Dillinger Is Dead (Dillinger è morto)

Director: Marco Ferreri
Screenplay: Marco Ferreri
Stars: Michel Piccoli (Glauco), Anita Pallenberg (Ginette), Annie Girardot (Sabine), Carla Petrillo (Woman in Home Movie), Gigo Lavagetto (Colleague), Mario Jannilli (Violinist in Home Movie), Carole André (Boat proprietor)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1969
Country: Italy
Dillinger is Dead Criterion Collection DVD
Dillinger is DeadMarco Ferreri’s non-narrative curiosity Dillinger is Dead was given its first theatrical release in the U.S. last year, exactly three decades after it first appeared in European cinemas, and it was received with the kind of rapturous acclaim that often attends challenging films that have been lost and generally forgotten. Declared by many to be Ferreri’s “masterpiece,” Dillinger is certainly an intriguing and provocative film, one that draws you into its seemingly meaningless milieu and confronts you with powerful images whose abstraction from any true narrative coherence or even clear-cut political significance elevates your engagement, forcing you to draw your own conclusions. Seen in hindsight, it is like many experimental and avant-garde works that exploded throughout Europe during the 1960s (not surprisingly, the film has been compared to both the works of Jean-Luc Godard during his late ’60s Dziga Vertov phase and the narratively meandering, existential journeys of Michelangelo Antonioni), and in that regard it seems less groundbreaking than simply intriguing as an artistic relic of a much different cinematic era.

Despite producing 33 feature films in four decades, an impressive cinematic output that is enhanced by his work as a producer and collaborator on other projects, the majority of Ferreri’s films remain largely unknown outside of serious art film circles. Ferreri’s name never quite broke through into the cultural mainstream the way his Italian contemporaries Bernardo Bertolucci, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Federico Fellini did, despite the fact that he worked with many of them and was admired by all of them. A consistent renegade whose films were overloaded with provocative substance and a refusal to cater to any particular cinematic taste (both mainstream and art-house), Ferreri’s continual obscurity may be his greatest achievement, since he was deeply concerned with the ways in which countercultural and politically subversive works could be co-opted by the mainstream, thus rendering them impotent. Ferreri’s goal was to always remain as far outside the “system” as possible, and Dillinger is a strikingly successful example of that effort.

Taking place over the course of a single night, the film presents us with the nominal protagonist, a gas mask manufacturer played by the French New Wave icon Michel Piccoli (who would go on to collaborate with Ferreri on five more films, including 1973’s gastrointestinal farce La grande boffe). Piccoli’s character, who is named Glauco in the screenplay, but whose name is never actually mentioned in the film, is kept constantly at a distance from the audience, not only because the film features virtually no dialogue (the primary means by which we get to “know” characters in the classical cinema), but because his behaviors are enigmatic, strange, and remote. He is never psychologized in any sense, and therefore remains more of a symbol than a character, a purposefully one-dimensional stand-in for the staid bourgeoisie, the favorite target of ’60s European art cinema. While Ferreri keeps much of the film’s explanation ambiguous at best, he does allow for a great deal of exposition at the very beginning of the film, when one of Glauco’s associates reads to him from notes he has written about the empty nature of modern life, thus establishing the film’s overarching themes at the outset. This is done in such a narratively awkward and ham-handed fashion that one can only imagine that Ferreri is parodying classical movie conventions, in which subtlety is discarded in favor of stating the obvious outright.

After that, though, the film settles into a strangely hypnotic rhythm depicting Glauco’s activities in his fashionably mod apart, which was borrowed from Ferreri’s friend, the postmodern artist Mario Schifano. Like Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), the general aim of Dillinger is Dead is to make us feel the passage of time and focus our attention on the kind of mundane actions that define much of our lives, but are usually left out of the movies. Glauco’s wife (Anita Pallenberg), a vacant beauty who is addicted to sleeping pills, spends most of the film sleeping in the upstairs bedroom while Glauco spends the night cooking himself an elaborate meal, watching a bizarre collection of 16mm home movies with which he humorously tries to interact, and, most interestingly, cleaning and restoring a rusty 1930s-era revolver that he inexplicably finds in the back of a closet.

