Criterion // 1969 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 16th, 2010
A film both illogical and grandly existential.
"The cinema we make is useless." -- Marco Ferreri
Glauco (Michael Piccoli) has just come home from another hard day of work as a gas mask designer. His wife (Anita Pallenberg) has prepared him a meal, but he's discontent with her offerings and determines to cook something for himself. While in the process of rummaging for ingredients, he comes across something unusual: an old gun wrapped inside an old newspaper that offers details of John Dillinger's death. Did the gun belong to Dillinger? Who knows. Glauco examines the gun, takes it apart, cleans it thoroughly, watches some movies and attempts to seduce the maid (Annie Girardot). Then...well, no fair telling.
What is Marco Ferreri's Dillinger Is Dead about? I have my own ideas and could present you with a half-baked (and most likely wrong) theory about what the film is saying about violence, bourgeois society, cinema, and so on, but the fact of the matter is that the film is so bloody intent on leaving its surrealist proceedings open to interpretation that it isn't really definitively about very much at all. On the surface, there's very little to the film, a slow-moving portrait of a man going through a series of somewhat odd routines over the course of a single evening. At the conclusion there is a moment of violence and a moment of freedom.
The film is a fascinating one to think about, the sort of movie that would be ideal for an ambitious discussion group willing to tackle the considerable challenge of exploring the themes buried within the film's endless layers of symbolism and allegorical allusions (at least I think they're buried there...at times one might get the sinking feeling that Ferreri is just screwing around in the hopes of finding something profound in the process). I've been pondering the film for a while, but the fact of the matter is the movie is a lot more interesting to think about than it is to watch. The running time is a merciful 95 minutes, but it feels a lot longer than that. I am not one who demands that my films move at a quick pace, nor am I easily made impatient. I found Chantal Akerman's glacially-paced Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles to be a thoroughly absorbing experience. Even so, watching Dillinger Is Dead was an experience that had me checking the remaining running time with alarming regularity.
But you know what? I think that's sort of the point. "Oh great, he's about to start interpreting this thing," I can hear you grumbling. I know, I know. Just hear me out. I was reading some interviews with Ferreri in the booklet that accompanies this release, and something struck me as I was doing so: Ferreri doesn't really seem to care for cinema. As in, he finds the medium itself rather tedious, suggesting that it fails to provoke and connect with the audience in the way that it ought to (reflected in the film by the way that Glauco grows discontent with merely watching his home movies and starts interacting with the images being projected on the wall, trying to forcefully inject himself into the proceedings). I'm writing this review shortly after having seen Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, which is a movie clearly made by a man who is in love with his medium. Polanski seems to take delight in the tools at his disposal to create an engaging cinematic experience. Ferreri seems weary of that same medium. He sometimes seems akin to a child who chooses not to build something from his new Lego set but rather to find amusing ways to destroy the pieces.
Ferreri can't find contentment in what he is doing and neither can his protagonist. Glauco moves fitfully from activity to activity, trying but never quite managing to find any sort of contentment. He tries cooking a variety of different things, but can never settle on just the right dish. He browses through a variety of home movies, but finds they fail to provide him with whatever it is he's hoping to gain by watching them. He reassembles Dillinger's gun with professionalism and care, only to desecrate the thing by painting it fire engine red and covering it with childish polka dots. When Glauco (spoiler warning) engages in the violent action that he does by the film's conclusion, it seems less motivated by his hatred for the victim and more by his desire to break free from the tedious life he is trapped in. Subversively, it also feels liberating for us, as it (A.) means that something assertive and involving actually happens for a change and (B.) that we are soon to be free of the film's draining grasp. As I said, more fun to talk about than to sit through.
Considering that the film is a low-budget flick from the late '60s, Criterion has done a good job of preserving the image for this DVD release (alas, there is no accompanying Blu-ray for this particular title). The image is sharp and clean, with the (somewhat heavy) natural grain left intact. Despite some rather harsh reds and bright colors throughout, the transfer does a nice job of avoiding bleeding and keeping everything balanced. Audio is less successful, as the simplistic mono track has little more to do than pipe through an endless series of cheesy (sometimes slightly damaged) pop tunes. As far as supplements, this is one of the lower-tier $29.99 titles, so what we have is limited but quality: A new 13-minute interview with star Michael Piccoli, a 21-minute interview with historian Adriano Apra (who discusses not just this film but the whole body of Ferreri's work) and a 13-minute excerpt from a French television program featuring Ferreri. All are worth watching, particularly the interview with Apra. Finally, you get a thick booklet featuring text interviews with Ferreri and a lengthy essay Joshua Rowin (whose regard for the film is considerable to say the least).
Am I glad that I've seen Dillinger Is Dead? Yes, as it gave me some interesting things to chew on and allows me to say that I've seen one of Ferreri's most-acclaimed films. Will I ever watch it again? If so, it'll be a very long time before I do. Recommended only for particularly adventurous viewers.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Archival Clip