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Recipe Calls for One Revolver in Olive Oil: Dillinger is Dead (1969)

There are few movies I find appealing about a bored character milling about their home, alone, cooking, cleaning, watching television… Who wants to watch someone watching television? Yet, Marco Ferreri’s Dillinger è morto/Dillinger is Dead (1969) is a film that spends most of its time observing actor Michel Piccoli doing the above things to oddly fascinating effect. Perhaps folks not familiar with Piccoli’s other work might not find the actor as engaging, but it might be my familiarity with seeing him in a number of Luis Buñuel films (among other titles by Jean-Luc Godard, Mario Bava, and even Alfred Hitchcock) that prepared me for the extremely mundane surrealism of Dillinger is Dead. Regardless of what Ferreri’s intention was with the picture, I would place it in the surrealist cinematic canon for several reasons.

The movie opens on Piccoli as our protagonist named Glauco—although his name is never actually said throughout—at his job as a gas mask designer. This information appears to have very little to do with the rest of the story, except for the fact that it is simply odd to think that someone has to design gas masks. This kind of left-field manner of thought, formal yet comedic, sets up Dillinger is Dead. Once home, Piccoli briefly talks to his wife (Anita Pallenberg), lying in bed, before starting to eat dinner, only to throw it out and begin cooking an entirely new meal. While cooking, the man finds a revolver wrapped in an old newspaper with headlines about American bank robber John Dillinger; he disassembles the gun and lets the parts sit in a bowl of olive oil.

A second woman (Annie Giradot) enters, takes a bottle of booze out of the fridge and goes upstairs (it wasn’t until reading a synopsis afterwards that I realized this is supposed to be the maid. I had no idea why he seemed to have a live-in mistress). Once the meal is ready we see Piccoli inanely watch television, then spool up some movies on celluloid, interacting with the images projected on the wall. He periodically goes upstairs, having glib conversations with his wife and the maid, goes back downstairs, reassembles and paints the gun red with white polka dots, eventually returns upstairs, and shoots his wife in the head. The movie disconnects from the predominantly domestic setting to Piccoli finding himself on a boat headed for Tahiti, with him hired as the cook. If there is anything viewers can agree he is qualified for up to this point, it is cooking a meal.

Michel Piccoli as Glauco uses his culinary experience to deconstruct the domestic.

The potential misogyny derived from the events played out is very similar to most claims aimed at the original surrealist artists of the 1920s and 1930s, namely the use of women’s bodies to construct part of an image, and in the process deconstructing the woman’s body as nothing more than a piece of scenery. Essentially, I don’t find the treatment of the two women in the film to be that much of a problem, mainly because of the complete aimlessness of Piccoli’s character, who appears to have no remarkable qualities himself. Ferreri’s film shows how the routines human beings put themselves through have a futility to them that is more repetitive than enjoyable. His portrayal of this man is no greater than the portrayals of the women.

The sudden, mundane murder committed by our protagonist is reminiscent of other films of this general time period, namely Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970), and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman of 1975. That being said, the intense ruminations of Akerman’s picture beget no irony or surrealism, but rather a sad reality. More than the fatal actions in these two films, the murder in Dillinger is Dead might actually have most in common with a sequence in the earlier Italian classic La Dolce Vita (1960); the off-screen family murder/suicide that Steiner (Alain Cuny) commits is so shocking because of its suddenness. What makes Ferreri’s film different from all the others mentioned here is its flight into complete fantasy after the murder is committed, which brings all of the previous scenes into question. The paradisiacal voyage into the sunset that the movie ends on is actually somewhat disappointing. In a way I hoped Piccoli would stay contained in his limited little universe, with viewers able to imagine what his fate may be.

The best moments of Dillinger is Dead are those that are just so odd that they become borderline surreal. The instance of seeing a gas mask in a domestic setting is one such example. The placement of an item so particular to war or science fiction films into a modish, bourgeois home evokes a strange feeling. The alcoholic maid, showing no shame in casually taking the entire bottle up to her room is another moment that would be just as at home in a Buñuel film like Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Watching Piccoli take the gun apart and giving it the oil bath is strange enough to evoke memories of Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925), eating his boot and its laces like spaghetti. Yet, Ferreri takes the offbeat as opposed to slapstick road, letting the gun sit there long enough for viewers to forget about it. By the time he paints it red and white, the object becomes toy-like to the point that it is somewhat shocking, and even more unreal when he eventually shoots it. He literally deconstructed the gun, and appeared to make it into something harmless, only to end up using it for its original violent purpose—yet with no outward feelings of anger and no specific motive.

The deconstruction, transformation and recoding of the gun makes its eventual use for its original, violent purpose all the more shocking.

The absence of dialogue for most of the film, along with pop music sung in English playing on the radio makes Dillinger is Dead seem more like a film out of the European consciousness of the time in general, as opposed to a specifically Italian picture. Furthermore, Michel Piccoli is a French actor, partially making the entire mood quite cosmopolitan in nature. That being said, cosmopolitan implies a kind of worldly socialization, which seems to have evaporated from our main character. At some point before the events of the film, he may have had it, but the setting of Dillinger is Dead, and Piccoli putzing about in such a lonely, yet self-involved way creates an atmosphere of erratic, humorous destruction in the domestic sphere.

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Born on a Friday the 13th, Joseph Dwyer has an ambivalent relationship with horror cinema that ranges from visceral pleasure to investigative schizoanalytics. He holds two master’s degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute, as both a filmmaker and theorist. He is unmoved by most contemporary art, and currently looks to the horror genre as a potential space for new perspectives on desire and dissent.

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