Dillinger And Capone

Director: Jon Purdy  
Martin Sheen, F. Murray Abraham, Stephen Davies

Boy, it sure seems at times that Hollywood has run out of ideas for theatrical movies, doesn't it? Every year, we the public are subjected to various sequels and remakes. There's a lot that Hollwood studios could do a lot better, not just with limiting sequels to those projects that bring in enough that's fresh, and limiting remakes to movies that were originally bad or have dated badly. There are so many good and yet-to-be-told stories out there that could make good movies. Billions, as a matter of fact, because as of this writing there are over seven billion people living on this planet, and every one of them has his or her unique story. Well, maybe not all of them would be box office cash cows - if they made a movie out of my life, for example, it would be rated NC-17 many times over and be banned in many foreign markets. But there are still plenty of people living on this earth that have good stories to be told. And there is one advantage for Hollywood producers for many of these potential movie projects: It seems that there are a number of times when you don't need the permission of the central figures to film their stories. Let me give a couple of examples. When the Amy Fisher scandal hit headlines, there was more than one enterprising producer that saw dollar signs, and a total of three made-for-TV movies were made about the scandal - and I am pretty sure that the real Amy Fisher didn't give permission to all three movies. Years later, there was the movie The Queen, dealing with Queen Elizabeth and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. I'm pretty sure that both of those people didn't give permission to be portrayed by others in a movie, and I'm pretty sure they realized that lawsuits would be messy and might not go their way.

Actually, I have noticed over the years that there haven't been a huge number of biopics (made for television or for theaters) involving still-living people that didn't get the permission of the real life people before filming started. It does seem that most of the time, the producers play it safe and open their checkbooks at the same time they wave a written contract in front of the real life subjects. The conclusion seems to be that if you have somehow become a real public figure (like the Queen), producers have a lot of freedom depicting you in a movie, at least as long as they stick to the truth. There is still some risk, so maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise that most biopics that have been made have involved people who are long dead. Dead people are more often than not in the public domain, so movie producers have a lot of freedom when it comes to depicting them, even if what they show is not true. An example of this can be seen in the 1993 movie Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Shortly after the movie was first released, I read a letter than had been sent to movie critic Roger Ebert by someone who had seen the movie. The person stated that he was more or less an expert on the life of Bruce Lee, and he had been appalled that the events depicting Bruce Lee in the movie were almost complete fiction. Ebert gave a response that more or less stated that moviegoers should expect such things when it comes to biopics, and that if you wanted the real truth you should read a biography book. In some way I do understand this way of thinking. Bruce Lee's life involved a lot of hard work, work that probably would have come across as boring had a more accurate movie been made of his life.

As I said earlier, using real life people who are long dead gives movie makers a lot of freedom, and sometimes these filmmakers can really fudge the facts to make something that is really far from what really happened to these people in real life. That's kind of what happened with the Dillinger And Caponemovie I am reviewing here, Dillinger And Capone. Of course, the movie involves two of the biggest criminals of the 1930s, bank robber John Dillinger and mobster boss Al Capone. But a little research will uncover that while both men in that time may have heard of each other, there is no evidence that the two men actually met. But in this movie, they do meet. Actually, I had to admit that this fudging of history sounded more plausible than that in many other loosely-based historical movies. Another thing that attracted me to the movie was that it was written by Michael B. Druxman, who wrote the excellent Cheyenne Warrior and wrote and directed the effective horror movie The Doorway. In his screenplay, Druxman uses the real-life theory by some experts that it was not actually John Dillinger who was gunned down by the F.B.I. outside of the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22, 1934. The movie clams that the man who was gunned down was actually Dillinger's lookalike brother. Now that the F.B.I. is no longer looking for Dillinger, thinking they have killed him, the actual John Dillinger (Sheen, That Championship Season) uses the opportunity to slip away and start a new life. Over the next six years in this new life, Dillinger gets married to a woman with a young son, and thinks his criminal days are now behind him. But then one day, Dillinger finds that someone knows he is still alive. That person is the recently paroled former mobster boss Al Capone (Abraham, Amadeus). Capone has a problem, that being he has millions of dollars stuck in a mob-controlled hotel that he can't get to by legal methods. So Capone makes Dillinger an offer he can't refuse: Rob the hotel and get Capone's money back. To make sure that Dillinger will participate, Capone takes Dillinger's wife and stepson hostage. It's now up to Dillinger to pull off the biggest bank robbery of his life and save his family from Capone and his goons.

