April 2009
Dillinger: Bullets and Boogie-Woogie

(Third in an occasional series on Tiomkin’s lesser-known film scores)

by Warren M. Sherk

Dillinger - One Sheet - Style B DT515LJohn Dillinger, the legendary 1930s-era bank robber, will leave his bullet-ridden mark on screens this summer in director Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp. But the gangster with the movie-star looks made his first onscreen appearance in the 1940s in the film Dillinger, with a score by Dimitri Tiomkin and a backstory involving censorship, controversy, and more.

In the summer of 1944, Monogram Pictures, a studio specializing in low-budget features, announced its slate for the coming season. Among the offerings was John Dillinger, Killer, conceived not as an outright biopic but as a fictionalized melodrama focusing on the crime spree of the former FBI public enemy No. 1. It was produced by King Bros. Productions, a company formed in 1942 by Frank, Herman, and Maurice King, who had previously hired Tiomkin to score their 1943 feature Unknown Guest. The brothers were Hollywood outsiders who parlayed selling jukeboxes and arcade machines in East Los Angeles into making and selling moving pictures in Hollywood as competitive and tenacious independents on the Monogram lot.

John Dillinger, played by Edmund Lowe, holds "Wanted" poster

That a film spotlighting the violent acts of a notorious criminal could make it to the screen in 1945—just eleven years after Dillinger was famously gunned down in a Chicago alley—is perhaps a testament to the King brothers’ audacity…or chutzpah. After Dillinger’s death, Will Hays, Hollywood’s censorship czar and overseer of the Motion Picture Production Code, declared that no picture based on the gangster’s life or exploits was to be produced, distributed, or exhibited by any member company. However, the King Bros. film—now titled simply Dillinger—managed to gain approval for release, largely in part by promoting the moral that crime does not pay. (According to contemporary accounts, the script had been watered down to appease the censors.)

Naturally, the film was not without controversy. The War Department—for whom Tiomkin was deeply involved in scoring documentaries—did not support screening the film for foreign audiences. Upon its U.S. release in March 1945, it was promptly banned by the police censor board in Chicago. Respected filmmakers lowered the boom, with producer Samuel Goldwyn publicly decrying the glorification of a ruthless outlaw, and director Frank Borzage rallying against the glamorized gangster and unwholesome films in general. Letters of protest to both the Production Code and the studio followed.

Dillinger - Lobby Card ADT1298LDespite this, Dillinger was a box-office hit with war-weary audiences seeking escapist fare, and put the King brothers on the filmmaking map. In May 1945, it received an award from Showmen’s Trade Review for film exploitation campaign of the month; one of the film’s tag lines was “His story is written in bullets, blood and blondes!” Colliers magazine called Dillinger “the most sensational low-budget picture of all time.” In May 1947, the film finally played in Chicago at the Biograph, the very theater outside of which Dillinger was shot and killed by FBI agents. That same year, screenings took place in Thailand, France, and Spain. When the film was rereleased in the United States in 1948, it was booked into more than 100 theaters.

Dillinger - Seventh in Sequence of Lobby Card Set. Lobby Card GThe film portrays Dillinger through his association with a small mob of gangsters led by the veteran actor Edmund Lowe, and his relationship with his moll, Helen, played by Anne Jeffreys—interspersed, of course, with the requisite bank robberies, killings, chase sequences, and shootouts. Though not successful as a psychological character study, the film nevertheless has its own merits given the constraints placed on it by the Code. The violence has a chilling immediacy, even though it is largely implied or occurs offscreen and Dillinger’s ultimate fate reinforces the justice-is-served message.

Dillinger’s low budget called for the hiring of new and rising talent, many of whom benefited from the film’s success. Lawrence Tierney, in his first leading role, was cast as Dillinger. Novice music editor Edward Haire later went on to a successful career in television. Philip Yordan received an Academy Award nomination for his original screenplay and a Time magazine profile after the film’s release. (Tiomkin scored ten films scripted by Yordan, from Unknown Guest to Circus World.) Director Max Nosseck was a relative newcomer to English language films. (Dillinger appears to be his third.) Nosseck’s career began in the 1930s in Germany, and most of his films are in German or Yiddish.

Tiomkin was brought on at the end of August 1944, and filming commenced in October. Dillinger was made fast and cheap, in three weeks with a budget of $180,000, giving the film a gritty realism that set it apart from the typical glossy studio fare of the time. New York Mirror critic Frank Quinn found it curious that audiences were so taken with the brutal exploits of a ruthless criminal: “Monogram will earn more than Dillinger could steal.” He was not off the mark: the film’s $2,000,000 domestic gross far outstripped the Dillinger gang’s estimated haul of $300,000.