Because the gun is wrapped in several newspapers from 1934 reporting the killing of the American gangster John Dillinger and because Ferreri intercuts the discovery of the gun with black-and-white documentary footage of Dillinger and his demise, it has been assumed by many that this might be Dillinger’s gun, although there is no true narrative evidence to support it. The origin of the gun is ultimately unimportant, though, as its value as a phallic symbol that essentially “restores” Glauco’s masculinity once it is back in working order carries significantly meatier implications, especially in relation to Glauco’s treatment of women. He clearly has little interest in his drugged-out wife, and he eventually seduces the live-in maid (Annie Girardot), who is just as vacant as Glauco’s wife, which is manifested in the narcissistic pleasure she takes in looking at her own reflection and idealizing pop stars whose posters adorn her bedroom walls. As others have noted, the film’s treatment of women is somewhat less than ideal, although Ferreri hardly holds men up as a standard of emulation, given that the male protagonist is little more than a confused amalgam of contradictory signifiers (best symbolized in the gun, which Glauco eventually paints red and covers with white polka dots), suggesting that modern man has no real sense of the world or his place in it.

Part of the power of Dillinger is Dead (and what keeps us watching when we should have long since checked out) lies in the unexpected nature of its narrative trajectory, so I will refrain from describing any more except to say that it eventually veers into a climactic moment of violence whose inexplicability is bested only by the oddball denouement, which is so incessantly open-ended that we might be tempted to say it has no meaning at all. Interestingly, prior to Dillinger, all of Ferreri’s films had been relatively straightforward, albeit politically loaded, narratives, so the non-narrative nature of this film represented a departure from his own established style. Thus, more than anything, it served as a turning point for Ferreri, evidence that his refusal to be pigeon-holed is the only real means of defining his work, a voluminous body of films that, if Dillinger is any indication, hold as many surprises as frustrations.

Dillinger is Dead Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioItalian Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Video interview with actor Michel Piccoli
  • Video interview with Italian film historian Adriano Aprà
  • Excerpts from a 1997 roundtable discussion about director Marco Ferreri, with filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci and Francesco Rosi and film historian Aldo Tassone, including clips of interviews with Ferreri
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Joshua Rowin and a selection of reprinted interviews with Ferreri
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMarch 16, 2010

    Criterion’s high-definition transfer of Dillinger is Dead, which was approved by cinematographer Mario Vulpiani, appears to be true to the film’s original look. Transferred from the original camera negative and digitally restored, it looks just about pristine, with very few instances of damage or vertical lines. Colors are strong and bold, from the blood red of the gun to the purplish glow of an odd table in the back corner of the dining room. Detail is strong throughout, and the image maintains an appreciable filmlike presence with just enough grain to keep it from looking overly digitized. The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the original optical soundtrack negative and digitally restored, is clean throughout.
    Since Dillinger is Dead is largely unknown (or at least forgotten) even by those who consider themselves arthouse fans, Criterion has put together a nice collection of supplements to help contextualize the film’s historical importance. Although there is no audio commentary (which would have been nice), we do get two intriguing video interviews, one with actor Michel Piccoli and one with Italian film historian Adriano Aprà, who actually appears in the film on Glauco’s television. Both Piccoli and Aprà count themselves as personal acquaintance of Ferreri’s, so their commentary is often as much about him as a person as it is about his work. This approach is continued in the excerpts from a 1997 roundtable discussion about Ferreri that took place at the Cannes Film Festival immediately following his death. The roundtable includes filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci and Francesco Rosi and film historian Aldo Tassone, whose discussion is intercut with clips of interviews with Ferreri, one of which was conducted only a few months before he died. The final supplement on the disc is the original theatrical trailer, which is a wonderfully odd evocation of the film’s ambiguity. The thick insert book contains an excellent and perceptive essay by film critic Michael Joshua Rowin and and a selection of reprinted interviews with Ferreri, which provide a great deal of insight into his unique approach to cinema.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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