John Dillinger Keeps Dying At Chicago’s Biograph Theater

photo: JoeyBLS at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

On July 22, 1934, one of Chicago’s most famous (temporary) residents took one of history’s most notorious trips to the movies. After leading police on a year-long chase across four states, the publicity-courting bank robber John Dillinger was laying low under the assumed name of Jimmy Lawrence. He told everyone he was a clerk at the Board of Trade. And, like many a Chicago office worker, Dillinger decided to unwind one hot summer night by catching a movie. 

The madness that followed is the stuff of American gangster—and American gangster movie—legend. Ana Sage, the owner of the brothel where the bank robber sometimes hung his hat, sold Dillinger out to the feds. Born Ana Cumpăniș, Sage was a Hungarian immigrant seeking to avoid deportation, and she saw Dillinger as her ticket to stay stateside. She’s the infamous Lady in Red who wore a bright dress to alert the swarm of tipped-off G-men and police officers gathering outside the theater while Dillinger, Sage, and Dillinger’s new girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, watched Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy star in Manhattan Melodrama (1934). 

When Dillinger exited the theater with his girlfriend and Sage, clad in her attention-getting dress, investigator Melvin Purvis lit a cigar to signal that the target was in sight. The assembled authorities called for Dillinger to halt. Halting wasn’t John Dillinger’s style. He grabbed for his pistol and sprinted toward an alley. The Feds opened fire. Dillinger sprawled to the pavement along with two innocent bystanders who’d also been hit. Unlike Dillinger, they would survive their injuries. According to some reports, a few souvenir hunters among the gathering throng of rubberneckers dipped their handkerchiefs in Dillinger’s spilled blood, although there’s no actual evidence of this. It sounds too perfectly lurid to be true. It sounds like something from the movies.

***

Sixty-six years later, in September of 2000, one of Chicago’s least-famous (temporary) residents—that would be me—moved into a dorm room on the DePaul University campus in Lincoln Park, just a few blocks from the Biograph. More than a half-century later it was still a working movie house with that big, beautiful marquee lighting up Lincoln Avenue. 

For my money, the Biograph was the coolest movie theater in town. It was superior to the scrappy, slightly grungy Threepenny Cinema across the street, which sold cheap tickets to first-run art-house fare in screening rooms approximately the size of a small log cabin; at least once a month at midnight, it transformed into a 3D porn theater that showed the John Holmes feature The Disco Dolls In Hot Skin. (If you had a DePaul student ID in the early 2000s, you very likely saw The Disco Dolls In Hot Skin, and you performatively ducked along with the rest of the hooting crowd at the predictable 3D climax.) Some would no doubt argue that the still-operational Music Box on Southport Avenue is and was then the premier destination for Chicago moviegoing, but to me, the Biograph stood tall.

The Dillinger mystique was undeniably a factor, but the theater itself was lovely and deliriously out of time, a bastion of old Chicago in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Big glass doors opened into a lobby that may not have been grand but still carried a whiff of grandeur. The main theater itself was expansive, with a wide center section and banks of seats on either side of two aisles leading up to a sizable screen. Much of the original decor was lost when the upstairs was remodeled to convert the theater into a multiplex, but it still felt more part of the past than the present, even if the future was gathering outside like so many G-men, waiting to strike. 

I saw a tremendous number of movies at the Biograph, not all of them tremendous. The first was the sub-par Wesley Snipes action flick The Art of War (2000). The list included the magnificently awful Ashton Kutcher mind-bender The Butterfly Effect (2004), but also Gangs of New York, City of God, Mean Girls, the 30th anniversary re-release of The Exorcist, and a whole bevy of George Romero movies (Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies, Creepshow) during a Romero/Jack Hill film festival, where Romero himself was on hand.

Whatever you saw at the Biograph, it felt a little more special because of the theater’s long history, and, of course, because of Dillinger. I won’t claim I felt his ghost sitting next to me, cringing at the overwhelming terror of The Exorcist or slapping his spectral forehead when a hysterical, quadriplegic Ashton Kutcher tries to drown himself in a fountain near the end of The Butterfly Effect—but I wanted to. I found the idea of the old killer sitting with me among the sparse Wednesday 9 p.m. crowd strangely comforting. He was, after all, a fellow movie fan. 

Dillinger would go on to be not just a part of American history, but also movie history. Nearly a dozen feature films have been made about his life and legend, the vast majority of which fixate on the public spectacle of his demise. In fact, John Dillinger ranks near the top of historical figures for sheer number of onscreen deaths, joining fellow outlaws Jesus Christ and Jesse James.