The small budget didn’t prevent Tiomkin from providing a lengthy, robust score that fills three quarters of the production’s running time. Flawlessly orchestrated by Joseph Nussbaum, P. A. Marquardt, and Herb Taylor, the ensemble is made to sound larger than it probably was. Whether intentional or not, Tiomkin scored the film as if it were a Republic Pictures serial, in which the music often provides as much, or more, drama than the onscreen action does. The Republic serials were, as author Reg Jones points out, low-budget, action-packed adventures with spectacular, sit-up-and-take-note music. In Dillinger, the galloping rhythms for the crime montage and pursuit sequences are balanced by a tender romantic theme. The opening credits are accompanied by rain, thunder, and lightning sound effects, and the tense main title music indicates the drama and action to follow.

Tiomkin draws on his experience with early jazz for two memorable scenes in a speakeasy. When Dillinger cannot pay for his date’s drink, the waiter calls him a “two-bit chis’ler.” A boogie-woogie performed onscreen by a pianist-actor becomes more prominent as the scene unfolds. Later, Dillinger returns to the speakeasy with Helen after a bank heist. We hear the same boogie-woogie, played by the same onscreen pianist, as Dillinger invites the waiter to join them and then orders Helen outside. Dillinger shatters his beer mug on the table and brandishes the jagged edge of the glass. The film cuts to the pianist, who jacks up the tempo of the boogie, commenting on the scene’s imminent climax: the offscreen demise of the waiter. Dillinger leaves the table as the hand of the dying victim pulls the tablecloth down while the piano player plays on.

Anne Jeffries as Helen

For “Helen’s Mistake,” Tiomkin’s miniature piano concerto underscores a scene in which Dillinger knocks off a fellow gang member who tries to steal his girl. The critic for the Hollywood Reporter observed that “Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, with its piano dissonants [sic] contributes enormously to the suspense and dramatic evolution.”

Walter Scharf said that a composer is fortunate if he or she has just one scene in which the music can speak directly to the audience (David Raksin’s music for the apartment scene in Laura, for example). For Tiomkin, that scene might be “Stir Crazy” (chapter 18 on the Dillinger DVD). The cue, titled “Attack of Nerves,” is a three-minute musical portrait of the mobster’s thoughts as he sits alone in his hotel room, having been in hiding for six months. A plaintive woodwind solo brings out the introspective feel of the scene, reflected in actor Tierney’s movements and facial expressions and in Tiomkin’s music. Several instrumental solos follow, projecting loneliness and isolation. The musical phrasing—the length of each phrase—matches the onscreen action perfectly. When Dillinger sits on the bed and takes out a pack of cigarettes only to find it empty, the woodwind phrase, led by the descending piccolo line, is perfectly matched to his movements. After the camera closes in on the ticking alarm clock, the woodwind phrase mirrors the motion of Dillinger’s head.

From beginning to end, Tiomkin’s score for this scene makes musical sense as a whole while subtly striking each onscreen movement and action: the slamming of a bureau drawer, the dripping of a leaky faucet, the close-up of a “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster. Dillinger dons a necktie and hat, preparing to leave. The music builds dramatically. As he moves toward the door (and, unbeknownst to him, his death), a foreboding quasi death march ends with a stinger as he rips the “Wanted” poster from the wall and exits. (Interestingly, in the preceding scene, a children’s choir sings “Silent Night.” It’s not clear if the voices are those of the Robert Mitchell Choirboys.)

In the climactic finale, Helen betrays Dillinger by luring him to the movies and, afterward, into a fatal ambush. The pair watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon in the Biograph theater. This was a “steal” in itself: King Bros. paid only a dollar to Disney to license the cartoon’s music, “Galloping Romance” by Frank Churchill.

For the film’s March 1945 premiere at the majestic Orpheum theater in downtown Los Angeles, Tex Ritter headlined an all-Western stage revue before the screenings. (Ritter would later record Tiomkin’s trademark theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’.”) Dillinger’s take at the box office helped establish the King brothers in Hollywood, and the company continued bankrolling properties that contributed to their longevity over the years. Monogram planned a sequel, Dillinger’s Moll; however, by August 1945 a backlash against gangster films and a crackdown by the Production Code put a temporary halt to the genre.

© 2009 Volta Music


  • The Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the University of Southern California (thanks to Ned Comstock)
  • The Core Collection files at the Margaret Herrick Library
  • King Bros. Productions records at the Margaret Herrick Library
  • The American Film Institute catalog
  • The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, accessed through ProQuest
  • “Hollywood Drops Gang Films” by Fred Stanley, New York Times (August 19, 1945)
  • Hollywood Reporter, March 10, 1945
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