Truth vs. Fiction: The Bank-Robbing Style of Warren Oates as Dillinger

A very Dillinger-esque Warren Oates as John Dillinger, leaving a South Bend bank job in 1973's Dillinger.

Warren Oates as John Dillinger, leaving a South Bend bank job in 1973’s Dillinger.

Vitals

Warren Oates as John Dillinger, Depression-era bank robber and “super gang” leader

Indiana, Fall 1933

Film: Dillinger
Release Date: July 20, 1973
Director: John Milius
Costume Designer: James M. George

Background

Eighty years ago today in East Chicago, Indiana, 43-year-old ECPD patrolman William Patrick O’Malley responded to a call concerning the robbery of the First National Bank. Without hesitation, O’Malley showed up at the scene, unaware that he would be going up against John Dillinger, the Indiana bandit who would soon become famous as the first national Public Enemy #1.

Dillinger, who had grown from a small-time ex-con in May, was on the verge of becoming a national figure when he led his gang into the First National Bank on that Monday afternoon in January 1934. Three lawmen had fallen to the gang’s guns in that time, but Dillinger himself had never been the triggerman. Dillinger preferred smiling at those he was robbing rather than holding a gun on them. But, as part of his “trade”, Dillinger did indeed carry a gun, and it is very likely that it was his Thompson that sadly ended the life of patrolman O’Malley outside the bank.

Strangely, this life-changing incident was portrayed in the 1973 film Dillinger but not in Michael Mann’s 2009 update of the Dillinger story, Public Enemies. In the latter film, the East Chicago robbery is totally excised. While it would make sense to cut and rearrange a few events for a movie, O’Malley’s death was a major turning point for Dillinger; up until January 15, 1934, he had been a charming bank robber. Now, he was a killer. When he was arrested in Tucson ten days later and shipped back to Indiana, the charge read murder as Dillinger was forced to face the music for O’Malley’s death. At least he would have been forced to face the music if he hadn’t escaped during the whole “wooden gun” episode.

Dillinger was always remorseful about O’Malley’s death, and the flashiness of his earlier robberies was replaced by cold-hearted professionalism in the latter half of his career. Teamed up with seasoned but violent pros like “Baby Face” Nelson, Tommy Carroll, and Homer Van Meter, the second Dillinger gang wasn’t hesitant about using force and at least seven more lawmen met their end going up against the gang in 1934.

John Dillinger himself in March 1934, freshly escaped from the Crown Point jail in Indiana.

John Dillinger himself in March 1934, freshly escaped from the Crown Point jail in Indiana.

The 1973 film, directed by John Milius and starring Dillinger-lookalike Warren Oates in the title role, reflects this gang’s violence with thrilling, if slightly exaggerated, gunfight sequences throughout. For instance, the total body count – on both sides – is 61 gangsters, policemen, and civilians. The East Chicago robbery, where only O’Malley was killed, results in 8 deaths on screen, and the Little Bohemia gunfight, which had taken the lives of two men, has 14 gangsters, agents, and civilians gunned down in the film. (A very accurate breakdown of the film’s on screen body count is here.)

However, it wasn’t the deaths that made Dillinger famous, it was the bank jobs. Having robbed at least a dozen banks in just over a year’s time, Dillinger became a household name and a national figure. He was as heroic as a gun-toting criminal could be, charmingly standing up against the system that was oppressing many. Of course, this is all just how he was viewed… in the end, there’s nothing heroic about being a bank robber. On the day of the East Chicago robbery, patrolman O’Malley was the real hero. According to a post on the Officer Down Memorial Page, O’Malley had stopped into a drugstore and warned the occupants that the police were about to engage the outlaws in a gunfight. The drugstore customers and employees took cover; a wise decision, as the drugstore’s windows were soon shot out as Thompson gunfire shook the streets. While Chicago and its surrounding suburbs were often viewed as the pinnacle of gangland corruption, O’Malley was far from corrupt; he was an honest and brave policeman who left a wife and three children. While it can be fun to root for the bad guys in a movie, especially when they’ve got great one-liners and cool gadgets, it’s important to remember the sacrifice of real life heroes like O’Malley.

What’d He Wear?

Rather than doing a separate post for all of the great ’30s-era suits worn by Warren Oates as Dillinger – especially since so many are only seen for a little bit in each scene – I figured now would be the time to compile all of Dillinger’s bank robbery suits from the film. For an additional dose of interesting, I’m gonna contrast them to what we know about the real guy’s wardrobe.

