Friday, November 20, 2015


Poverty Row studio Monogram hit the big time with this crime movie, modeled after the scrappy little Warner Bros. gangster movies of the 30s. Not only was it a hit at the box office, but it was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. It undoubtedly plays fast and loose with the biographical facts, but it gets in as much as it can in 70 minutes. The movie is framed as a public lecture by Dillinger's father telling his son's story as a cautionary tale. Farm boy Dillinger (Lawrence Tierney) has gone to Indianapolis to seek his fortune. He runs out of money while trying to impress a floozy in a bar, so he holds up a drug store for more cash, is promptly caught, and sent to jail. His cellmate Specs Green (Edmund Lowe) seems quiet and mild-mannered but is actually an experienced bank robber and he mentors Dillinger. Unfortunately, when Dillinger is released, the first thing he does is rob a movie theater after flirting with Helen, the girl at the box office (Anne Jeffreys) who then identifies him to the police. But at the line-up, she balks, and when he is freed, she becomes his mistress. He breaks Specs and his gang (who include Marc Lawrence and Elisha Cook Jr.) out of jail and they commit a string of bank robberies, leading to Dillinger eventually becoming the big man in the gang instead of Specs, who resents the new arrangement and soon gives Dillinger up to the cops. But Dillinger breaks out of jail using a wooden gun whittled for him by a fellow prisoner and kills Specs. The gang soon falls apart and Dillinger and Helen wind up hiding out in Chicago. She gets antsy and finally agrees to give him up to FBI agents who kill him as he comes out of a theater.

Tierney gives a breakout performance; he never quite became a top-rank star, but he was a go-to man for B-movie tough guys in the 40s (and was quite the toughguy in real life, if the stories are to be believed), and had a career renaissance in the 80s and 90s, peaking with a role in Quentin Tarentino's RESERVOIR DOGS. Here, he is typical Tierney: cold, gruff, intimidating. He is very good, though the screenplay lets his down, rushing as it does through a series of high and low points in Dillinger's life and giving us little sense of the person behind the headlines. The production values are better than the typical Monogram film, though it lacks the casual gloss that Warner Bros. would have given this. It does move quickly, and a couple of scenes stand out: one is the killing of Specs—Lowe gives one of his better performances in this film—and another is when Dillinger smashes a broken beer glass into a waiter's face. A must-see for B-movie fans. [TCM]

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