Launched in the mid-fifties, American International Pictures was a prolific independent studio whose reputation was justifiably linked with B-movies: science fiction, horror, exploitation, shot quickly and cheaply, so it was perhaps fitting that their biggest budget feature released in the summer of 1973, the same year as Black Caesar, Coffy and Scream, Blacula, Scream, was a crime action movie inspired by the true story of a gangster whose ambition and pursuit of his goal had him labelled as one of the most wanted men in America.
Written by John Milius, at the time a screenwriter equally sought after and able to command hefty fees, his own ambition to direct led him to accept a deal to make Dillinger as his debut feature for a substantially reduced sum, casting Race with the Devil’s Warren Oates as the notorious John Dillinger, Major Dundee’s Ben Johnson as Bureau of Investigation officer Melvin Purvis and Michelle Phillips, formerly of the Mamas and the Papas, making her major acting debut as Dillinger’s moll Billie Frechette.
Opening with black and white stills of the Great Depression which drove thousands to bankruptcy and destitution, unlike many who stole to feed their families Dillinger was not a desperate man; he enjoyed what he did, a showman who in the opening scenes informs the customers and tellers at the bank that “you’ve been robbed by the best there is” with the arrogance of a man who knows he is already a legend, charming when it serves his purpose but ruthless when angered.
A crime wave across the states leaving security guards and bystanders dead, Dillinger has no feeling for anyone, burying his friends in unmarked graves without a tear or backward glance, while for Purvis his determination to track the Dillinger gang is beyond professional, a personal vendetta, though understandable given the violence with which the multiple robberies are presented and the audacity with which Dillinger not only evades the law but escapes the one time he is taken into custody.
With Milius making little attempt to weave the events into a narrative, the action is frenzied and relentless as Dillinger’s gang is whittled down and replenished, with supporting roles for Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Kanaly, Frank McRae and the great Cloris Leachman, but with endless ammunition Milius shows as little regard for the bodies as soon as they hit the dirt as his amoral anti-hero, obsessed with the pursuit of fancy cars and fine clothes.
Restored from the original film elements for Arrow’s Blu-ray release, Stephen Prince’s commentary cautions that “we don’t go to a gangster movie for a history lesson” but compensates with his own insights into film history and the depicted events as recorded, and producer Lawrence Gordon, composer Barry De Vorzon and director of photography Jules Brenner are also interviewed.