(For other posts about Oates as Dillinger, check out the black suit he wore for Dillinger’s Arizona arrest and the dark brown suit for the Little Bohemia gunfight.)

Bank Robbery #1 – Greencastle, Indiana

For the audience’s introduction to Oates’ Dillinger, he blasts his way onto the screen (and into our hearts) during the film’s version of the Greencastle, Indiana bank robbery on October 23, 1933 that netted the gang their largest payday – almost $75,000. Here, he wears a dark brown suit with a thin, widely-spaced white pinstripe. It is a three-piece suit, but only the jacket and vest are seen as the teller cage window cuts off everything from the waist down in the shot. A production photo makes it look like Oates was actually wearing jeans in this scene! While this would make sense for Oates’ comfort, doesn’t it kinda bum you out if that’s the case?

The Dillinger Gang: Dillinger, Van Meter, Pierpont, and Makley. Is Dillinger wearing jeans here, or am I crazy?

The Dillinger Gang: Dillinger, Van Meter, Pierpont, and Makley. Is Dillinger wearing jeans here, or am I crazy?

Whether they’re suit pants or denim jeans, Oates wears a brown leather Western-style belt through his trousers.

The single-breasted suit jacket has large notch lapels, a welted breast pocket, and slightly padded shoulders with roped sleeveheads. Not many other details are seen except for the 2-button cuffs. The suit’s vest has a lower gorge than most suits of the ’30s, but it still has room for six buttons down the front, fastening above a notched base.

Dillinger barks orders during the robbery.

Dillinger barks orders during the robbery.

Evidently, Oates’ Dillinger has a knack for wearing striped shirts during his robberies. Here, the shirt has a white ground and thin dark brown stripes. It has buttoned cuffs and a large ’70s-style spread collar. He wears a red tie with a yellow “bean”-shaped pattern.

The finishing touch is a very classic straw boater with a wide black ribbon, a hat that the man was known to prefer in real life.

For the real robbery, it is known that Dillinger wore an overcoat. Although he wore a straw boater for all of his summer robberies, I’m not sure if he would have worn one in October for the chilly Greencastle air. In both the film and real life, Dillinger was armed with only a pistol for this escapade.

Despite the controversy (which is solely in my head) about whether or not this is a full suit or merely a jacket and vest, some production stills from an evidently unused scene show Warren Oates and Michelle Phillips (as Dillinger and Billie Frechette) relaxing and smiling. Since they’re black-and-white, I can’t be sure if Oates was wearing this suit or not, but if he was, there are indeed matching pants that are – like the other suits – flat front with cuffed bottoms.

Any idea of the story behind these? The photo on the right would fit with the post-breakout sequence, but Dillinger only wears his solid black vest and white shirt in that scene... sadly, no mustache either.

Any idea of the story behind these? The photo on the right would fit with the post-breakout sequence, but Dillinger only wears his solid black vest and white shirt in that scene… sadly, no mustache either.

Bank Robbery #2 – East Chicago, IN

The film next catches up with Dillinger for the robbery of the First National Bank in East Chicago. While this was indeed a bank robbed by Dillinger – and the place where he was supposed to have committed his first and only killing – the film fudges the details a bit, changing the date from January 15, 1934 to “1933” and getting the whole gang involved. Instead, it was just Dillinger and his loyal accomplice, the eight-fingered Canadian yegg John “Red” Hamilton, as well as an unknown driver in a blue Plymouth getaway car.

In the film, Dillinger switches his wardrobe up. Rather than his usual browns, he sports a gray pinstripe double-breasted business suit. If we’re looking into it, perhaps we can say it was the filmmakers’ way of showing Dillinger’s turn as a “professional” criminal, wearing a business suit rather than the more casual brown. Of course, they probably just liked the look of the suit for the scene and said, “Wear this one, Warren.” But it’s fun to guess.

Since he wears an overcoat during the daytime scenes, the suit itself is best seen when Dillinger is absconding with Billie or on this foreign poster which doesn't quite capture the gritty violence of the film.

Since he wears an overcoat during the daytime scenes, the suit itself is best seen when Dillinger is absconding with Billie or on this foreign poster which doesn’t quite capture the gritty violence of the film.

The suit jacket has a double-breasted front with six buttons – two to fasten. There is no breast pocket, but there are flapped hip pockets. The jacket is fitted with a ventless rear and era-correct wide peak lapels. There are three buttons on each cuff. The vest is also single-breasted with a 6-button front and a notched base.

Dillinger’s suit trousers are flat front with a crease down the center of each leg to the cuffed bottoms.

