The Rabelais of the modernist cine-guerilla set, Marco Ferreri brought a vulgarian’s gusto to the late ‘60s/early ‘70s autopsies of bourgeois alienation. The scabrous pig-out of La Grande Bouffe may be this sensualist-agitator’s best-known provocation, but the serenely bristling Dillinger Is Dead is easily his best film. Glauco (Michel Piccoli), an industrial gas-mask designer, is our guide in a nightlong tour through the atrophied surfaces of 1969. Coming home to a drowsy trophy wife (Anita Pallenberg) and a paltry dinner, he sets out to whip up a gourmet meal for himself and, in the process, undergoes a most peculiar existential crackup.
The shape of material possessions and the brainless pop tunes emanating from the radio act as constant reminders of modern life’s gilded cages, but the protagonist’s private revolt isn’t triggered until he discovers a rusty revolver wrapped in a newspaper announcing the death of John Dillinger. A memento from an outlaw past? An icon of vanished machismo? Either way, the exhumed treasure fascinates and emboldens Glauco, whose fantasies of empowerment go from simply cooking a steak to seducing the live-in maid (Annie Girardot) with the help of a pot of honey. Of course, the gun is honor-bound by Chekhov’s Law to go off by the third act, yet Ferreri is too aware of the scenario’s inherent absurdism to view Glauco’s newfound phallic assertion unambiguously as evidence of revitalized manhood. Rather, there’s the feeling that the character’s transgressive actions amount to little more than willful regression, corrupt responses to a corrupt world. (Without giving too much away, it’s easy to see the finale’s wish-fulfillment tropical vessel as a ghost ship.)
A rigorous and oddly zesty freakout, Dillinger Is Dead remains a startling experience, a proto-Jeanne Dielman founded on beguiling visual forms, inscrutable thematic juxtapositions, and the great Piccoli’s impish pantomime of dawning domestic mutiny. Glauco at one point interacts with the home movies he projects on his living room walls, but it’s the pistol he finds that ultimately emerges as Ferreri’s most telling symbol of revolutionary cinema, something to be dismantled, reassembled, and put to explosive, confrontational use.
Criterion's robust transfer honors Ferreri's Godardian palette of bold reds and yellows. The mono sound captures the carefully calibrated mix of silences and pop earworms with clarity.
Ferreri's unorthodox filming methods are recounted in a couple of recent interviews (Piccoli supplies the fond reminiscences, film historian Adriano Apra the analytical interpretations) and in a 1997 roundtable discussion with fellow Italian auteurs Bernardo Bertolucci and Francesco Rosi, both of whom recall the filmmaker's love for shattering taboos. Also included are the picture's trippy theatrical trailer and a hefty booklet of essays and interviews.
Bourgeois conformity is the real Public Enemy Number One in Marco Ferreri's still-startling domestic freak-out.