Dillinger Is Dead opens with worker Glauco (Michel Piccoli) at the gas-mask factory. As someone stands in a poisonous gas chamber testing out his latest product, his co-worker announces he’d like to declaim a little essay he’s written and starts orating about how the image before us “strangely evokes the conditions in which modern man lives.” No one bats an eye. Dillinger unfolds in a post-Antonioni landscape; the nameless dread has become all too nameable, and everyone can speak at length about their own alienation. Yes, this is the kind of movie where women go to sleep in their eyeliner and sex is either desultory or denied. Anomie, meet your late-60s endpoint.
Marco Ferreri’s film arrives 40 years late for its first US theatrical run—a public service performed, once more, by Janus Films, ignoring the movie’s long-past expiration date. Ferreri’s never been much on my radar—I now can’t find anyone to say a kind word for films like La Grande Bouffe, once all the rage—but Dillinger is his highest-profile film. It’s entertaining and well-worth rediscovering, which doesn’t mean it should be taken seriously; despite trying to think slightly ahead of the times, it’s firmly trapped in them, like a smart-ass who’s less self-aware than he realizes. Structurally and premise-wise, Dillinger is like a less extreme version of Jeanne Dielman: witness Glauco cook dinner, reconstruct a gun he finds in the closet and watch home movies in real time.
Glauco cooking for himself is the film’s best part: AM pop blathers away in the background, there’s an unattended TV upstairs whose volume gets too loud sometimes, and there’s that gun he finds wrapped in newspaper in the closet—he needs the meticulously filmed spice rack to make dinner, and he needs lemon juice to work away some of the rust on the gun, and he can do both at the same time. It’s delightful to watch Glauco, not least because he’s the opposite of Antonioni’s ennui-laden types: he takes pleasure in cooking for himself and realizing everything, in general, he’s capable of. After cooking, he sets up a 16mm projector in the living room and watches home movies of a trip he recently took (to Spain, evidently) with his wife and another couple. The footage is silent, so Glauco mashes it up with random home-stereo accompaniment, futzes around with the projector so that the image forms ad hoc Cinerama patterns on his walls, and inserts himself into the footage. He’s realizing the 21st-century Internet ideal of multimedia interaction way ahead of his own time, but there’s a flip side, then as now: experience the whole word in your living room, sure, but only at the cost of flattening everything into its most outsize, sensationalist, grotesque aspects—sensory overstimulation that quickly becomes its own kind of banality.
That little critique seems inadvertent though. If Dillinger is riveting at its most ostentatiously purposeless, it’s also more conventional than it knows. Per Chekov’s maxim (now cliche) about what must happen in the third act with a gun shown in the first, things go exactly where—by the additional logic of post-capitalist alienation—they must. When Ferreri is content to simply observe Glauco’s spice rack and listen to the sugary radio pop—a truer reflection of the late 60s than any Woodstock leftovers, really—it’s gold; when events are “shocking,” they’re less than, really. Dillinger aspires to the status of pop art and achieves it, but it’s a double-edged sword.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.