Sitting in the dark at the Biograph, you felt like you weren’t just watching a movie—you were also sitting inside a little pocket of film history. And you wouldn’t be the first to feel the lure of its arc-lamp aura. Since the early days of the talkies—John Dillinger’s days—the bank robber’s ill-fated trip to the Biograph has been a point of fascination for generations of filmmakers. His wild life is rich fodder, of course, but the particulars of his death are especially significant, the kaleidoscopic mirrors-within-mirrors effect of a film about a man who meets his fate at the cinema. 

***

The first portrayal of the Dillinger death scene isn’t technically in a movie about John Dillinger. MGM released Public Hero Number 1 in the summer of 1935, just a year after the bank robber’s newsmaking demise. Contemporary audiences couldn’t have helped but see his legacy tattooed all over it. The news was still fresh, almost fresh enough to dip your handkerchief into.

This was just a year into the Hays Code crackdown. Seedy gangland thrillers like the James Cagney-starring The Public Enemy (1931) were, if not out of fashion, throttled by censorship. Four months before Dillinger’s death, Hays himself declared that “no picture based on the life or exploits of John Dillinger” would be produced, distributed, or exhibited by any member of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. 

Thus, Public Hero Number 1, directed by J. Walter Ruben, is not focused on the enemy of the public, but the people’s champion, an idealized Purvis type named Jeff Crane (Chester Morris). Crane goes undercover as a cellmate of convicted bank robber Sonny Black (Joseph Calleia) to help Sonny break out of jail in the hopes that he will lead authorities directly to his whole murderous gang. 

The story structure, bearing a fleeting resemblance to the Dillinger biography, allows audiences to hang out with forbidden jailbirds and gangsters because they’re undercover right alongside noble Jeff, who falls helplessly in love with Johnny’s … er, Sonny’s virtuous-but-plucky sister, Maria (Jean Arthur). Public Hero Number 1 is a mostly original story, but audiences couldn’t have failed to make the primary connection (Dillinger was the first man ever named Public Enemy Number 1, which turns the film’s title into a fairly unsubtle nudge). 

If there was any lingering confusion, it’s gone by the movie’s end, when Sonny Black is gunned down outside a theater—not the Biograph, though. The action is relocated to nearby Madison, Wisconsin, to a vaudeville showplace rather than a picture house. Director Ruben evinces little interest in the meta-textual details of Dillinger’s death at the movies. 

Hays’s Dillinger ban held true until 1945, when Poverty Row producers the King Brothers financed the unambiguously titled Dillinger, a B-movie partly stitched together with footage from a heist sequence borrowed from Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once. The film cost a scant $65,000 and went on to gross $2.5 million and earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. Audiences were captivated by this stark, mean-spirited crime drama that thumbed its nose all the rules of Hollywood self-censorship. Plenty of concerned citizens tried to get it yanked from exhibition, including Dillinger’s own sister, the real-life counterpart of Jean Arthur’s saintly sibling hoping to reform her bad-boy brother.

The primary reason for the film’s success, beyond its contemporary shock value, is the debut of star Lawrence Tierney, who might still be the superior on-screen Dillinger. Now best known for turns in Reservoir Dogs and Seinfeld, Tierney is a powerhouse presence whose bad-guy bona fides were no joke. Biographer Burt Kearns, in his excellent book Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood’s Real-Life Tough Guy, estimates that Tierney was arrested more than 70 times over the course of his life. The King brothers were partly convinced he was the right man for the job after Tierney stole the script from their offices, an actor’s version of a bank heist. The young star’s dark-eyed scowl and volatility imbues the character with a menace that sparks off the screen. It’s a perfect fit for this especially nasty take on Dillinger, who stacks up bodies here like a slasher-movie villain.

Unlike nearly every subsequent adaptation of this story, the 1945 Dillinger is entirely disinterested in the police or the FBI. The lawmen are a faceless swarm waiting outside the Biograph in the final scene, which is more historically accurate than anything else in the film, if staged with a lot less bloodthirsty verve. They leave Manhattan Melodrama before it ends—sacrilege!—and there’s no crowd, no element of spectacle in the shooting, where the film finally betrays its B-movie budget. It’s an especially ignominious end for Dillinger, although it’s hard to imagine Tierney’s demonic version of the character ever conjuring any kind of national sympathy. 