The film softens the O'Malley murder by having O'Malley (here a guard rather than a policeman) kill Charley Makley with a shotgun. A winded Dillinger retaliates with his Thompson and, after he stumbles into the getaway car, Van Meter's shots are the ones used to fatally shoot the guard. Here, Dillinger reaches for his Thompson after he is hit by the getaway car (top) and reacts to the shooting of his buddy Makley (bottom).

The film softens the O’Malley murder by having O’Malley (here a guard rather than a policeman) kill Charley Makley with a shotgun. A winded Dillinger retaliates with his Thompson and, after he stumbles into the getaway car, Van Meter’s shots are the ones used to fatally shoot the guard.
Here, Dillinger reaches for his Thompson after he is hit by the getaway car (top) and reacts to the shooting of his buddy Makley (bottom).

On top of his suit, Dillinger wears a dark charcoal heavy overcoat. It is single-breasted with a 3-button front, notch lapels. Like the suit, there is no breast pocket, but there are flapped hip pockets. Dillinger inadvertently tucks the flaps in when he stuffs his hands in his pockets.

The overcoat’s sleeves are half-cuffed with a 1-button fastened tab. A vertical seam down the rear leads to a reinforced single vent.

Dillinger and Van Meter prep for a bloody day in East Chicago. On the right, Dillinger furtively stands in the bank entrance where his only victim in the film will soon be standing.

Dillinger and Van Meter prep for a bloody day in East Chicago.
On the right, Dillinger furtively stands in the bank entrance where his only victim in the film will soon be standing.

Dillinger again wears a striped shirt, this time with alternating white and blue stripes. Not much is seen of this dress shirt, but it does have buttoned cuffs. His tie has a dark blue ground with small white dots.

Oates worries about getting on John Phillips' bad side.

Oates worries about getting on John Phillips’ bad side.

On his feet, Dillinger wears a pair of black leather plain-toe 5-eyelet balmorals, matched with black dress socks.

Naturally, he has a straw boater on his head. If it’s the same hat as before, it’s gotten dirtier in the interim and looks like it could use a good scrubbing.

You'd think on a big day like a bank robbery, Dillinger would try and wear a clean hat.

You’d think on a big day like a bank robbery, Dillinger would try and wear a clean hat.

During the actual robbery in East Chicago, Dillinger wore a bulletproof vest that likely saved his life when he and Hamilton came under attack. Unfortunately, saving Dillinger’s life also meant it led to the death of patrolman O’Malley. In both real life and the film, however, Dillinger carried one of his trademark Thompson submachine guns with the stock removed for easier concealment. Supposedly, he kept the firearm in a trombone case (as they didn’t fit in the stereotypical violin case).

Bank Robbery #3 – South Bend, IN

After teaming up with “Baby Face” Nelson and “Pretty Boy” Floyd in 1934, we get a short look at the Dillinger gang holding up a bank in South Bend, where the psychotic Nelson threatens nuns and tommy-guns policemen from across the street. This is more likely a representation of the Sioux Falls bank robbery, as the South Bend holdup was a much more chaotic affair resembling the film’s Mason City gunfight.

Dillinger’s suit here is once again a brown three-piece, but the color is a lighter, faded brown with a purple tint. The jacket is single-breasted with peak lapels and a 2-button front, a very common style in the ’20s that held over into the early part of the ’30s. There is a welted breast pocket, slanted “hacking-style” flapped hip pockets, and a ventless rear. The vest is similar to his others, with six buttons down the front to a notched base. The trousers are flat front with cuffed bottoms.

Even without saying a word, Harry Dean Stanton (far left as Homer Van Meter in the gray suit) manages to steal the scene. The black rosary dangling from his pocket was evidently yanked from one of the nuns... I'm not sure whether or not this was from a deleted scene or if it was just placed in Van Meter's pocket to indicate that he would have taken it, but it's very entertaining to those who notice it.

Even without saying a word, Harry Dean Stanton (far left as Homer Van Meter in the gray suit) manages to steal the scene. The black rosary dangling from his pocket was evidently yanked from one of the nuns… I’m not sure whether or not this was from a deleted scene or if it was just placed in Van Meter’s pocket to indicate that he would have taken it, but it’s very entertaining to those who notice it and very fitting with Stanton’s humorous portrayal of Van Meter.

Although only glimpsed on his way out the door (as you see in the photo at the top of the page), Dillinger’s shirt is white with dark brown stripes, similar to the one he wears in the first scene. His tie is a dark reddish-brown with white dots, worn under the large collars of the shirt.

