The Death of John Dillinger – 1973 Style
Warren Oates as John Dillinger, doomed Depression-era bank robber
Chicago, July 1934
Release Date: July 20, 1973
Director: John Milius
Costume Designer: James M. George
Although it had been founded in 1908, the FBI had existed for more than a quarter of a century without grabbing major national attention. There were many major successes, but the recent crime wave of bank-robbing desperadoes tarnished the agency’s image and, in turn, turned outlaws into folk heroes.
One of these “folk heroes” was John Dillinger, a 31-year-old Indiana native who had recently embarrassed national law enforcement by reportedly breaking out of jail with a wooden gun. Although they had Dillinger in their sights for the better part of a year, the FBI – then known as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) – had no legal jurisdiction to take him down. Dillinger’s crimes – ranging from bank robbery to alleged murder – were all certainly major, but none violated any federal law. Then, it was realized that Dillinger had stolen the Lake County sheriff’s car during his escape. By driving the stolen automobile across a state line, Dillinger violated the Dyer Act.
The Dyer Act, also called the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, was passed in 1919 to combat the growing threat of trafficking stolen automobiles. If a person was found guilty of violating the Dyer Act, they would be sentenced with imprisonment up to ten years, a hefty fine, or both. In Dillinger’s case, the BOI determined that his punishment would be execution.
Four months later, on Monday, July 22, 1934, Dillinger – who had risen to “Public Enemy #1” in the eyes of the fedral government – was shot and killed by agents led by Chicago SAC Melvin Purvis outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. He was famously led to his death by “the lady in red”, a Romanian-born madam named Anna Sage. This weekend commemorates the 80th anniversary of this first major nationally-known success by J. Edgar Hoover’s national crime division.
Today’s post will focus on the death as depicted in the 1973 film Dillinger directed by John Milius and starring Warren Oates as Dillinger. Next Tuesday, the actual anniversary of Dillinger’s death, will look at the more fact-based treatment of that night in Michael Mann’s 2009 biopic Public Enemies.
(NB: Monday marks my 25th birthday, so I may interrupt the Dillinger extravaganza with some self-serving post. It is my blog, after all!)
What’d He Wear?
Although it is well-documented that Dillinger died on a hot summer night, the Dillinger costumers chose to portray the evening as a cold one, with Melvin Purvis and his agents bundled up in overcoats; even Dillinger himself is outfitted in a warm wool three-piece suit.
Oates’ Dillinger death suit is gray pinstripe with a very ’30s cut. He wore a gray pinstripe three-piece suit earlier in the film, but this suit has a single-breasted jacket as opposed to the earlier suit’s double-breasted jacket. The earlier suit also had much bolder pinstripes.
Most details of this suit come from production photos since the scene is brief and dark in the finished film. The jacket has peak lapels, a 2-button front, and 2-button cuffs. There is a welted breast pocket and flapped hip pockets. The rear of the jacket is hardly seen, but it appears to be ventless.
The suit’s vest is single-breasted with six buttons all fastened down the front to the notched bottom. Oates wears flat front matching pinstripe trousers with a high rise and cuffed bottoms with a full break. Certain elements of the trousers, including the slightly flared legs and frogmouth front pockets, are more ’70s than ’30s, at least based on any documentation I’ve seen.
Oates wears a plain white button-down dress shirt with a large spread collar, front placket, and button cuffs. A wine red tie completes the ensemble.
All of Dillinger’s accessories in the scene are also black. Dillinger wears black leather cap-toe balmorals and black dress socks. His hat is a black felt fedora with a wide black ribbon.
Although this is a very Dillinger-esque suit and evokes something he certainly would have worn in real life, it is too “warm” for the desired July setting.
How Does It Compare?
In real life, Dillinger was dressed much more appropriately for a hot summer evening. Immediately after the shooting, all of Dillinger’s clothing and effects were inventoried by Special Agent Daniel Sullivan. Sullivan’s report was, in turn, transcribed by Inspector Samuel Cowley in a memo to Hoover. Thanks to the excellent Faded Glory: Dusty Roads of an FBI Era website, Cowley’s report can be read and Dillinger’s clothing – from his shirt to his garters – can be pictured vividly eighty years later.
(Faded Glory: Dusty Roads of an FBI Era is a fantastic site maintained by retired FBI agent Larry E. Wack, chronicling the rise of the nation’s most famous law enforcement agency.)
According to Sullivan’s report, Dillinger’s final attire was:
- 1 white broadcloth shirt, Kenilworth brand.
- 1 red printed necktie, bearing tag of Paul Boldt & Sons, 2724 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois.
- 1 pair gray pants containing laundry mark in pocket, No. 355 (40).
- 1 black belt with silver buckle – no monogram.
- 1 pair white buckskin Nunnbush [sic] shoes, size 9-D, manufacturer’s number 369…105721.
- 1 pair black socks; no manufacturer’s name.
- 1 pair red Paris garters.
