Warren Oates as Dillinger: The Man in Black
Warren Oates as John Dillinger, Depression-era bank robber
Tucson, Arizona to Crown Point, Indiana, Winter 1934
Release Date: July 20, 1973
Director: John Milius
Costume Designer: James M. George
“Hey wait, Nick, didn’t you already do a post on Dillinger’s prison suit?” ask many of my astute followers who also happen to know my first name.
While many folks of this generation were introduced to John Dillinger and his band of Depression-era desperadoes through the 2009 film Public Enemies, it was probably the tenth (at least) major production featuring Dillinger as a character. My personal favorite is the 1973 John Milius gunfest Dillinger featuring manly and scraggle-toothed actor Warren Oates in the title role.
As usual for Milius, the film doesn’t hold back in terms of violence, upping the Dillinger gang’s body count from around a dozen to more than fifty. Oates plays Dillinger as an cheeky outlaw who loves being just that – not a misunderstood farm boy who was led into a life of crime by police.
Yesterday marked the 79th anniversary of Dillinger’s legendary “wooden gun” breakout from the Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana. While Public Enemies had Dillinger already in prison garb by this time, Dillinger kept him in his black suit worn when he was arrested.
What’d He Wear?
We first see Dillinger somewhere outside of Tucson, Arizona, relaxing in his Ford with prostitute-turned-gun-moll Billie Frechette. They reflect on his life of crime before heading to a good ol’ southwestern shindig complete with a square dance medley ranging from “Skip to My Lou” and “Turkey in the Straw”.
While you may not think of packing a black wool three-piece suit for your trip to Arizona, this was the ensemble favored by the real life and the 1973 representation of Dillinger. If you want this “Man in Black” look in the southwest, go with a comfortable lightweight worsted for a look preferred by our favorite outlaw, paired with thin socks, low shoes, and a lightweight shirt.
We don’t see much of the jacket, as he shows up in Crown Point without it, but the glimpses we get show a single-breasted ventless suit coat with peak lapels, as favored in the ’30s and briefly enjoyed a ’70s re-emergence, albeit with wider lapels. The jacket also appears to have a 2-button front, 2-button cuffs, a welted breast pocket, and jetted hip pockets. To thumb his nose at the local law enforcement watching him closely, Dillinger also fastens a large silver sheriff’s badge to his left lapel. Naturally, it doesn’t do much to alter the plans of lawman “Big Jim” Wollard, but it reflects the typical Dillinger life-is-too-short-not-to-taunt-your-pursuers attitude that he lived and died by.
The film even shows Homer Van Meter (played brilliantly by Harry Dean Stanton) taking his girlfriend’s photograph with some Tucson cops in the same scene. In real life, Dillinger often was photographed smiling next to policemen unaware of who he actually was. But back to the suit…
The vest, which we see the most of, buttons down the front with five buttons. It only has two lower pockets while the actual Dillinger’s vest had four – two chest and two lower. The rear fastens with an adjustable strap across the black silk lining.
The trousers are single-pleated with open side pockets, no rear pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms. The pants have a lower rise than they should for the ’30s, a detail that Public Enemies captured in better detail. Much like the real Dillinger’s trousers during the arrest, they have belt loops, but we don’t see any actual belt with Oates.
We do, however, still have suspenders. In this case, they are a pair of dark brown striped suspenders with brass hardware and brown leather braces fastening to the pants.
Unlike some of the other movie’s costumes, Dillinger’s attire is generally true to the ’30s. An exception in this case is his shirt, a white lightweight dress shirt with a plain front, breast pocket, and buttoned barrel cuffs. The spread collar has very long points, making the shirt more 1973 than 1933.
The light gray tie, on the other hand, is much slimmer and truer to the ’30s with a round black tie pin fastening it into place.
Dillinger rounds out his outfit with a pair of black leather 4-eyelet cap-toe oxfords and thin black dress socks.
Underneath, Dillinger wears a white ribbed sleeveless undershirt.
Dillinger pairs the look with four different hats throughout the sequence. Before heading to the square dance in Tucson, Dillinger wears a dark gray fedora with a black band. At the dance itself, Dillinger appropriately wears a huge wide-brimmed cowboy hat that Tom Mix would’ve been proud of.
After ditching his jacket and tie for a “collegiate” look in jail, Dillinger steals a tan newsboy cap from the garage mechanic on his way out. When he goes to see Billie, this has been switched out for a straw boater.
I suppose this is all his way of responding to the reporter who asked him what happened to his hat when he was escorted into prison with a bare head.
Go Big or Go Home
Warren Oates’s Dillinger is grittier, meaner, and uglier (in a good way) than Depp’s well-researched but more Hollywood-friendly portrayal. Oates isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and has a short fuse, not just to protect his woman but to protect his own reputation and ego.
Both men aptly portrayed various sides of the gangster with skill; Depp was better at showing the tender, human side of Dillinger through the eyes of his love Billie but Oates captured the criminal that the country knew, loved, and mourned. However, there is certainly no denying that Oates was the perfect casting just by looks alone.
