On July 22, 1934, John Dillinger — the fugitive thief and gunman declared by the FBI to be “Public Enemy Number One” — stepped out of Chicago’s Biograph Theater after having just seen the romantic hit Manhattan Melodrama. With him was Billie Frechette, Dillinger’s turncoat girlfriend who forever after became known as “The Lady in Red.”
Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who had pursued Dillinger for years, signaled for other officers to move in. Dillinger caught on and took flight. The feds chased him into an alley, and down went Dillinger in a blaze of bullets. He was 31.Dillinger had already been something of a folk hero as he robbed banks and police stations during the Great Depression. By going out on his feet, he became a legend.
After escaping from jail in 1924 following a grocery store robbery, Dillinger headed for Chicago. There, he put together a gang that held up banks with often deadly consequences, leaving multiple bodies behind. Still, Dillinger himself only ever faced a single homicide charge — for killing a cop.
Over the course of the next decade, Dillinger and his cohorts continually ran rampant, got busted, and broke out of prison. They robbed 12 banks total and spread mayhem everywhere, prompting U.S. government lawman J. Edgar Hoover to create the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Highlights of Dillinger’s life and crimes included wild shootouts, a jailbreak using a wooden gun, plastic surgery to disguise himself, and thousands lining up to view his dead body at the Cook County Morgue. Naturally, such a saga has lent itself more than once to movie interpretations. Check out these nine.
DILLINGER: PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1 (1934)
Executive Producer: J. Edgar Hoover
Cast: John Dillinger, Melvin Purvis
J. Edgar Hoover himself commissioned this fascinating FBI propaganda reel. Dillinger: Public Enemy No. 1 played theaters as a warning to any youngsters in the audience who might have been looking up to John Dillinger as a hero. The 20-minute production features priceless real-life footage of Dillinger, right up to — and after — his dance of death in a Chicago back alley.
Director: Max Nosseck
Cast: Lawrence Tierney, Anne Jeffreys, Edmund Lowe
Towering tough guy actor Lawrence Tierney (the heist boss in Reservoir Dogs) plays the most obvious role of this machine-gun-intense B-movie from Monogram Pictures. Tierney, as one might guess, makes a major impact as Dillinger, and the movie proved to be unexpectedly good enough that writer Philip Yordan earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
YOUNG DILLINGER (1965)
Director: Terry O. Morse
Cast: Nick Adams, Robert Conrad, John Ashley
Nick Adams, best known as a close actor pal of both James Dean and Elvis Presley, stars in the cheap, weirdly interesting Young Dillinger. While locked up, he meets Pretty Boy Floyd (Robert Conrad) and Baby Face Nelson (John Ashley). Once they break out, the three future crime giants go on a spree and all seems swell — until Elaine (former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley), Dillinger’s gun moll, rats the crew out to the FBI.
DILLINGER IS DEAD (1969)
Director: Marco Ferreri
Cast: Michael Piccoli, Anita Pallenberg, Gino Lavagetto
Dillinger Is Dead gets its title from a vintage headline that appears onscreen in Italian filmmaker Marco Ferreri’s darkly satiric and surreal meditation on upper middle-class ennui. Michal Piccoli stars as Glauco, a professional gas-mask maker, who discovers John Dillinger’s gun wrapped in newspaper. He paints the weapon red with white polka dots. Before the strange conclusion, Glauco fires his newly fancified sidearm.
Director: John Milius
Cast: Warren Oates, Michelle Phillips, Ben Johnson
Hard-boiled screenwriter John Milius makes his directorial debut with Dillinger, which he also scripted specifically with tough-as-nails actor Warren Oates in mind for the lead. It’s a rip-roaring good time of brazen, brutal gangster blowout, delivering the goods that Milius would bring to future projects that he’d go on to pen (Apocalypse Now) and/or direct (Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn). The Arrow Films Special Edition Blu-ray of Dillinger is the best way to witness this bruiser.
THE LADY IN RED (1979)
Director: Lewis Teague
Cast: Pamela Sue Martin, Robert Conrad, Louise Fletcher
A late-stage cash in on Bonnie and Clyde, the Roger Corman–produced The Lady in Red is an unusually snazzy drive-in film that showcases some top-tier talent on the rise. Pamela Sue Martin shakes off her image as TV’s Nancy Drew with a frankly sexual performance in the title part. Robert Conrad, who played Pretty Boy Floyd in Young Dillinger, here returns as Big John himself. Director Lewis Teague went on to make Cujo (1983) and The Jewel of the Nile (1985). Screenwriter John Sayles followed Lady with Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980), and thereby established himself as one of cinema’s premiere and most prolific auteur filmmakers.
Director: Rupert Wainwright
Cast: Mark Harmon, Sherilyn Fenn, Will Patton
Mark Harmon, who made such a dynamic impression as Ted Bundy in the TV movie The Deliberate Stranger (1986), returns to the true-crime-in-prime-time genre as the lead in Dillinger. It’s not up to the extraordinary quality of Stranger, but Dillinger doles out its saga compellingly enough. Sherilyn Fenn also makes an especially alluring Billie Frechette aka “The Lady in Red.”
DILLINGER AND CAPONE (1995)
Director: Jon Purdy
Cast: Martin Sheen, F. Murray Abraham, Stephen Davies
In a daring bit of speculative fiction, Dillinger and Capone proposes what might have happened had the FBI executed the “wrong” John Dillinger in 1934. Newly emboldened by the fact that the feds think he’s dead, Dillinger (Martin Sheen) wants to start over fresh and stay out of crime. Too bad for him, as Al Capone (F. Murray Abraham) is wise to the ruse, and Scarface forces Dillinger to attempt one last heist before cutting him loose.
PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009)
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard
Crime film director extraordinaire Michael Mann (Thief, Manhunter, Heat) oversees the epic pursuit of John Dillinger by FBI agent Melvin Purvis, with superstar Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in the respective lead roles. They’re the Public Enemies. Marion Cotillard plays “The Lady in Red”; Billy Crudup is J. Edgar Hoover; and Channing Tatum fits the part as Pretty Boy Floyd.
Main image: Dillinger (1973), movie poster/promotional image