It isn’t an insult to say that Marco Ferreri’s provocation Dillinger Is Dead remains a film of its time, a response to political, social, and cinematic ideas that were floating around in 1969, but don’t have much currency now. Even then, the Italian director’s radicalism didn’t import as easily as that of like-minded European auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard or Michelangelo Antonioni, and the new Criterion edition of Dillinger Is Dead makes it easy to see why his work was perpetually out of fashion. Save for a key passage of dialogue near the beginning of the movie, it unfolds almost wordlessly, detailing the exceedingly odd behavior of one man’s descent into domestic madness. Finding the connective tissue between one incident and the next—not to mention teasing out the symbols and themes Ferreri appears to be articulating—can be its own form of madness, yet the film is transfixing, too, provided viewers yield to it a little.
New Wave giant Michel Piccoli stars as an industrial designer who specializes in gas masks. His curious occupation is one of the few breadcrumbs Ferreri tosses out to viewers; as his colleague says, “Isolation in a chamber that must be sealed off from the outside world because it’s full of deadly gas… strongly evokes the conditions under which man lives.” From there, the film enters the gas-filled chamber of Piccoli’s apartment, which he shares with a distant, bedridden wife (Anita Pallenberg) who complains of a headache, and a sexpot maid (Annie Girardot) who never cleans anything. While preparing a gourmet dinner for himself, Piccoli comes across an old Chicago newspaper from a short time after John Dillinger’s shooting death, wrapped around a gun that may have been owned by the famed outlaw. Piccoli then proceeds to take apart, clean, and reconstruct the gun (painting it red with white polka dots), and gets some good use out of it.
Broadly, Piccoli’s dark night of the soul in Dillinger Is Dead expresses a restlessness and dissatisfaction with the conventional trappings of his life—the spirit-crushing corporate job, his mod casket of an apartment, the glassy-eyed, pill-popping housewife in his bed. However, the way it plays out is much more mysterious, as Piccoli silently drifts from room to room, interacts with home movies projected on his wall, seduces the maid with honey, and meticulously restores the gun, among other activities. Many of his actions defy logic—or at least lack the context needed to make sense of them—and some are simply mundane. But with Piccoli’s journey, Ferreri’s surreal bomb-thrower of a film suggests turbulent times, at home and at the movies.
Key features: Some blessed context on Ferreri and his place in cinema history in Michael Joshua Rowin’s liner notes and in a new video interview with Italian film scholar Adriano Aprà. Also included is a 1997 Cannes roundtable where Bernardo Bertolucci, Francesco Rossi, and others reflect on Ferreri’s work shortly after his death, and a trailer that plays up the film’s hipness and copious nudity.