58. DILLINGER IS DEAD [DILLINGER E MORTO] (1969)

Dillinger Is Dead throws narrative, psychological, and symbolic common sense out the window… the film’s refusal of clear-cut logic, its contradictory symbols, and its moral ambiguity open it to endless interpretation.”–Michael Joshua Rowin, from the notes to the Criterion Collection edition of Dillinger is Dead

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Annie Girardot, Anita Pallenberg

PLOT: Glauco designs gas-masks by day.  One night, he returns to the apartment he shares with his wife and live-in maid and, while searching for ingredients for dinner, discovers a gun wrapped in newspaper in his pantry.  He spends an evening puttering around the house, making dinner, watching home movies, playing with his various toys, disassembling and reassembling the gun, painting it, then using the weapon in a senseless final act.

Still from Dillinger Is Dead (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • John Dillinger was a bank robber in the 1930s who became both Public Enemy #1 and a folk hero.
  • Ferreri barely directed Piccoli, giving him only simple blocking instructions and dialogue and allowing the actor to improvise the rest of the performance.
  • This is the first of six films Ferreri and Piccoli made together.
  • Model Anita Pallenberg may be best known for her romantic involvements with two members of the Rolling Stones (first Brian Jones, and later Keith Richards), but she has had small roles in a couple of weird movies besides this one: Barbarella (1968) and Performance (1970).
  • The movie was filmed in the apartment of Italian pop-artist Mario Schifano, and some of the painters works (most prominently, “Futurismo Rivisitato“) can be seen in the background.
  • The observations that the young worker makes to Glauco in the prologue are all paraphrases from philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s essay One-Dimensional Man, a critique of then-contemporary consumerism, mass media and industrialism.  Marhola Dargis of the New York Times believes that the entire movie is an attempt to give cinematic form to Marcuse’s ideas.
  • After it’s initial release, Dillinger is Dead nearly disappeared.  Variety‘s 1999 version of the “Portable Movie Guide” didn’t mention it among their 8700 reviews, Halliwell never heard of it, and Pauline Kael didn’t encounter it in “5001 Nights at the Movies.”  It was seldom screened and never appeared on home video until a 2006 revival led to the film being virtually rediscovered, culminating in a 2010 release by the Criterion Collection.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The gun that may have belonged to John Dillinger, which fascinates the protagonist.  Especially after he paints it bright red and carefully paints white polka dots on it.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dillinger is Dead is a disconnected, absurdist parable where

Clip from Dillinger is Dead

nothing seems to be happening, and when something happens, it doesn’t make sense. It’s very much a product of its time—the anarchic, experimental late 1960s—yet the world it portrays still feels oddly, and awfully, familiar.

COMMENTS: Dillinger is Dead doesn’t take leave of reality until its very last moments, but it’s doubtful that anyone watching it would fail to recognize that they were seeing a weird movie long before that.  Glauco, the protagonist, has a rather absurd job as a gas-mask designer.  As his latest creation is being unveiled by a model emerging from inside a toxic concrete bunker to demonstrate the mask’s style and efficiency, a co-worker takes a moment to reflect on their job as a metaphor for modern industrial society.  “When individuals identify with a lifestyle imposed from without and through it experience gratification and satisfaction, their alienation is subsumed by their own alienated existence,” he muses, recapitulating an old water cooler discussion we’ve all had a hundred times before and incidentally stating a theme for the movie.

It’s an odd prelude, but it doesn’t really prepare us for what happens next, which is… approximately nothing.  The designer returns home to his fashionably mod apartment (furnished with an impressive collection of artwork, bibelots, and bric-a-brac) and his fashionably blonde trophy wife (equipped with an unsexy headache and a yen for sleeping pills to carry her off to oblivion).  He doesn’t like the meal she’s made, so he sets about gathering ingredients to make his own dinner, listens to the radio, gets bored, watches TV, watches home movies, putters around the apartment playing with various toys (including his comatose wife and the sexy live-in maid).

The first of two major developments in the otherwise uneventful night occurs when he finds, hidden in the pantry, a gun wrapped in newspapers announcing American gangster John Dillinger’s death in a hail of bullets.  Although it’s certainly strange, even inexplicable, to find a gun hidden in your pantry, even this event is downplayed and treated as something ordinary.  Glauco quickly forgets his discovery and returns to cooking dinner, but returns to the gun from time to time throughout the night, to disassemble it, clean it (by marinating the parts in olive oil), reassemble it, paint it, and play around with it as if it were a toy, mouthing a boyish “pow!” as he fires at imaginary bad guys.