As usual, Dillinger tops off his look with a straw boater and black dress shoes. This time, his boater has a wide brown band with a ribbon in the rear. It is more like the hat he wears for the Mason City robbery than the one he wears earlier in the film.

In real life, Dillinger dressed much more casually for the South Bend stickup, wearing overalls and a straw boater. Had he known it would be his last, he might have spruced himself up a little more like his previous robberies. He had also been armed with both a pistol and a Thompson in real life, but in the film he carries only the pistol.

However, this suit is very similar to ones that Dillinger was known to have worn in his life. If you look at the top two images on this page (Oates as Dillinger and the real Dillinger), they’re both wearing light-colored three-piece suits with a peak lapel single-breasted jacket and flat front trousers with cuffed bottoms. Dillinger himself is wearing a fedora, but he was known to prefer boaters during his robberies and the film Dillinger does not ignore that fact.

Go Big or Go Home

Although he was known for his easygoing wit in casual situations, Dillinger remained a professional on the job. He avoided gunplay when he could and didn’t get too greedy. While the gang was raiding the First National Bank in Mason City, Iowa on March 13, 1934, Dillinger discovered that there was much less money in the vault than they had originally planned to steal. Furthermore, both the bank guard and the townspeople were beginning to take up arms against the gang. Where more hot-headed bandits, like the Napoleonic gangster “Baby Face” Nelson, would prefer to stay, fight, and grab all the money, Dillinger coolly decided to leave while they’re ahead. The gang quickly packed up and, although there was still a short gunfight – mostly due to Nelson’s trigger-happy mentality – Dillinger and his cronies left Mason City with just over $20,000 and no fatalities on either side.

There is no disputing that Warren Oates was the perfect actor to play Dillinger.

There is no disputing that Warren Oates was the perfect actor to play Dillinger.

The “Dillinger Mentality” applies for any job. Whether you’re a grocery store clerk, an electrician, or a bank CEO, keep a cool head, an easy smile, and don’t be too greedy. And, especially for the jobs above, avoid gunplay. That sort of thing will get you arrested, even if a customer demands both paper and plastic.

That’s not to say Dillinger didn’t know how to have a good time. When he wasn’t in a bank, he was often out at nightclubs or bars, rubbing elbows with showgirls and cocktail waitresses. He was quite the social butterfly, but he didn’t drink to excess, enjoying the occasional Schlitz or Silver Gin Fizz. Dillinger would not have been the guy pounding shots of Jäger between Vodka Red Bulls. No one should be that guy.

gang

When these guys go into a bar, they order whiskey or beer. Maybe champagne. Never “Goose and Bull” or “Captain and Diet”, bro.

How to Get the Look

Both in real life and in film, Dillinger’s suits varied in styles (single-breasted and double-breasted, notch lapels and peak lapels) and color (brown vs. gray). There was always some consistency with the three-piece suits, white striped shirts, patterned ties, black leather dress shoes, and straw boaters, but Dillinger knew when to switch up his look.

So if you’re looking for a general dillinger style, either for a slightly more badass day at the office or for a bank-robbing halloween costume, this should be a good place to start…

  • Brown three-piece wool suit, consisting of:
    • Single-breasted jacket with peak lapels, 2-button front, breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, and ventless rear
    • Single-breasted vest with 6-button front and notched bottom
    • Flat front trousers with cuffed bottoms
  • White long-sleeve button-down dress shirt with thin dark stripes, large collars, and buttoned cuffs
  • Dark reddish-brown necktie with a light-colored dot pattern
  • Brown leather belt with brass buckle
  • Black leather plain toe 5-eyelet balmorals
  • Black dress socks
  • White sleeveless ribbed undershirt
  • Stiff straw boater with a wide black band

The Gun

Immortalized as the “Tommy Gun” to all fans of gangster films, General Thompson’s Thompson submachine gun has found a special place in American culture since the Roaring Twenties. The Thompson was conceived just after World War I when the introduction of trench warfare found the need for a “trench sweeper”. To develop this weapon, which he envisioned as a handheld machine gun that would fire pistol ammunition, John T. Thompson worked through several prototypes before developing the first model, the Thompson M1921.

Gen. Thompson intended his weapon to be a groundbreaking military weapon. However, when the military wasn’t interested, he started marketing the gun for the personal protection market, with posters illustrating brave ranch owners armed with the Thompson as they drive off poorly-armed horseback bandits. Yet again, Thompson’s vision failed. The first users of the gun were, in fact, members of the IRA who purchased a bulk order of Thompsons in March of 1921 for the Irish Civil War. Eventually, the gun finally caught on in America… just not in the right hands.

