did live in Indianapolis, and prison is where he met the men he joined later. He did help them escape - however, the names are all wrong, as the men he met at Indiana State Prison were Harry “Pete” Pierpont, Charles Makley, Red Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter. There was no recognized leader. Dillinger was arrested with the gang in Tucson, but not while going to the dentist. The lodge in Wisconsin existed, but the people who owned it were not related to any of Dillinger’s gang. And it was Anna Sage, not Dillinger’s girlfriend (Polly Hamilton), who wore the “red” dress. The theater was the Biograph, which viewers of the film would not have known, as they instead substituted a generic theater located on the lot. Not even the Biograph’s marquee was duplicated. The film Dillinger saw that night? Manhattan Melodrama, a 1934 MGM film staring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy.
The strong part of Dillinger is its cast, especially in the supporting parts. The casting of Edmund Lowe, Marc Lawrence, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Elisha Cook, Jr. made for quite the formidable gang. Anne Jeffreys, essentially playing “The Lady in Red,” was borrowed from RKO. She turned in an original, thoughtful performance as Dillinger’s girlfriend, almost walking away with the film. Selmer Jackson (as the dentist) and Ludwig Stossel (as Elisha Cook’s father) were fine in bit parts. But it was Lawrence Tierney’s movie, as he snarled, growled and spat his way through without resorting to his hambone. He was nothing short of brilliant as he portrayed a man whose violent rage always was simmering beneath the surface, ready to explode. This was Tierney’s big break, and to say he was anxious was a helluva an understatement. His frequent anxiety attacks during filming necessitated having a port-a-potty nearby to cut down his time away from the camera.
After the success of the film and the reception afforded his performance, Tierney returned to RKO as a star. He played a very credible Jesse James in the Randolph Scott oater, Badman’s Territory, in 1946, before going on to become America’s favorite psychopath in such films as The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), Born to Kill (1947), and The Hoodlum (1950). He would have been a major star if it weren’t for his rather raucous life off the set. Tierney seemed to be living up to his reputation in much publicized brawls, usually in bars and anywhere alcohol played a part. He found himself reduced to supporting status, and while jobs were available, they weren’t nearly as frequent or as substantial as before. Finding himself almost forgotten in the ‘80s, he had a reprieve when he was cast as Elaine Benes’s father in a memorable episode of Seinfeld. Plans were to make him a semi-regular character, but he so scared the producers with his ad-lib ideas (including one where he threatens Seinfeld with a knife), that the plans were quickly forgotten. In 1992, he engineered a comeback of sorts when he was cast in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs as the aging gangster, Joe Cabot. But, again, the filming was far from peaceful due to Tierney’s temper. When word of his antics on the set got around, especially his near-fisticuffs with Tarantino, ideas of starring roles in major productions faded once again and he continued to work supporting parts and television guest shots. After his death in 2002 at the age of 82, Tierney is remembered in film history as a case of tremendous talent sabotaged by a borderline personality whose worst side was brought out by alcohol.
Dillinger was directed with a close eye toward the budget by Max Nosseck, a German actor-director who left after Hitler came to power, with stops in France and Spain before coming to America in 1940. His first directorial assignment was a Yiddish film titled Der viler Shtot Khazn (The Vilna Town Cantor), eventually being released as Overture to Glory. From there he signed on with Columbia’s B unit, directing Girls Under 21 in 1940 before eventually finding his way to RKO after assignments on Poverty Row. He returned to Germany in 1956, where he spent the rest of his life directing and acting. He died in 1972. While at Eagle-Lion, after his stint at RKO, Nosseck had the distinction of directing Tierney in Kill or Be Killed and The Hoodlum. To say they disliked each other was putting it mildly. They argued frequently and vociferously, with Tierney walking off the set several times before returning.
Given the small budget on Dillinger, Nosseck used whatever resources came his way, including liberal use of stock footage during the chase scenes, even in prominent scenes, and lifting the bank robbery scene from Fritz Lang’s 1937 drama, You Only Live Once (look closely and you’ll see that film’s star, Henry Fonda, looking out of the back of the getaway car). He also used still-framed backdrops for tighter angles. He also used reduced lighting to hide the shabby sets and spinning newspapers with bold headlines to advance Dillinger’s progress, saving valuable dollars in the process. Nosseck also made good use of a score by none other than Dimitri Tiomkin. The result was a film that combined aspects of both documentary and noir, even though it looked firmly within its low budget. Over the years, though, it has aged well and still packs something of a punch, thanks to Tierney.
Yet, despite the dilution of the subject matter, Dillinger still received strong condemnations at the time of its initial release in March 1945, including from the War Department in Washington, which refused to screen it for the troops overseas, and the Chicago censorship board, which for reasons all too obvious, banned it for two years. Still, it brought in over $4,000,000 at the box office, a remarkable sum given its budget of $193,000. In addition, screenwriter Philip Yordan garnered a 1946 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay (losing out to Richard Schweizer for the Swiss import Marie-Louise). But most importantly, it proved that although Dillinger was dead and buried, he still retained the charisma he enjoyed during his brief lifetime.
During production, the film went through a slew of proposed titles, including John Dillinger, John Dillinger, Mobster and Killer D.
The film also marked the first appearance of John Dillinger in a Hollywood production. It would be followed by Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson in 1957, with Mickey Rooney as the star and Leo Gordon as Dillinger; Nick Adams as Young Dillinger (1965, with footage liberally lifted from Baby Face Nelson); Warren Oates in John Milius’ Dillinger (1973); Robert Conrad in The Lady in Red (1979, with script by John Sayles); and the most-recent effort by Johnny Depp in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009). The best of the bunch? 1973’s Dillinger.
As for the real Dillinger, there is the classic account of his robbery of a bank. For the gang’s getaway, they placed customers as hostages on the getaway car’s running board to deter police pursuit. Dillinger assured the hostages they were in no danger and would be released once the gang reached the city limits. As they turned a corner onto a residential street, one of the hostages exclaimed she lived on the block. Dillinger, driving the car, asked where her residence was, stopped in front, releasing her, but not before she kissed him on the cheek and he gave her a $10 bill, saying that she would be able to tell her grandchildren she once rode with Dillinger. As the car sped away, he tipped his hat and smiled.