For viewers coming in with conventional narrative expectations, the fact that the onscreen incidents don’t seem to be adding up to anything is itself weird.  And also maddening.  For a long time, the mystery of Dillinger is Dead is, why is nothing happening, and will anything ever happen? It would be hard to blame anyone for giving up on the movie at the twenty or thirty minute mark.

But something strange begins to happen.  Glauco’s poking about the apartment becomes more and more hypnotic the longer you watch.  There are some incidentals that keep up your interest, among which is a great, eclectic late sixties soundtrack featuring a cappella baroque Italian pop, gunfighter ballads, Motown soul grooves, sitar drones, sambas, a brisk flute and piano sonata, and some cool exotica-flavored, Morricone-influenced jazz, and mildly psychedelic British folk-pop.  The vast variety of sounds, a snapshot of the era beyond what you’d hear on classic rock stations, can keep your interest during slow parts.  There’s also the impressive clutter of objets de pop art Glauco has amassed to eye: painted busts equipped with colorful gas masks, a laminated Roy Lichtenstein cover for Time magazine dangling from the ceiling on a rope, snapshots of Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man, exotic paintings of Chinese girls with pierced lips hanging on the bedroom walls, and a toy snake attached to a string which he can make slither across a naked body.  It’s a model home of a respectable 1969 space age bachelor pad, even if it’s the abode of a middle aged married man.

Piccoli’s enigmatic performance is of foremost importance in keeping our attention engaged.  As an accomplished professional with distinguished graying temples, he immediately conveys dignity; but Piccoli undercuts that respect as the night goes on and, increasingly bored, he starts acting more and more like a child.  The turning point begins when he starts watching home movies.  He plays around with the projector, stretching the image, projecting it directly on the wall, casting it at various angles onto a screen with bent panels.  Like a bored kid experimenting, he joins in the action as the reels unspool, interacting with the images directly.  A gory bullfight plays and he waves his hanky at the screen.  He opens his mouth and gulps at the light beaming from the lens as if trying to eat the image.  He playfully grabs at images of his wife and a friend as they cavort topless in the waves on vacation.  He walks behind the screen and peers down at the picture.  Watching a film choreographed for ten dancing digits, he adds his own. And when the film runs out, he and his new toy, the gun, start casting their own pictures on the screen, playing out a silly shadow drama of cops and unseen robbers (or perhaps the other way around).  When Piccoli emerges from this screening, he no longer seems quite like an adult to us.  He’s regressing towards childhood, and his actions become increasingly experimental and infantile.  The transformation from respectable man of the world to lost little boy is a subtly fascinating journey to watch, and one that happens so gradually that it’s almost not noticeable while the film is playing.

The less said about the surrealistic finale and epilogue, the better.  It’s enough to say that it’s truly weird, in a way that shocks the viewers expectations and ends the film with a new mystery that casts everything that came before in a strange and enigmatic light.

Dillinger is Dead as a deliberately ambiguous little semi-narrative parable that leaves itself open to multiple interpretations, making it an excellent source of fodder for debate among film school types.  It’s fair to say that there are multiple themes threaded throughout the movie, meaning that those multiple interpretations may be simultaneously valid.  On the simplest level, it’s an unflattering portrait of that segment of society known as the nouveau riche, bourgeoisie, or just middle-class.  Glauco seems to have everything an upwardly mobile Italian might aspire to: a house packed with fashionable consumer goods, a desirable wife, a live-in mistress, high and low tech diversions, a classic record collection.  Yet, it’s clear that he’s bored, that something is missing.  He’s one-dimensional.  It’s a portrait of a man, of a class, with too much luxury and leisure, and too little spirit and soul.  One-dimensional men who try to make meaning out of things, who fully actualize their social potential as consumers, who treat their fellow humans as toys to play with, inevitably grow jaded.  Once their games are exhausted, boredom sets in; and boredom inevitably leads to mischief, mischief to decadence, in a final attempt to jolt their burnt out souls with novel sensations.  This spiral into depravity happened to the aristocratic classes; why shouldn’t it happen again, en masse, when the middle classes grow rich and idle enough to rule as lords in their own apartment fiefdoms?

Another frequent interpretation of Dillinger is Dead is that it’s a reflection on the loss of masculine identity in the modern world.  The title itself prods us in this direction: what is John Dillinger if not an alpha-male, a rampaging barbarian who takes what he needs and wants in combat, risking his life?  And what does his death symbolize, if not the death of the romantic idea of masculine heroism?  The men of Glauco’s world earn their living and win their women not by feats of derring-do, but by scribbling designs on pieces of paper, which they then exchange for other pieces of paper.  No wonder their women greet them with migraines instead of negligees.  More evidence for the loss of masculinity thesis is the nature of the object the engineer finds when he returns home.  A gun—the granddaddy of all phallic symbols.  But our modern antihero is nonplussed by this artifact of hyper-manliness: he doesn’t know what to do with it, doesn’t understand quite how to wield this antique penis from a vanished era.  He’s only seen such things on TV, after all. He takes it apart, looks at the parts quizzically, soaks them in olive oil, plays with the reassembled weapon like a boy with a stick, paints it with polka dots.  (Should you think this interpretation is a stretch, it’s useful to know that Ferreri’s previous Italian films frequently dealt in some way with male anxieties about the changing nature of romantic relationships in modern society: The Conjugal Bed [1963], where a forty year old man marries a virgin and can’t keep up;  The Ape Woman [1964], where a carnival promoter weds and exploits a hirsute freak; Her Harem [1967], where Carroll Baker keeps a bevy of hunks at her beck and call).  Seen in this way, the inscrutable ending becomes even more cryptic: has Glauco learned to use his newly rediscovered penis and found paradise, or is it all a delusion?

Dillinger is Dead is broad, vague and weird enough to support the theories above, and many more—including the possibility that the whole enterprise is just a cinematic prank Ferreri thought up one night after dipping into Keith Richards’ private stash of Turkish hashish.  If nothing else, the film is a nostalgia piece exemplifying a vanished aesthetic: the anything-goes experimentalism of the late 1960s, where the craziest idea scribbled on a napkin might end up played out on the big screen to puzzle intellectuals and common folk alike.  Few would have the courage to make a movie like Dillinger is Dead today, and no one would have the courage to fund it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Those who sense that something truly weird is brewing will nonetheless find what happens next shocking, made all the more unsettling by the movie’s flat-affect aesthetic.”–David Fear, Time Out New York (revival)

“…an exercise in pop art surrealism that captures the aesthetic and political zeitgeist of the 60s. Connoisseurs of avant-garde cinema will be more than pleased with this release. As for others…”–Rodney Perkins, Twitch (DVD)

“The movie has at least one shocking turn of events and a great, weird ending, but none of these detracts from or solves the movie’s theme, which is that — despite all this stuff in his house, and even the people in his house — Glauco’s life is meaningless… a bizarre, fascinating experience, and one that will sink a bit deeper into your psyche than you might expect.”–Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (DVD)

OFFICIAL SITE: Dillinger is Dead – The Criterion Collection – This gateway includes press clippings and two essays on the film. You can also watch the artful but odd and misleading trailer there, which incorporates all of the movie’s few nude scenes and looks like an attempt to position the film as an arty softcore romp.

IMDB LINK: Dillinger è morto (1969)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Dillinger is Dead: Apocalypse Now – Michael Joshua Rowin’s essay on the film for the Criterion Collection

Marco Ferreri: Enduring provocations from one of cinema’s singular voices – Article from Vertigo magazine on the 2006 revival of Dillinger is Dead

The Actor and the Secret – interview with star Piccoli from Cahiers du Cinéma; contains a few reflections on working on Dillinger in a section mislabeled LA GRANDE BOUFFE/BLOW-OUT.

Dillinger is Dead (pdf) – writer Michael Atkinson’s piece on the film promoting the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s revival screening

DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection DVD (buy) (as much as resurrection as a release) manages to come up with only a few enlightening extras, considering the obscurity of the movie. There’s a 13 minute interview with Michel Piccoli, a 21 minute interview/analysis with film historian Adrino Aprà (who also appears in the film on a black and white TV set), and 13 minutes of excerpts from a televised roundtable discussion with directors Francesco Rosi, Bernardo Bertolucci and film historian Aldo Tassone. The later feature includes rare archival footage of the notoriously shy and reticent Ferrere. The trailer for the film is also included, along with a 34 page booklet. For non-US viewers, the film is also available in several competing versions (Region 2 and Region 0), including a Russian and an Italian release (search for non-US versions).

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