Whew! ABC movie saves us from misconception of Dillinger

January 04, 1991|By Fort Worth Star-Telegram

If it wasn't for made-for-television movies, we might all have a very distorted recollection of our own history.

For example: You probably thought the 1930s gangster John Dillinger was a bad guy. You might even believe that he was an ordinary man who simply went bad. It might have crossed your mind that he wasn't all that sexy either.

Wrong.

Sunday night, ABC sets the record straight with "Dillinger," a two-hour movie (9 p.m., Channel 13) starring that brooding, menacing, wrong-side-of-the-tracks actor, Mark Harmon.

You get a feeling right away that we're not talking "Scarface" here.

Mr. Harmon's Dillinger is much softer. He's misunderstood -- even his daddy doesn't seem to like him much -- and he's more of a Robin Hood than a real wise guy.

We meet him in the summer of 1933, after he's been released from prison for an attempted robbery.

He's walking down a long, dry country road looking as tired and dirty as Mark Harmon possibly can. The Depression is setting in and Dillinger is having trouble getting a job.

In an instant, the desperate Dillinger makes a quick transition ta free-spending big shot with fine clothes and a cocky disposition. Everything he needed for that changeover seems to have come in a suitcase he stole off the luggage rack of a passing car.

We'll never see John hurting for cash again. He calls together a small band of bad men and they immediately plan to break one of their buddies out of jail.

Of course, handsome John steals one of his cronies' girlfriends while he's at it.

Later on, he'll steal another one's wife. All of these relationships are steamy. The hottest scenes are saved for Dillinger's best girlfriend, Billie Frechette, played by Sherilyn Fenn of ABC's "Twin Peaks."

1% There are a lot of other familiar

faces in this movie as well. Vince Edwards, alias Ben Casey, plays the part of J. Edgar Hoover. Will Patton is Hoover's %J right-hand man, Melvin Purvis; and Patricia Arquette is Dillinger's last and fatal love, Polly Hamilton.

The producers like to point out, also, that there's a special appearance by Lawrence Tierney, who starred as Dillinger in the 1945 movie about the infamous bank robber.

There's another point the producers want to make about this film. They say it does set the record straight about Dillinger's downfall. The conventional theory has always been that Dillinger's last girlfriend, Polly, was the person who set America's Public Enemy No. 1 up for his final confrontation with FBI agents.

To the contrary, the producer's say. Polly was not the "lady in red." That was a woman named Anna Sage, a madam who was facing deportation for her crimes and was willing to work a deal with the government to save her own skin.

In any case, a year after Dillinger walked out of prison a free man, he walked out of a Chicago movie house and was gunned down by federal agents.

True to the old gangster movies, Mr. Harmon takes his time dying in this final scene. It's one of those stagger-all-over-the-street dyings.

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