***

The studios wouldn’t harken back to the Dillinger legend again until 1965’s Young Dillinger, an oppressively rote gangster exercise that shifts the blame for the title character’s crimes not onto overzealous lawmen or the stark realities of the Depression, but instead onto his high school girlfriend. In this dopey simplification, Dillinger (Nick Adams) is just a kid with a crush. He can’t afford to get married, so his girlfriend Elaine (Mary Ann Mobley) convinces him to rob her father’s bank. Just about everybody in Young Dillinger wants John to be a criminal except young Dillinger himself. He’s a lovestruck, easily manipulated, un-charismatic boy propelled into history by forces mostly beyond his control. Young Dillinger ceases its action long before its misunderstood hero buys a ticket to the Biograph, which feels like early parole to anyone watching it.

Johnny came roaring back to the screen just eight years later in John Milius’ Dillinger (1973). Milius’s directorial debut filters the aesthetic of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) through the sweaty madness of Sam Peckinpah, but it’s distinctly a Milius joint. Like pretty much every Milius film, it’s both a crisis and an assertion of masculinity, focused on alpha-dog Dillinger’s struggle for control of his gangster group as well as his personal rivalry with Melvin Purvis. Here, Purvis (the great Ben Johnson) funnels all the resources of the FBI into an essentially one-man mission to avenge his fallen colleagues. After each gangster is slain, Purvis celebrates by smoking a comically oversized cigar that not-so-subtly nods towards the rumor about Dillinger’s own legendary anatomy. Elsewhere, Warren Oates, who looks uncannily like Dillinger, perfectly captures the gangster’s proprietary blend of danger and charisma. Unlike Tierney’s Dillinger, this is a guy you’d like to hang out with, although you’d probably find yourself collateral damage within the hour.

Milius directs the film like he’s being paid by the shell casing, reveling in the smoke and blood of the shootouts, although it really sings in the quieter moments, the best of which is an unsettling encounter between Purvis and a vacant-eyed boy who professes his desire to grow up to be a bank robber. It’s nuanced moments like these, disturbing the otherwise not-so-nuanced worldview, that make Milius’s films deeper than their bombast initially suggests.

By 1973, the Dillinger mythos was so well established that the smash cut to the first appearance of the Lady In Red (Cloris Leachman) is heavy with foreboding. Milius spares little time with setup. He knows that we know exactly who this harbinger of doom is, how close we are to the inevitable end. 

The death scene itself is brief, almost to the point of being curt. Purvis shows up when Dillinger is already inside, and the camera stays with the lawman, never even venturing into the lobby of the theater. When Dillinger leaves, it’s Purvis who personally shoots him down—not in the back, but in the chest. Milius adds a few extra bullets for good measure.

***

After you’ve watched John Dillinger die a half dozen times, you start to feel bad for the guy. The tonic for that is Dillinger and Capone (1995), an alternate history that presupposes, similar to Eli Cash’s George Custer novel in The Royal Tenenbaums, that everyone knows John Dillinger died at the Biograph theater…but what if he didn’t? 

This lark of a criminal daydream is inspired by the popular conspiracy theory that the corpse on display at Dillinger’s heavily-attended public wake was said to look unlike the genuine article. Even Dillinger’s own father insisted it was a mistaken identity. That’s easily explainable by the fact that Dillinger had recently had plastic surgery to alter his appearance—before being shot in the head. Then his body sat on display for three days in an era before most spaces were air conditioned. But why let logic get in the way of a good story?

Nearly every other Dillinger film concludes on July 22, 1934. Dillinger and Capone opens on that fatal date. A wary Dillinger, here played by Martin Sheen, is tipped off to the setup and heads toward the Biograph theater to case the scene. He spots the feds and swaps hats with a convenient lookalike wearing a similar suit. The poor dupe who traded hats with the FBI’s most wanted man doesn’t even know he’s in trouble until he wanders into the theater, where the Lady in Red gives the nod. He’s killed—in the lobby, right in front of the popcorn machine—while Public Enemy No. 1 slips away.

After that historical pivot at the Biograph, Sheen’s Dillinger assumes a new identity in Bakersfield, California, enjoying a bucolic life with his wife and son in a farmhouse that could have been painted by Andrew Wyeth. He’s finally living the square’s version of the American dream, at least until he’s summoned by Al Capone, who also faked his own death. (“You think some piss-ant taxmen with little green visors brought down the king of Chicago?” growls Capone, gunning down a whole lot of unnecessary exposition.) Played by F. Murray Abraham chewing so much scenery he must have given himself TMJ, this version of Capone is mad with syphilis and revenge. He blackmails Dillinger into one last bank heist. Dillinger and Capone becomes less a crime drama than an echo of Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (1943) or a gangster precursor to Freddy Vs. Jason (2003), with two famous movie villains pitted against one another. Dillinger is reimagined as the repentant hero who just wants to get back to that farmhouse.