Described by gangster expert William J. Helmer as “The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar” – in his excellent book of the same name – the Thompson found its way into the hands of Chicago gangsters who found them to be very useful for mass murders and executions. First recorded for a gangland murder in 1924, the gun spread across the hands of the country’s criminals, reaching New York and Los Angeles by the end of the decade. The police had to catch up, and many departments began stocking the weapon in their arsenals as well. Reinvigorated by the widespread use – at least the police use – Thompson’s Auto-Ordnance company updated the M1921 with a Cutts compensator and other improvements.

A Thompson submachine gun, Model 1928. This has the Cutts compensator, the vertical handgrip, and the drum magazine that all became part of the popular gangster/Tommy gun association. The full stock was often removed by gangsters like Dillinger for easier mobility and concealment.

A Thompson submachine gun, Model 1928. This has the Cutts compensator, the vertical handgrip, and the drum magazine that all became part of the popular gangster/Tommy gun association. The full stock was often removed by gangsters like Dillinger for easier mobility and concealment.

While the stock market crash of 1929 meant the end of the Roaring Twenties and, thus, the end of much production and business, the Thompson was more in demand than ever. Modern-day outlaws in the spirit of Jesse James and Butch Cassidy took up Thompsons and fast Fords instead of six-shooters and horses when they charged into banks. A national crime wave lasted for most of the Great Depression, reaching its high point in 1933-1934… not incoincidentally the same time that John Dillinger was raiding Midwest banks.

Poor Dillinger has to do all the dirty work while Van Meter just dilly-dallies in the background. Seriously, what is Harry Dean Stanton doing back there? Picking a cuticle?

Poor Dillinger has to do all the dirty work while Van Meter just dilly-dallies in the background. Seriously, what is Harry Dean Stanton doing back there? Picking a cuticle?

Guys like Dillinger soon realized that, while the 50-round drum of powerful .45 ACP and nearly 1500 rounds-per-minute rate of fire would be more than enough to battle small-town police and vigilante civilians, the Thompson was still a relatively ungainly weapon, weighing more than ten pounds and extending to nearly three feet long.

To combat these issues, as well as to aid mobility and concealment, the criminals discovered that the Thompson’s stock was easily removable. This was not a new practice, but it became very widespread during the Depression-era crime wave. In fact, Dillinger even reportedly had his Thompson modified so he could carry it on a sling with the stock removed, making it barely noticeable under an overcoat… or inside a trombone case, as he reportedly carried it for the deadly East Chicago bank job.

In this 1927 photograph, Lt. Oscar Bayer of the LAPD Detective Bureau aims a Thompson with a removed stock (and no magazine) for demonstration purposes. The Dillinger gang modified their Thompsons this way, but as this photo pre-dated Dillinger's spree by six years, they were clearly not the first to do so.

In this 1927 photograph, Lt. Oscar Bayer of the LAPD Detective Bureau aims a Thompson with a removed stock (and no magazine) for demonstration purposes. The Dillinger gang modified their Thompsons this way, but as this photo pre-dated Dillinger’s spree by six years, they were clearly not the first to do so.

Once the crime wave of the 1930s died down, the Thompson found a new audience when the U.S. went to war with Japan and Germany in 1941. Although it had indeed been adopted by the Navy in 1928, the military was finally finding widespread use for the Thompson submachine gun. To make them more field-reliable and mass production-friendly, the M1921 and M1928 models with the Cutts compensators, the vertical handgrips, and the big drum magazines were replaced with the M1 and M1A1 models. The rate of fire was reduced from 1500 to a more controllable 600-700 RPM. These World War II models also had plain barrels, horizontal foreward grips, and less iconic but more reliable stick magazines that could hold 30 rounds. Stick magazines had been developed and used with the Thompson since their development (though only with 20 rounds), but it was the drum magazine configuration that stood out as the truly iconic gangster choice.

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Buy the movie.

The Quote

Now, don’t nobody get nervous; you ain’t got nothing to fear. You’re being robbed by the John Dillinger gang, that’s the best there is. These few dollars you lose here today are going to buy you stories to tell your children and great-grandchildren. This could be one of the big moments in your life… don’t make it your last!

5 comments

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  4. Required

    In response to “There is no disputing that Warren Oates was the perfect actor to play Dillinger.” Sure! If you want the old, drunk and retarded version.

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