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Well before John Dillinger's violent death in Chicago on July 22, 1934, at the hands of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the censorious Hays Office forbid Hollywood from producing any films detailing the highly publicized exploits of Public Enemy Number One. "Such a picture would be detrimental to the best public interest" the official memo advised, prompting the major studios to sign an agreement to the effect that they would reject such material outright. By 1935, the gangster cycle of crime films, which had begun with the tough guy triptych of Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar, William Wellman's The Public Enemy (both 1931) and Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932), had yielded to police procedurals such as William Keighley's "G" Men (1935), starring James Cagney as a lawyer turned Fed, and George Marshall's Show Them No Mercy (1935), in which sadistic gangster Bruce Cabot is brought down in a climactic hail of bullets fired by brutalized housewife Rochelle Hudson. Dillingeresque characters slipped through the cracks - Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest (1936) and High Sierra (1941) - but Universal, 20th Century Fox, MGM and even Warner Brothers knew better than to utter the D word.
It took a minor studio to summon Dillinger's ghost a decade after his demise. Even though the Hollywood Production Code had lost considerable power as a guiding force within the motion picture industry, the Hays Office was sure to remind Poverty Row outfit Monogram Pictures Corporation to keep their proposed Dillinger biopic within established guidelines set forth in the Special Regulations regarding Crime in Motion Pictures. Consequently, the script by Philip Yordan (with an uncredited assist from up-and-comer William Castle) swung wide of many of the known facts of the case, downplaying some elements (the Little Bohemia Lodge massacre) while upselling others (Dillinger's bust-out of his prison pals). Though the thought initially had been to produce a film about Ana Cumpanas, the Romanian prostitute and so-called "Woman in Red" who gave up Dillinger's whereabouts to the FBI in a bid to stave off deportation, it was Yordan who swung the narrative arc back to Dillinger. For the role, Monogram head Steve Broidy liked veteran actor Chester Morris, then in his fifties, but independent producers Frank and Maurice King had other ideas.
Then contracted to RKO Radio Pictures, Brooklyn-born Lawrence Tierney had made only a few films, playing mostly bits (perhaps most memorably as the luckless sailor in the Val Lewton-produced The Ghost Ship (1943) who is crushed horrifically in the coils of a massive anchor chain). Looking to better his chances with the more pinchpenny but less discriminating Monogram, Tierney had made himself an almost daily presence at the studio's office on Sunset Boulevard, three miles west of RKO. Though Tierney looked more like silent cowboy star William S. Hart than the handsomely craggy John Dillinger, the Kings threw their weight behind the 25 year-old newcomer, holding firm with Monogram that if Tierney did not get the part then they would take the production elsewhere. Broidy relented, reluctantly, and production got underway with a budget of $65,000. During principal photography, the film was known alternatively as John Dillinger, John Dillinger, Mobster and, remarkably, Killer D.
Though he would develop a reputation for increasingly brash and ballistic behavior in his film assignments (which would relegate him, sadly, to the lower echelon of extra work by the 1970s prior to his comeback in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs in 1992), Tierney was by most accounts a nervous wreck during the filming of Dillinger (1945). The actor's anxiety attacks necessitated the import of a portable toilet to the set to cut down on his time away from the camera. Directed with budget-conscious economy by Prussian émigré Max Nosseck through October 1944, Dillinger employs copious stock footage (most notably, the bank robbery scene from Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once, 1937) for its establishing shots and often resorts to still-framed backdrops for tighter angles, giving the film an occasional experimental aspect anticipating the avant garde works of Conrad Rooks. Also borrowed from RKO was actress Anne Jeffreys (as an Americanized Woman in Red), along with a supporting cast rich in instantly recognizable mugs - among them silent film star Edmund Lowe (as Dillinger's wholly fabricated jailhouse mentor Specs Green) and such usual suspects as Eduardo Ciannelli, Marc Lawrence and Elisha Cook, Jr. Memorable in bits are Selmer Jackson as a dentist, Casablanca's (1942) Ludwig Stössel and Victor Kilian, who appears in the film's curious stage show curtain warmer as Dillinger's aggrieved paterfamilias.
Despite its dilution of potentially offending material, Dillinger was met with heated reactions at the time of its theatrical release in March 1945. Hollywood film director Frank Borzage condemned the picture outright, as did the War Department in Washington and the Chicago Censorship Board, which banned the exhibition of Dillinger within city limits for two years. Despite (or perhaps because of) the initial hurly-burly, Dillinger did good business for Monogram, bringing in over $4,000,000 at the box office. Screenwriter Philip Yordan received a 1946 Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Screenplay but lost out to Richard Schweizer for the Swiss import Marie-Louise (1944) while Lawrence Tierney enjoyed a solid run of star vehicles, mostly as sociopaths, in such films as Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947) and Felix E. Feist's The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) back at RKO and as the title character in the United Artists pickup The Hoodlum (1951), directed by Max Nosseck. The iconic John Dillinger appeared sporadically in films over the years, played by Leo Gordon in Baby Face Nelson (1957), Nick Adams in Young Dillinger (1965), Warren Oates in John Milius' more fact-based Dillinger (1973), Robert Conrad in the John Sayles-scripted The Lady in Red (1979) and, more recently, by Johnny Depp in Michael Mann's Public Enemies (2009).
Producers: Frank King, Maurice King
Director: Max Nosseck
Screenplay: Philip Yordan (screenplay); William Castle (uncredited)
Cinematography: Jackson Rose
Art Direction: F. Paul Sylos
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Film Editing: Edward Mann
Cast: Edmund Lowe (Specs Green), Anne Jeffreys (Helen Rogers), Eduardo Cianelli (Marco Minelli), Marc Lawrence (Doc Madison), Elisha Cook Jr. (Kirk Otto), Ralph Lewis (Tony), Else Jannsen (Mrs. Otto), Ludwig Stossel (Mr. Otto), Constance Worth (Nurse in Dentist's Office), Lawrence Tierney (John Dillinger).
by Richard Harland Smith
Crime Movies: An Illustrated History by Carlos Clarens (WW Norton & Company, 1980)
"Dillinger: Noir Shadings of a Public Enemy" by Abby Staeble, Noir City Annual No. 3: The Best of the Noir Sentinel Newsletter by Eddie Muller (Film Noir Foundation, 2011)
Bullets Over Hollywood: The American Gangster Picture from the Silents to The Sopranos by John McCarty (Da Capo Press, 2004)
American Gangster Cinema: From Little Caesar to Pulp Fiction by Fran Mason (Pallgrave MacMillan, 2003)