This is a far cry from any other dangerous—or even particularly charismatic—Dillinger ever portrayed on screen, and it strains credulity to imagine the fast-living gangster transformed into some would-be Steinbeckian hero. Dillinger and Capone plays like the dying reverie of the man himself, dreaming of a future where he slipped the setup and lived long enough to somehow become the good guy. It might have been the movie playing in his mind’s eye, a double feature with Manhattan Melodrama that only he could see, if the fatal shot hadn’t passed through his spinal cord, into his skull, and exited out his right eye. In truth, Dillinger was dead almost as soon as he hit the pavement. 

***

The most recent high-profile take on the Dillinger mythos, Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), is gorgeously shot, thrillingly choreographed, expertly cast, yet strangely inert. On paper, it’s a can’t-miss prospect, a spiritual sequel to Heat (1995), featuring a long-simmering showdown between an obsessive cop and a process-oriented thief, all bathed in lush period detail. The costuming and set designs are indeed gorgeous, so much so that it often seems that Mann is content to let the iconography do all the talking for him, as if an entire movie could be built out of Tommy guns, trench coats, and shiny Lincoln Continentals. 

Mann, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, seems to have no specific take on either Dillinger or Purvis as characters beyond their classic cops-and-robbers duality. It’s not dripping with the menace of Tierney’s take on Dillinger, not as gloriously gritty as Milius’s testosterone-fueled riff, nor as thoughtfully revisionist as 1979’s The Lady In Red. It’s often rigid to the point of docudrama, and star Johnny Depp’s version of Dillinger is all hat and mustache. The movie treads the same trail as Milius’s Dillinger, yet somehow manages not to leave any footprints.

Public Enemies doesn’t really find its raison d’etre until the climax, which is far and away the grandest depiction of the Biograph shooting. The film suddenly blazes to life when Mann reveals himself to be one of the filmmakers most fascinated by the movie meta-narrative, first hinted at when Depp’s Dillinger takes an earlier trip to the theater, a thrilling little beat where he slumps in his seat as the audience watches the famous newsreel declaring him Public Enemy No. 1. 

Mann’s ace production crew does an astonishing job of recreating the physical space of the Biograph, both the streetscape outside and the interior lobby, as well as that wide, one-level screening room. Like several other scenes in the film, the exteriors are shot on the real-life location. 

Inside, the camera tightens on Depp’s face as Mann cuts between relevant scenes of Manhattan Melodrama and the gangster’s reactions. Manhattan Melodrama isn’t just a portentous final feature, it’s so loaded with historical irony that it seems as improbable as those blood-thieving bystanders. Clark Gable plays Blackie, a charismatic crook who is ultimately pursued by his best friend Jim (William Powell), a conflicted, by-the-book district attorney who ultimately leads Blackie to the gallows. It’s astonishing that this is the final film Dillinger saw before he died, and just before this same dynamic would play itself out in the headlines, as though Dillinger himself was the bright bulb projecting history into the dim future.

Mann lingers on Dillinger’s smirk as Gable’s Blackie shoots down a rival; on Dillinger’s thoughtful nod as Powell and Gable debate their philosophies of right and wrong; and, most affectingly, on his pained flinch at flashes of the radiant Myrna Loy, the moll who got away. Mann the technician admires the crackerjack precision of the bank robber’s heists, but that only leads to a lot of familiar shootouts. Mann the cinephile finds real kinship with the character in these final moments, as though they were strangers who worked alongside each other without ever being introduced until it was too late.

***

Perhaps the best Dillinger movie—not unlike the first, Public Hero Number 1—isn’t even technically about Dillinger. The Lady In Red (1979), directed by Lewis Teague from a dynamite John Sayles script, is a feminist inversion of classic gangster tropes. Here it’s the moll who receives the full biographical treatment, and the bank robber is the arm candy.

The historical figure of the Lady In Red has long been turned into cultural shorthand for a femme fatale betrayer. Sayles twists those misconceptions into a brilliant tangle of historical revisionism, which follows Polly (Pamela Sue Martin) on her journey from farmer’s daughter to Dillinger’s date with destiny. This Polly isn’t just waiting around for her chance to stand next to history. Her path from country girl to the Chicago underworld includes a stint at a sweatshop where she incites an all-woman labor revolt against an abusive boss. Then she moves on to a stint in jail under the thumb of a sadistic warden, a section that plays like a harrowing one-act women-in-prison movie with the lurid richness of Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974).