- 1 pair shorts (Hanes), white in color, with blue stripes, size 34, bearing manufacturer’s identifying number 186A-350SE-34.
- 1 gold ring with ruby set, containing the following inscription on the inside of the ring: “With all my love, Polly”.
- 1 yellow gold 17 jewel Hamilton watch, works No. 344347, case No. 0558384. In the rear of the case of this watch was a picture of a young woman, which has been identified as that of the girl friend who attended the Biograph Theater with Dillinger on July 22,1934. The name of this girl is Polly Hamilton.
Unlike the 1973 film’s romantic assertion that Polly Hamilton was just an alias for Dillinger’s loyal sweetheart Billie Frechette, Polly was an entirely different person who was either a waitress or prostitute (or both) in Chicago. Dillinger came to know her through his association with madam Anna Sage, and Polly became Dillinger’s last girlfriend while poor Billie wasted away in prison for “harboring” him.
More details come from first hand reports in books like G. Russell Girardin’s Dillinger: The Untold Story and Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies. For instance, we learn that the shirt had a pocket and that Dillinger also wore a straw boater hat and metal-rimmed dark glasses, although there seems to be some dispute as to whether the rims were silver or gold. Burrough also states that the lightweight trousers were checkered, but Girardin’s account declares that they were part of a gray suit with a green pinstripe that Dillinger had worn new on July 11th with the suit jacket and a bright green necktie.
The 1973 film got enough right that they obviously did their homework. White shirt, red tie, gray patterned suit pants… The costumers merely “winterized” the outfit with a jacket and vest and black warm-weather accessories like a fedora and oxfords rather than a straw hat and white loafers.
This brings us to one of the more controversial questions of the night: was Dillinger carrying a firearm?
Sullivan’s FBI report states that Dillinger’s pocket inventory at the time was:
- 2 keys, one of which was manufactured by the Independent Lock Company; the other key appeared to be for a door.
- 1 automatic pistol, .380 caliber.
- 1 extra loaded automatic clip of .380 caliber. This clip was filled with Remington U.M.C. cartridges.
- 1 white handkerchief in a brown border.
The “automatic pistol” referred to would almost definitely be a Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless, which was chambered in both .32 ACP and the slightly more powerful .380 ACP; the latter designated as “Model 1908” based on the year of its introduction. Now… was he actually carrying one?
I can’t claim to know for sure. People tend to agree with one of the following points:
- Dillinger was armed. The gun was taken from him by the FBI after his death, but it was misplaced and a different version of the same model was later displayed at FBI headquarters.
- Dillinger was unarmed and shot down by agents without giving him a chance to surrender.
- It wasn’t Dillinger at all; a relatively innocent man (“Jimmy Lawrence” is usually the name given) was set up and killed to allow Dillinger to escape.
The latter theory has inspired many books and even a film, but I don’t lend much credence to it. I tend to believe the first theory, that Dillinger was armed, likely tried to draw his gun, and that the gun was misplaced after the FBI took custody of it.
Many people believe the second theory, that Dillinger was unarmed, because a) they want to and b) the FBI did indeed display a gun that they claimed was taken from Dillinger’s corpse… except the gun wasn’t manufactured until five months after he died. The pistol in question, a Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless in .380 ACP, had serial number 119702. An easy trace of the weapon proved that it was first sold by the Colt company to L.H. Kurz Company in Des Moines on December 19, 1934. Basic logic and simple math tells us that there’s no way Dillinger was carrying a weapon made five months after his death.
It’s likely that the FBI, in all of the hype of the era and without computers or an easy documentation system, simply mislabeled the weapon. It’s very hard for me to believe that someone as careful as Dillinger, who had shot his way out of many similar scrapes before, would even consider going anywhere unarmed, even if he was more confident with the recent plastic surgery he had undergone.
The film arms Oates’ Dillinger with his standard sidearm throughout the film, a Star Model B pistol (filling in for the .45-caliber M1911A1 for blank-reliability reasons), showing him draw it from under his arm. There were no compact pistols used at all during the production, aside from a Colt Detective Special snubbie that Richard Dreyfuss briefly wields as “Baby Face” Nelson, so the Star Model B is the next best thing, I guess.
How to Get the Look
Although it’s inaccurate based on the actual season and attire at Dillinger’s death scene, Warren Oates wears a conservative but noteworthy suit for his date to the movies. If you want to tribute Dillinger on a cold winter day at the movies, Oates has you covered.
- Gray pinstripe wool three-piece suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted jacket with peak lapels, 2-button front, welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and ventless rear
- Single-breasted 6-button vest with notched bottom
- Flat front trousers with frogmouth front pockets, cuffed bottoms
- White dress shirt with large spread collar, front placket, button cuffs
- Wine red necktie
- Black fedora
- Black leather cap toe balmorals
- Black dress socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
If you found this interesting, stay tuned next Tuesday to see how Johnny Depp’s attire in Public Enemies compared during the death scene. If you’re not interested, then I need to be a better writer.