Neither Dillinger (1973), the movie or the character, is complicated. As played by Warren Oates, John Dillinger, a professional outlaw in the Depression-era Midwest, enjoys two things: robbing banks and the attention he receives for doing so. The movie directed by John Milius is a straightforward, period action piece devoted to shootouts and chases. It's pulpy, violent, and macho.
The movie alternates between two plot threads. The first involves Dillinger and his gang riding through the country and robbing as many banks as they can. The second depicts the efforts of F.B.I. Agent Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) to track Dillinger down. As Dillinger rampages from bank to bank, building his reputation as a folk hero, Purvis takes down other outlaws of the day, all the while waiting for Dillinger to make a mistake and fall under federal jurisdiction.
As I said, the movie is not complicated. Milius (who also wrote the script) merely uses the plot to get from one set piece to another, whether it's another bank robbery or stakeout. The action is filmed in a more traditional manner and packs energy and a certain punch. Nearly 40 years later, it still holds up pretty well. The guns never seem to run out of ammo, cops and criminals take multiple shots to go down, and it's pretty rugged stuff.
There's also a sly, almost dark streak of humor. Dillinger enjoys playing off the media attention he receives, and he even stops to rob a bank while escaping jail. His gang also gets some laughs. Harry Dean Stanton plays Homer Van Meter, and when the gang is ambushed and he barely gets away, carjacks a high school kid, gets fooled out of his ride, and becomes surrounded by armed farmers, he can only say, "Things aint working out for me today."
While Dillinger has an intensity to him, Purvis is more slow and direct. He takes his time but isn't hesitant to use lethal force. In a great scene, he talks to a couple of little kids playing cops and robbers. When one kid says he wants to grow up to be a criminal because they don't have to go to school, he looks genuinely hurt. Johnson imbues Purvis with a certain weariness but also resolve. I don't think he's out for fame so much as out to send a message.
Other aspects raise eyebrows. The romance between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips) never explains itself. Dillinger kidnaps her, and it's implied he rapes her. Then, we see her crying in the car, and we're told she doesn't want to come along with the gang, but eventually, she's taken from her home. The next time we see her, she's all lovey-dovey. That's borderline distasteful (hard to say since we don't witness how she warms up to him) and definitely an adolescent fantasy. I know about Stockholm Syndrome, but this is too sudden.
Dillinger is a tough, rowdy action film anchored by a great performance by Oates, who is surrounded by solid cast. It's exciting, although I wouldn't put it on the level of Bonne and Clyde, which came out around the same. It feels a little too similar. Meanwhile, something like Chopper is more psychological ambitious. This movie follows two men of action, and on that level, it succeeds.