Public Anomie


“You’ve got to have a good beginning,” Roger Corman told Scorsese as he prepared to shoot BOXCAR BERTHA, “because the audience wants to know what it’s about, and you’ve got to have a good ending, because they want to know how it all turned out. Nothing in between really matters.”

Scorsese would later call this, “The best sense I ever heard in pictures,” but at that time he was only able to fulfil the latter half of the success formula. BB opens with a really pathetic biplane crash (obviously an AIP feature could afford to crash a plane for real, so Scorsese cuts to horrified onlookers – he would make up for this in THE AVIATOR), but it ends with a cattle car crucifixion and a really dynamic shotgun massacre which has clearly been storyboarded and then executed faithfully – the wildest shot is the trackback POV of a guy who’s just been blasted off his feet by the shotgun. Compared to the bloodbath that climaxes TAXI DRIVER, it’s very cartoony, but effective. (And during the shoot, Barbara Hershey gave him a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ.)

Scorsese’s struggle to maintain quality in his low-budget period romp is interesting to bear in mind when watching DILLINGER, which proved to be the best John Milius film I’ve ever seen. It never feels like they didn’t have enough time or money to do what they wanted to do, there are spectacular sequences (gun battles to beat HEAT) and beautiful shots, and not a bad performance in it – a considerable feet for a movie with scores of speaking parts, an inexperienced director, and a limited budget.

The very first shot (top) made Fiona cheer, and packs in more excitement and movie-star charisma than the whole ninety hours of Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES – and it’s all done with Warren Oates’ expressive kisser and impactful comicbook composition. The Oates countenance: a kind of tapioca mudslide, like the bags under his eyes decided to strike out and form a face of their own. Everything is yielding to gravity, as if only loosely fastened to the crumbly skull beneath, and yet there’s a contradictory sense of hardness and permanence that stops you from thinking he’s about to disintegrate and pool on the floor this instant. The impression is of a real tough guy who can kill everyone in the joint between cigar puffs, but who carries his own eventual dissolution wrapped up inside that bullish carcass.vlcsnap-2014-04-29-00h04m44s149

Milius/Oates’ Dillinger is amoral, charming and forceful, just as he should be. I did feel the lack of a real love story — what’s missing is an intro scene to the relationship with Billie Frechette (Michelle Philips — the plain one from the Mamas and the Papas — who has a great rake-thin 1930s shape and a great 1970s slouch) — Milius admitted not being too great at writing women, I believe. Here the couple just slap each other and he tears her dress off, and it’s rather hard to read this as the beginning of a great love story or anything other than plain brutality. As with most Milius films, there’s greater interest in bromance.


The real passion is between Dillinger and Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), the G-man who was sworn to smoke a cigar over his bullet-ridden corpse. The balance between twin protagonists — a device Milius tried again in THE WIND AND THE LION — works well here because it helps stop the story being purely a glorification of Dillinger. Despite the horror of the shoot-outs, JM probably IS in love with his outlaw protag (going on his form elsewhere) but we get to opt out if we want. It’s necessary, I think, to like Conan, but it’s not necessary to like Dillinger — you can get away with just finding him interesting, a compelling problem for society to solve.

In one nice, mythic scene, Melvin Purvis fails to impress a small boy at a shoeshine, demonstrating that being a G-man is nowhere near as cool (or lucrative) as being an outlaw. Especially if the outlaw is called Dillinger and the G-man is called Melvin Purves. This isn’t enough to motivate the man’s later suicide, but it’s one note of unease more than Michael Mann thought to supply — in his movie, it’s a complete mystery why he chose to disclose this fact about Purves (a very minor nonentity in his film).


Bonus Richard Dreyfuss, Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis (that moustache actually normalizes his weird Hanna-Barbera head!), Cloris Leachman.

Kurosawa influence (see also CONAN) very much in view — Johnson walks into a house where a bandit is staked out, we hear screams and shots, and the bloodied perp staggers out and dies — NOT in slomo, however. Milius evidently felt there was a limit to what he could steal. That’s what makes him different from his hero, I guess.


12 Responses to “Public Anomie”

  1. Randy Cook Says:

    The PLAIN one? Would that make Cass Elliot the shapely one?

  2. Well, you can’t deny that she possesses a shape.

  3. judydean Says:

    “When we get the start and the finish, we’ve got it, because the middle we can always take care of. That’s easy.” Buster Keaton, in conversation with Studs Terkel, 1960.

  4. He’s so right, and yet The General begins with a fairly tame prologue and ends with a battle which is far from the film’s comic highlight. The middle is what shows off the genius-level gags and also the amazing symmetrical story structure.

  5. judydean Says:

    Yes, I think it’s an approach that applies more to the shorts than the features.

  6. judydean Says:

    John Cassavetes told Scorsese, after being shown the rough cut of BB, that he’d spent a whole year making “a piece of shit” and that he should give up the exploitation market and try and make something more personal. Which of course he did,

  7. Matthew Wilder remarks via Facebook that today, Boxcar Bertha looks like an art movie. I haven’t seen it that recently so I’m not sure.

    The rediscovered cut of The Blacksmith shows that Keaton could get a lot of value out of tinkering with the middle of a film too. But I think he’s generally right in that if you have a starting point and somewhere to get to, the middle will suggest itself — you don’t need so much inspiration, and since Keaton’s mind was inspired by particulars, objects and what you could do with them, it’s easy to see that coming up with a situation and a goal would be the hardest part for him.

  8. I think it’s the opening that makes me like Dillinger so much: I tend to like films that open with a very clear sense of purpose, though it’s interesting to see how you can achieve that with different strategies — from the jump into the frame antics of Oates that you highlight as opposed to a few well-chosen title cards in the film I just watched, Phillip Noyce’s 1977 feature debut Backroads (well worth a look).

    As for Keaton, he kind of goes back and forth for me — Steamboat Bill Jr and The Navigator both require a good deal of setup, for instance, and occasionally I find myself drifting before he gets on full comic track.

    I still like Milius’s Big Wednesday quite a bit — though my view may have been coloured by the fact that I saw it on the big screen in a gorgeous print.

  9. Until fairly recently I didn’t even have access to a WS copy of The Big Wed so I simply avoided it. Now I could have a look, and after enjoying Dillinger I expect I will.

    Keaton’s simple framing means that expository stuff is presented very plainly, which I guess can be a challenge on TV (at the cinema you would never have any trouble getting through it to the good stuff). But the opening of Our Hospitality is a cracking bit of melodrama.

  10. Robby K. Says:

    I love Harry Dean Stanton’s turn here. I saw this probably three years ago, but the dark comedy of his guy’s fate (“I guess this just isn’t my day”) is Coen Brothers before they were more than a twinkle in a cinephile’s eye.

  11. Yes! Except that it’s both funny AND serious, and not snarky. We’re not laughing cruelly at him, we’re kind of with him, in an odd way.

  12. […] portrait of the auteur of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, RED DAWN, THE WIND AND THE LION and the exceptional DILLINGER, which is the one I would point to as demonstration that Milius has genuine talent and isn’t […]

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