Unsung Auteurs: Robert Dillon

November 15, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of creatives who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: screenwriter Robert Dillon, who penned Prime Cut and The French Connection II.

With the writers’ strike hopefully at close-to-resolution point in the US, we’ll still be showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters in the Unsung Auteurs column. You know a screenwriter is truly unsung when it’s impossible to find a picture of them anywhere online, which is the unwelcome position in which we find Robert Dillon. Outside of his screenwriting work, Robert Dillon remains something of an enigma, with very little biographical information available, and no interviews with him found after several cursory internet searches. All this despite the fact that Dillon has Writers Guild Of America and Independent Spirit Awards nominations to his name, along with a host of impressive films.

Born in 1932, Robert Dillon began his career with a co-write on the 1959 programmer City Of Fear, in which TV’s future Dr. Ben Casey, Vince Edwards, plays a brutal prison escapee in possession of a cannister of radioactive waste which threatens all of Los Angeles. The film’s hardboiled qualities saw Dillon co-opted into the early days of television, with the writer working on programmes like Lock Up, Adventures In Paradise, Death Valley Days and Miami Undercover. Dillon’s next feature was the 1962 kids’ curio Safe At Home, in which baseball superstars Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris play themselves, and extol a little advice about being honest and doing the right thing to a good kid who just needs some moral advice. With Dillon later being more at home with considerably tougher material, Safe At Home is something of an anomaly on the writer’s resume.

Ray Milland in a scene from X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes.

Dillon then made a strong run in the world of exploitation, penning low budget horror flicks for gimmick master and ruthless self-promotor William Castle (1963’s 13 Frightened Girls and The Old Dark House), beach party teen flicks for famed producer Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures (1964’s Muscle Beach Party and Bikini Beach), and the famous 1963 cult flick X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes (where Ray Milland’s doctor memorably realises that the titular power isn’t all it’s cracked up to be) for legendary producer/director Roger Corman. Though an architect on William Castle’s inventive scare-mongering, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello’s seminal beach partying, and one of Roger Corman’s best directorial efforts, Robert Dillon remains not just under-celebrated, but near unacknowledged.

After banging out an episode of The Fugitive in 1966, Dillon delivered his most fascinating work with 1972’s Prime Cut, a bizarre thriller directed by the great Michael Ritchie (Downhill Racer, The Candidate, The Bad News Bears, Smile, Semi-Tough). Gene Hackman stars as the curiously named Mary-Ann, a Kansas cattle-man who sidelines in sex trafficking. Having fallen behind with his protection money payments, the Chicago mob have already sent down a goon to lean on him. When said goon is ground into sausage meat and returned to the mob, they then send in their top enforcer, Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin). While scoping out Mary-Ann, Devlin is entranced by one of the naked, doped up girls that Mary-Ann has for sale, like cattle, in his barns. Poppy (Sissy Spacek in her debut role) brings out the protector in Devlin, who hustles to liberate her from the evil Mary-Ann.

Sissy Spacek and Lee Marvin in Prime Cut.

While the stunning imagery in the film (a scene featuring Marvin and Spacek being pursued by a wheat thresher is literally unforgettable) can obviously be attributed to Michael Ritchie (probably with some of the oddball quirks too), the whole wacked out premise and bizarre concepts are clearly solo writer Robert Dillon’s, and why this truly strange film didn’t garner him more attention is utterly exasperating. Dillon further developed his affinity for oddball criminals with 1974’s 99 and 44/100% Dead!, a black comedy about the mob and its hitmen starring Richard Harris and directed by John Frankenheimer. The comedy is pitched higher and broader than it was in Prime Cut, and though John Frankenheimer (never noted for his comedic skills) doesn’t quite pull it off, 99 and 44/100% Dead! is a highly enjoyable seventies curio.

John Frankenheimer maintained Robert Dillon (along with his wife Laurie Dillon in her sole writing credit) to pen his 1975 sequel The French Connection II, a very strong follow-up to William Friedkin’s 1971 classic Oscar winner. Dillon ingeniously pulled together strands from the first film, and crafted a fine series of obstacles for Gene Hackman’s tough-as-nails cop, including having him forcibly strung out and then addicted to heroin. Though rarely noted as such, The French Connection II is a very good sequel to a truly great original first film, and while it doesn’t eclipse or equal its progenitor, it certainly develops its mythos and central character in a very interesting way. And much of that is to do with Robert and Laurie Dillon’s raft of great script ideas.

Gene Hackman in The French Connection II.

After so many terse and blackly comic thrillers, Robert Dillon took a surprising detour into the epic with 1984’s The River (a strongly directed rural drama from Mark Rydell in which Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek’s farming couple battle both the banks and the elements) and 1985’s Revolution (director Hugh Hudson’s notorious big budget flop, in which a miscast Al Pacino’s fur trapper is drawn into The American Revolution), before doing co-writes on the 1991 airborne Vietnam flick Flight Of The Intruder and the tepid 1992 Liam Neeson-Andie MacDowell thriller Deception. Dillon’s final credit is 2000’s Waking The Dead, an enigmatic indie from director Keith Gordon starring Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly.

Though judged solely on his work, Robert Dillon is a truly Unsung Auteur, a gifted and inventive screenwriter with a singularly dark and unusual take on the world also able to skilfully and deftly change gears when required. If only we knew a little more about him…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Irene Kamp, Albert MaltzNancy DowdBarry Michael CooperGladys HillWalon GreenEleanor BergsteinWilliam W. NortonHelen ChildressBill LancasterLucinda CoxonErnest TidymanShauna CrossTroy Kennedy MartinKelly MarcelAlan SharpLeslie DixonJeremy PodeswaFerd & Beverly SebastianAnthony PageJulie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay, Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher ,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.