The film was directed by Max Nosseck. Dillinger was the first major film to star Lawrence Tierney. The B-movie was shot in black and white and features a smoke-bomb bank robbery edited into the film from the 1937 Fritz Lang film, You Only Live Once. The film was released on DVD by Warner Bros. for the Film Noir Classic Collections 2 in 2005 even though the film is generally regarded as not being film noir. Some sequences were shot at Big Bear Lake, California.
Philip Yordan was nominated for the Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay, earning Monogram Pictures its first Oscar nomination for a feature-length film release.
The story begins with a newsreel summing up the gangster life of John Dillinger in detail. At the end of the newsreel, Dillinger's father (Victor Kilian) walks onto the stage and speaks to the movie audience about his son's childhood back in Indiana. He talks of John’s childhood as having been ordinary and not very eventful, but concedes that his son had ambitions and wanted to go his own way. The young Dillinger left his childhood town to find his fortune in Indianapolis, but soon ran out of money. The scene fades to a restaurant, where John (Tierney) is on a date and finds himself humiliated by the waiter who refuses to accept a check for the meal; unable to pay for the meal, he excuses himself, runs into a nearby grocery store and robs it for $7.20 in cash. He makes the clerk at the store believe he has a gun in his hand under the jacket.
John is soon arrested for this felony, and he is sentenced to prison. When incarcerated he finds new acquaintances and becomes good friends with his cell mate, Specs Green (Edmund Lowe). Specs is an infamous bank robber and has a gang of his own, Marco Minnelli, Doc Madison and Kirk Otto, who are also in the same prison. John is impressed by Specs and his experience and intelligence, and he begins to look up to him as a kind of father figure.
Since John has a much shorter sentence he decides to be the gang’s help on the outside when he is released, and facilitates their escape. As soon as John is free, he resumes his criminal career by holding up a movie theater box office. Before he does, he manages to flirt with the female clerk, Helen Rogers (Anne Jeffreys), with the result that she refuses to identify him in the subsequent line-up after the robbery, even though she recognizes him from a police photo. Instead she goes on a date with John.
John continues his criminal spree of robberies for money to finance the escape of Specs gang. When he has enough, he devises a plan to smuggle a barrel of firearms to the gang at their quarry job site. The plan succeeds, and the gang manage to escape. They include John in their gang and start a crime wave, committing a long series of robberies in the American Midwest.
Specs sends John to scout for new targets because he is the only one not recognized by the witnesses at the quarry at the time of the gang’s escape. John gets to check out the Farmer’s Trust Bank. He goes to the bank and poses as a potential customer to get inside the office. He reports back to the gang about the security system, and tells them it’s very sophisticated; too sophisticated.
Specs still wants to hit the bank, and getting tired of John’s ego and trigger happiness he decides to get help from outside the gang. John suggests another way to get into the bank - with gas bombs. John convinces the rest of the gang of his way and they rob the bank. When they arrive at the hideout, John demands Specs double share of the loot. After John is captured but escapes from jail he kills Specs and takes his place as the leader of the gang. Running low on cash, they decide to rob a mail train. In the process gang member Kirk Otto is killed.
The gang part for a few weeks, to lay low for a while, and John and Helen go on a big shopping spree. They meet up with the rest of the gang at a cabin lodge owned by the Kirk's surrogate parents. They stay there for a while; when the elderly couple calls the police Dillinger kills them; later they realize that the police are closing in on them, so they plan to head West and start a new series of bank robberies. Nearly broke, Dillinger and his girlfriend decide to watch a movie at the Biograph Theater in Chicago, which is playing Manhattan Melodrama and a Mickey Mouse cartoon Mickey's Gala Premiere showing "Gallopin Romance". Coming out of the theater, Dillinger sees the police coming after him. In a gunfight he is killed in an alley, his only money is $7.20-the same amount from his first robbery.Lawrence Tierney as John Dillinger
Edmund Lowe as Specs Green
Anne Jeffreys as Helen Rogers
Eduardo Ciannelli as Marco Minelli (as Eduardo Cianelli)
Marc Lawrence as Doc Madison
Elisha Cook, Jr. as Kirk Otto
Ralph Lewis as Tony
Elsa Janssen as Mrs. Otto
Ludwig Stössel as Mr. Otto
Constance Worth as Blonde
Philip Yordan was an emerging writer who had been collaborating with George Beck. The King Brothers had a deal with Monogram Pictures and wanted Beck to write them a gangster picture but could not offer Beck's regular fee so he recommended Yordan instead. Yordan wrote Dillinger but Monogram's head of production Steve Broidy thought it would cost $50,000 and would be too expensive unless they could hire a name actor to play the lead, like Chester Morris. Yordan wanted Lawrence Tierney to play the role as "boy he looked like Dillinger and he was mean". He refused to see the script unless he was cast. Yordan went on to write other scripts for the King Brothers instead, The Unknown Guest and When Strangers Marry. Both were successful and Tierney was cast in Dillinger, which was given a decent budget.
Yordan says that William Castle was meant to direct the film and he was great assistance on the script.
Robert Tasker also supposedly worked uncredited on the script.
According to Philip Yordan, all the major studios had an agreement to no longer make gangster pictures, but Monogram was not part of it. He says Louis B. Mayer asked Frank King to destroy the negative but King refused when Mayer did not offer any compensation. Yordan says the film made $4 million of which he got a third.
Yordan says he should have won the Academy Award for Best Script but that the Academy, led by Walter Wanger, deliberately overlooked it in favor of Marie Louise, "some picture made in Switzerland that nobody had ever seen".
Yordan also claims that "Dillinger was one of the first crime films of its type. Darryl Zanuck ran that picture again and again, and used it for the basis of many pictures at Fox. In other words, I had created a style."
2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
John Dillinger – Nominated Villain
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: