“Dillinger is Dead”, but Alienation, Never as Alive [1969 Italy]

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Marco Ferreri, the beguiling and provocative anarchist of Italian cinema, is also one of the most original and philosophical film makers that his country has ever produced. He could be defined as a direct legacy to Italian Neorealism. While his works, like contemporaries Antonioni, Pasolini, and Fellini, are loaded with social satire and commentary, Ferreri was undoubtedly the more aggressive of the lot in challenging the status quo, be it left wing or right wing politics, modernism or traditionalism, and orthodoxy or secularism – his films will pick on practically anyone and everyone, using absurd, outrageous, and often morbid humour. Having said that, it was Ferreri’s fascination for Antonioni’s work that got him into film making. He was a producer before becoming a director – even helping produce Antonioni’s first feature film. Of course, Ferreri is a genius in his own right and has left us a great body of unforgettable work that the world of cinema would be much poorer without. His most famous and notorious film is nevertheless “La Grande Bouffe”, but I’ll touch on that at a later time.

Among the various things I admire in Marco Ferreri is his extraordinary flair when it came to set detail – little things, like props, design and lighting, his compositions, and the way in which he uses them. They become embedded within the film’s memory, and return to haunt you every time you remember it. Take for instance one such prop that makes an ominous appearance in what many like me consider to be Ferreri’s finest masterpiece, “Dillinger è Morto” [Eng. Title: Dillinger is Dead], which will also be the first of a life-long collaboration with one of the greatest actors in European cinema, Michel Piccoli.

Glauco is an industrial designer, but has fallen out of love for his profession designing gas masks for a high-tech company. He returns home late one evening, only to be invited by a cold dinner on the table and a sleepy wife who wants to be left alone. Sleepless and bored, Glauco cooks for himself a gourmet meal, and starts to rummage in his cellar, until he discovers to his delight a rusty pistol wrapped up in an old issue of Chicago Times Tribune. “Clear up Dillinger Mystery”, the headline shrieks. He proceeds to clean and also restore the gun to working order, most of which is filmed in real-time. He even playfully paints it red and applies white polka dots. In between, he goes upstairs to seduce live-in maid Sabine. But the gun, brought back to life, has only one purpose – to be used. And used it shall be in the most illogical of circumstances…

To describe the film as steeped in symbolism with different layers of interpretation is stating the obvious. What will not be obvious for many younger viewers however is the political climate under which the film was made. The year of 1968 is looked upon by some in Europe as a year of revolution – marked by numerous protests involving youth, workers, and poltical activists of various hues, for different reasons. This film is Ferreri’s own expression of disillusionment and anger at the manner in which the world subsequently  returned to status-quo. It talks of its disillusionment without as much as uttering a word – there is very little dialogue in the film as we watch, transfixed, an insomniac keeping himself busy through the night with a child-like demeanour, and indulging in violence with hardly any emotion or hesitation – it’s a message nothing short of a war-cry. But, this is also a film that is made with oodles of wit and charm, and some of the scenes are positively hilarious. It is the most lively cinematic interpretation of disillusionment and alienation that I could think of. The title, as you may have guessed, not only alludes to the death of the eponymous criminal in the old newspaper article, but also of Glauco’s machismo.

As for the meticulous production itself, this is Ferreri at his very best. His decision to cast Michel Piccoli in the lead character role, and who appears in almost every frame of the film, must surely be a master stroke – Piccoli is brilliant throughout and never disappoints. I feel the character he plays here may have even inspired a later film, Themroc. Of the two ladies in the film, Annie Girardot was already a renowned actress in France – she plays the banal housemaid Sabine, while the sleepy wife is played by a little known Anita Pallenberg – we’ll nevertheless see more of her in a Nicolas Roeg film that would come out the following year (Performance), which I too shall revisit pretty soon. The soundtrack is thoughtfully put together by Ferreri-regular Teo Usuelli. This, combined with the masterful editing completes Ferreri’s vision in making what is arguably his finest film. Needless to say, this classic is Highly Recommended Viewing..!


Amazon NTSC DVD Link

About the Criterion DVD:
This is a gem of a release from Criterion, for it not only contains a beautifully restored print of the film, but also some priceless extras like interviews with Michel Piccoli, and the insightful film historian Adriano Aprà. There is also an essay booklet accompanying the DVD. Another reason to own this DVD is the sumptuous cover art – I don’t normally write about these, but this one is exceptionally well designed and worthy of mention.


The Nudity: Anita Pallenberg, Annie Girardot, and Carla Petrillo
The film features some elegant nudity, tame by today’s standards, but sensuous all the same. They are also naughty and funny.

Anita Pallenberg and Annie Girardot in Dillinger e Morto

Anita Pallenberg and Annie Girardot briefly appear in the nude as their characters tease and provoke the protagonist’s lost virility in Marco Ferreri’s masterpiece, “Dillinger è Morto” aka “Dillinger is Dead”.



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