Both Oates and Depp captured Dillinger’s playfully subversive attitude and, naturally, both Dillinger and Public Enemies captured possibly the most famous point of Dillinger’s career, the infamous photograph of him with his arm around prosecutor Robert Estill as sheriff Lillian Holley looks on. The latter film captured the moment with better detail, as Milius’s Dillinger somehow missed the fact that the woman in the photo was actually the Lake County sheriff.
How to Get the Look
This is a more basic (and – according to photos – more accurate) look than featured in Public Enemies. You can get a nice suit made, but chances are you could pick up some essential ingredients at a thrift store.
- Black worsted wool suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 2-button suit coat with peak lapels, welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 5-button vest with two welted pockets and notched bottom
- Single reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, no back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White lightweight cotton dress shirt with long-pointed spread collar, plain front, breast pocket, and buttoned barrel cuffs
- Thin light gray necktie
- Round black tie pin
- Brown striped suspenders with brass hardware and brown leather braces
- Black leather 4-eyelet cap-toe oxfords/balmorals
- Black dress socks
- Silver sheriff’s badge, pinned defiantly to your left coat lapel
- White ribbed sleeveless undershirt
Dillinger wears a series of hats for this. Depending on the occasion, let’s see what you need:
- Dark gray fedora with a black band (good for relaxing with your special lady friend)
- Light brown wide-brimmed cowboy hat with black band (good for a southwestern-style fandango)
- Tan newsboy cap (good for breaking out of jail)
- Standard straw boater with a black band (good for reconnecting with your special lady friend)
The Legend of the Wooden Gun
So, is it true that Dillinger broke out of the Crown Point jail using only a wooden gun he had whittled himself?
Yes and no.
While the true story is that half of the jail was actually in on the break since Dillinger was half mobbed-up (supposedly, many of his bank jobs were also pre-planned with the Chicago Outfit and corrupt bank presidents), he did indeed use a wooden gun to round up several trustees and guards to get his hands on several actual guns and get out of Crown Point.
Dillinger and, to an unseen extent, Public Enemies both use the preferred romantic version of Dillinger, on his own with only his lawyer to get word to the outside world, carving a pistol in his jail cell and using it to make his way past several guards and locked doors before escaping in the sheriff’s car. Dillinger actually shows us the man at work, chuckling and whistling “Red River Valley” as he makes a pretty damn good replica of a Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless pistol.
In real life, the actual wooden gun was much cruder, basically a block of wood with a rounded out hole for the trigger guard and a machine-drilled metal barrel. Of course, since the actual breakout was pre-arranged with many guards and the deputy warden, the gun didn’t need to look too realistic.
In the film, Dillinger uses his wooden gun to take a Winchester Model 1897 Riot shotgun from a guard, then a pair of Thompson M1921AC submachine guns for he and fellow inmate Reed Youngblood, and finally a .45-caliber Colt New Service revolver, which he holds on the neck of the mechanic as they casually leave the jail in the sheriff’s sedan.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
In one of the film’s many but entertaining divergences from actual history, Dillinger forces his captors to stop on their way out of Crown Point to rob a small bank. As he takes a Thompson into the bank, he gives the patrons a variation of his usual speech, made all the more entertaining by his recent escape.
This is a robbery. I’m John Dillinger, most recently on display down at your local jail. Don’t be nervous. Don’t do anything you’ll regret. This is going to be one of the big days in your life. Don’t make it your last.
Remember in the Public Enemies post when I said I’d also be doing posts about the 1973 film Dillinger? This is what I was talking about.
It seems to me that Warren Oates could very well have been the real John Dillinger if Dillinger actually switched places with someone else. It sounds like something Dillinger would do, hide in plain sight with a persona that could be contrived. I’m surprised that this possibility never occurred to anyone.
I’ve read some theories that, for the last month or so of Dillinger’s life, he indeed traded identities with a small-time crook named Jimmy Lawrence who was then set up to be killed in Dillinger’s place in front of the Biograph. Personally, I think it’s more of an intriguing conspiracy theory than anything, but some people are convinced that Dillinger lived long past 1934 by using his plastic surgery as an opportunity to switch places with this “double”. You can read more about it here: http://forum.casebook.org/showthread.php?t=3739 or in Jay Robert Nash’s controversial book The Dillinger Dossier: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dillinger_Dossier.
What a crappy movie! When you have the real life of Dillinger how could any idiot not right a true factual movie? Purvis played by a 60 year old man? Putting on his gloves and lighting a cigar before every kill or arrest? Hells Bells couldnt Oates have been charming and likeable like the real thing? Giving Billie a black eye? Where did this lie emerge and why? They had a 6 month love affair? Big Jim Wollard? why do they add fictional characters? Hell Oates doesnt even have a moustache
Colorful, fanciful and, in some places, so preposterous, it’s impossible not to love this flick. Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis and Oates, Ben Johnson, even Roy Jenson (cast as rare non-crook),…are you kidding me? How can that not be good. Wilber Underhill, the Tri-State Terror (real bad man, I have a book on him), and “Handsome Jack” Klutis? Gotta love it. Baby Face and Floyd not cast real well.