Saturday, March 18, 2023

Dillinger (1945)

Many years back, TCM ran a night of Lawrence Tierney films, including the 1945 version of Dillinger. I sat down to watch it, but unfortunately a thunderstorm screwed up satellite reception and I never got to see the end. I noticed that it's on Watch TCM through the end of the month, and even got an Oscar nomination so TCM could run it in 31 Days of Oscar, so I finally sat down to watch the movie.

The movie opens up with an establishing sequence of what looks like an audience at a picture show, watching a newsreel about John Dillinger and his gang. But it's really more of a public lecture, as John Dillinger's father strolls out onto the stage after the movie and tells the assembled audience that little John started out like any normal boy in Indiana farming country, but didn't want to be tied down to the farm, so he went off to Indianapolis to try to make it big.

Dillinger (that's Lawrence Tierney if you couldn't figure it out) claims to be a stockbroker, but he sounds like he's more talk than action, considering the speakeasy where he's chatting up a girl and the class of waiter serving them. When the waiter wants cash up front for drinks, Dillinger walks out and goes into the nearby grocery store, where he holds up the cashier for a whopping $7.20, which wasn't all that much even in the mid 1920s.

Unsurprisingly, Dillinger gets caught and sent to prison, where he's put in the same cell as Specs Green (Edmund Lowe), a much older man but one who commands the respect of the other prisoners as he's a more intelligent criminal mastermind and not a hothead like Dillinger. But this Dillinger is no dummy, and decides to learn from Specs. The rest of Specs' gang is also in prison with them: Kirk Otto (Elisha Cook Jr.), Marco (Eduardo Cianelli), and "Doc" Madison (Marc Lawrence). Dillinger has a shorter sentence than the other guys, having committed a lesser crime, and gets out before Specs' gang. By this time, he's gotten into Specs' good graces, and promises to spring the rest of the gang.

Once out of prison, Dillinger returns to a life of crime, starting by holding up a movie theater box office. However, he flirted with the cashier, Helen Rogers (Anne Jeffreys) before holding her up. This little bit of flirting is enough to make her fall in love with him, so she doesn't identify him in a police lineup, enabling him to go free and break Specs and the gang out of jail.

The rest of the movie is in some ways the standard crime movie arc of a younger guy getting into a gang and then deciding to take it over, all while going on a crime spree, before the man's hubris gets the better of him. Of course, in the case of John Dillinger, we know the real ending, as he was exiting the Biograph Theater in Chicago after a showing of Manhattan Melodrama. (Surprisingly, Monogram was able to get the rights to show a Disney short from 1933 as part of the scene showing Dillinger's night at the Biograph, but MGM had no desire to let a movie like this use Manhattan Melodrama. Instead, we get made-up audio clips.)

The ending may be the only part of this version of Dillinger that's accurate. Having looked up biographical information on John Dillinger, it seems that most of the screenplay bears little resemblance to reality. However, the screenplay is more than entertaining enough for a B gangster picture, and Tierney was born to play a gangster like Dillinger. This one is definitely worth watching.

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