Two years before "Bonnie and Clyde" revolutionized the American crime movie genre a far more modest production centered on a star-crossed pair of lovers who were young, in love and killed people. "Young Dillinger" starred Nick Adams in the titular role, playing notorious gangster John Dillinger who was among the "Most Wanted" criminals of the Depression era. Although the real Dillinger had a hardscrabble life and a dramatic death (ambushed by police when benignly exiting a movie theater), any resemblance to the historic figure and the character portrayed by Adams on screen is purely coincidental. The film was distributed by Allied Artists, which would go on to release some top-shelf hits in the 1970s including "Cabaret", "Papillon", "The Man Who Would be King" and "The Wild Geese". However, in 1965 Allied was strictly a Poverty Row studio that churned out low-budget movies for undiscriminating audiences in hopes of making a quick, modest profit. Shot in B&W, "Young Dillinger" opens with "Johnny" and his girlfriend Elaine (former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley) necking in a car and bemoaning the fact that they are too broke to get married. Elaine must still live at home under the rules set by her mother and father, an inconvenience that intrudes on her not-inconsiderable sex drive. She spontaneously comes up with a plan of action: they can break into her father's office and steal a load of cash that he keeps in the safe. Dillinger is all in immediately but the plan goes awry when they are spotted by a watchman. Still, they get the loot and head off on a cross-country spending spree, indulging in expensive meals, liquor, gambling and hotel rooms. It all comes to an end when the cops track them down and arrest them. Dillinger makes a deal: he will plead guilty if Elaine is not charged. Consequently, he is sent to jail for several years, an experience that leaves him even more cynical and disillusioned. Sure enough, Elaine is waiting for him when he emerges and they immediately take to crime again. Dillinger is hired by professional gangsters to carry out an audacious plan to spring 'Pretty Boy' Floyd (Robert Conrad) and 'Baby Face' Nelson (John Ashley) from a prison farm. When he succeeds in carrying out the plan, Floyd invites him to join him and 'Baby Face' in their newly-formed gang. With Elaine along for the ride, the group terrorizes the Midwest through small-time robberies that eventually lead to daring bank jobs. Before long, Dillinger is on the F.B.I's "Most Wanted" list.
Directed by Terry O. Morse, who was primarily known as an editor, the movie breezes along at a brisk pace even if the style is quite unimpressive and pedestrian. In fact, the film looks like a standard TV episode of "The Untouchables" in terms of production values. Even a fleeting glimpse at Dillinger's biography will make it immediately apparent that story is almost entirely fictionalized. The performances are adequate, nothing more. Adams, who was a seasoned actor, tries to bring some intensity to the role but the script presents Dillinger as a superficial gangster type with no effort expended to provide some of the more interesting aspects of his background. Similarly, we know nothing about Elaine aside from the fact that this "girl next door" type can turn into a hardened criminal on a whim. Why? We never learn anything about her background, either. The supporting actors don't fare much better. Robert Conrad, who would soon find stardom with the hit TV series "The Wild, Wild West" is given little to work with as 'Pretty Boy' Floyd and is mostly seen shooting at the cops. One exception is the inimitable and delightful Victor Buono, who makes a couple of cameos as "The Professor", an eccentric mastermind who provides the gang with operational plans for bank jobs. Equally good is John Hoyt as a mob doctor who Dillinger hires to undergo some plastic surgery (a rare instance of the film depicting an actual event). The doctor botches the surgery but while Dillinger is lying helpless in bed in terrible pain and his face wrapped up like The Mummy, the surgeon takes advantage of the situation by trying to rape Elaine. She has to keep him at bay with a loaded gun while not alerting Dillinger to the crisis when he's helpless to assist her. It's the best scene in the film and the only one that provides a bit of suspense. It also allows Mary Ann Mobley to display her acting chops instead of being presented as Gidget as opposed to a Depression-era gun moll.
The film culminates with another big gun battle with the police in
which most of the gang members meet dire fates. At least Dillinger
manages to slip away to die another day, thus allowing for a rare instance for a movie from this era in which a
villain temporarily escapes the forces of justice. (In decades past, the film
industry had a mandate that all gangsters had to be brought to justice
in any crime movie.) It's a refreshing aspect to a film that dispenses
with most historical fact. It should also be mentioned that the
screenwriters also push the envelope by presenting a story with no
sympathetic protagonists. Since the cops are relegated to nameless bit
characters, virtually every other person of substance depicted on screen
is devoid of any human qualities. Even when Elaine tells Dillinger she
wants to get out of the mob life, it's because she's discovered she's
pregnant and doesn't like the prospect of being on the run while dealing
with the medical issues she will be going through. This boldness in the
screenwriting is a double-edged sword, however, as it deprives the
viewer of caring about the main characters.
The Warner Archive transfer probably looks as good as one can expect
given the fact that even when it was shown theatrically, the movie
probably didn't impress on a visual basis. There are no bonus extras but
the disc is region free.
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