When an audience gets a period movie involving real-life characters, quite often one of the first questions that comes up just before watching the movie is just how accurate the movie is with depicting the real-life characters and recreating period detail and actual events. Of course, as you found out with the plot description in the previous paragraph, the movie is mainly a "what if" story. However, screenwriter Druxman clearly did some research on Dillinger and Capone, and there are some real details of the two that make their way into the movie. This ranges from a woman dipping a handkerchief in the blood of the supposed John Dillinger after being shot at the Biograph, to showing that Capone in the 1940s was being driven insane from a syphilis infection. I appreciated various details like those in the movie, because they made the fictional parts of the story a lot more plausible. A voice that sounds like it knows what it's talking about is easier to believe. Before getting to the parts of the movie that involve period detail not provided by the screenplay, I feel I should mention that the movie was a Roger Corman production. With that statement, I think that many of you reading this are probably groaning, remembering how tacky and shoddy a lot of Corman movies looked by the mid 1990s. But the pleasant surprise is that visually, the movie looks pretty decent for the most part. The production managed to shoot a lot of the movie on existing locations (churches, hotels, cafes, etc.) that look straight out of the 1940s. There are some locations that were obviously constructed and/or period decorated by the production team, such as Capone's recreation room at his mansion, but these locations also come across as fairly convincing. The acceptable period detail also extends to the wardrobes and the motor vehicles paraded throughout. There are a handful of sequences when the seams start showing enough to suggest the production design team didn't have an unlimited budget, but when you consider the movie's pedigree, you'll be thinking the movie looks pretty good for what must have been a pretty low budget.

If there is one thing about the movie's attempts to come across as accurate that ends up having somewhat of a nagging problem, it has to do with the casting of Martin Sheen and F. Murray Abraham. It hasn't anything to do with their acting (which I'll get to shortly), but for other problems. I could accept that Sheen did not look like the mug shots of the real Dillinger I uncovered during my research on him and Capone; the real Dillinger had plastic surgery a few months before being killed. But the real Dillinger would have been thirty-seven years old in 1940, and Sheen was fifty-five years old when he made Dillinger And Capone. Sheen looks too old for this particular role. Abraham, on the other hand, has a face that kind of looks like Capone's, but his body looks too slim and unbulky for a person who was physically intimidating in real life. Both actors do manage to somewhat compensate for their unsatisfying appearances by their acting, however. Although the real Dillinger was a violent criminal, Sheen seems to know that acting tough, especially for a man who has put his violent side aside, would be both wrong and an audience turn-off. Sheen makes Dillinger come across for the most part as an ordinary guy, which may not be fancy but does earn his character sympathy. Abraham, on the other hand, at the beginning seems a little unsure how to play Capone, but soon finds the right note, and he comes across as a hostile and mentally unbalanaced adversary to not just Dillinger, but to his own men. The movie also boasts some notable performances by the supporting players. Steven Davies steals the show as Capone's very proper English butler who tags along with Dillinger to make sure the robbery happens. Don Stroud (Death Weekend) shows up as a former partner of Dillinger that happily rejoins him on his new task, Jeffrey Combs (Spoiler) plays an F.B.I. agent hot on the trail of Dillinger, and both men give lively performances in their roles.

Catherine Hicks (7th Heaven) also shows up as Dillinger's wife, but it's a small and pretty thankless role for the most part. Dillinger has kept his past a secret from her, and when it was revealed to her after being kidnapped, you might think that there would be an emotionally charged scene of considerable length between the two. But this doesn't really happen, and she is subsequently forgotten about until near the very end of the movie. You never really sense that Dillinger is really concerned about her and his stepson. Another weakly written character is Combs' F.B.I. agent. Although the movie tries to build him up as an additional threat to Dillinger, he has so little screen time and exits the movie so abruptly, there seems to be no real reason why he's there. It would be extremely easy to write this character out of the script. Maybe if the script had been returned to Druxman for an additional polish, these and a few other script flaws could have been corrected, but the movie would still have suffered from one big problem, a problem that ultimately sinks the movie. And that problem is Jon Purdy's direction. The movie is sorely lacking in grit, tension, and excitement. Most obvious is with the action sequences (like a car chase), which come across as crude and extremely passionless. This even extends to the climactic big heist, in part due to the fact it runs only a few minutes long instead of taking its time and building tension and suspense. But there is also a very undernourished human angle as well. For the most part, we don't sense that Dillinger's family is in peril, or that Dillinger is in danger from his back-stabbing boss Capone. Dillinger may come across as a nice guy, but that isn't enough reason to get involved with his plight. There's no heart to this film. Additionally, several sequences are directed in a very confusing manner. (The opening of the movie, where Dillinger's brother is killed, makes almost no sense.) This movie goes to show that it's the director who more often than not is the key for a movie working or not. I am convinced that if someone other than Purdy directed Dillinger And Capone, the movie would have probably worked despite those aforementioned script problems. As it is, we have a near miss. This movie is not awful - there are some good things to it - but at the end you'll still be disappointed.

(Posted November 21, 2014)

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See also: Bonnie's Kids, For A Few Lousy Dollars, Ulterior Motives