Polly dreams of Hollywood stardom. Early in the film she’s stealing promotional stills from a movie theater when she witnesses a bank robbery. The gang includes a Tommy gun-toting woman in a red dress who takes Polly as a willing hostage. This will be the first of many ladies in red throughout the movie, which eventually includes Polly herself as well as her beloved cellmate, a Jewish communist who will find herself consigned to a red-draped coffin. (“Who’s the lady in red?” a callous reporter mutters at the funeral.) The title of Lady In Red is a kind of shared burden among all women in the film, who are scapegoated and abused by cops, gangsters, jailers, pimps, and Johns alike.

That is except for one John—Dillinger, here played as a kind of dreamy made-for-TV-boyfriend by small-screen star Robert Conrad. By the time Polly meets him at Anna Sage’s diner, he’s contemplative about his secret life of crime and eager to abandon his criminal enterprise for the quiet life in California, to live the same bucolic farmhouse dream of Dillinger and Capone. Conrad’s Dillinger is exclusively seen through the eyes of Polly on their carefree dates, boating down a stream, playing baseball in a park, and, of course, going to the movies.

Among its many riches, The Lady In Red introduces us to Dillinger the film critic on a couple of earlier trips to the matinee. He offers up his opinions on Treasure Island and, more significantly, King Kong, a movie about a monster transported to a big city whose public death becomes the fascination of the ogling press. 

“It was the girl’s fault,” he says to Polly as they leave the theater, blaming it on Fay Wray. Polly disagrees: “It was all them reporters.”

All the women in The Lady In Red, save for the sadistic prison matron, are fully, sympathetically imagined. That includes Anna Sage (Louise Fletcher), who is forcefully cajoled into ratting out Polly’s new boyfriend. Neither she nor Polly are fatales, they’re just women trying to survive in a hostile world, tools to be exploited by the cops and crooks alike, who sweep into the women’s lives, as inevitable and unstoppable as bad weather.

Sayles and Teague pull a slight switcheroo in the Biograph sequence, with Anna putting the red dress on an unwitting Polly. Once more, the Lady in Red—any of the ladies in red—are given their scarlet designation by circumstance, not scheming. Polly and John dreamily watch Manhattan Melodrama, while Anna frets in the seat next to them. On the way out of the theater, Dillinger even has time to give his philosophical review of Manhattan Melodrama

“Nope, revenge isn’t the ticket. Try and get even, you never get ahead.”

Polly quips, “You should have been Gable’s lawyer.”

Seconds later, the feds strike. Polly is thrown to the side while a half-dozen pistols blast Dillinger against the wall of the theater, where he crumples into a Christ-like pose in a pool of blood.

The final act of The Lady In Red is a revenge fantasy in which Polly leads a gang of fellow outcasts, including the Black piano player from Sage’s brothel and an elderly bank robber who tends bar, in a grand heist. It’s a cathartic end to a movie that finally grants at least one Lady In Red some agency.

***

The Biograph Theater closed for good in the fall of 2004, just a few months after I moved south to take a job as a newspaper editor and movie critic. The last film I saw there wound up being a Sunday night screening of Mean Girls on opening weekend—May 2, according to the calendar. 

The building reopened in 2006 as the Victory Gardens Theater, and the interior was remodeled to accommodate live theatrical performances. The marquee still hangs over Lincoln Avenue, although the company hasn’t produced a show since it closed for the pandemic. All things considered, it’s a better fate than so many grand old movie palaces suffer—gentle retirement, rather than being felled by a wrecking ball swung by another cold assassin, right where Purvis’s shooters once stood.

Presumably Dillinger’s ghost is still welcome, if it ever actually resided there—though it’s hard to imagine the man, or his spectral form, finding much joy with the Playbill crowd. Maybe at least he’d enjoy Sam Shepard or get a kick out of David Mamet. But he was a moviegoer

Whether or not he haunts the theater at 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago is up for debate, but what’s certain is that John Dillinger has haunted 90 years of American cinema. In his own bloody way, he lived the movie fan’s ultimate dream of stepping out of the crowd and into the screen, into a bright white purgatory where he lives again every time the projector fires up, yet is forever doomed to meet his inevitable fate right back where he started—at the movies.