Marco Ferreri’s 1969 film exposes an existential masculinity that is as current today as it was thirty-five years ago. The main character, Glauco (short for glaucoma, the disease that destroys the nerve that carries messages from the eye to the brain), works by day designing “masks” to survive a nuclear disaster. On this particular day, he returns home from work, finds his wife in a drugged sleep and proceeds to make himself dinner. He finds a gun and restores it in olive oil, makes love to the maid, shoots his wife and then takes off for Tahiti wearing a small orange skirt over his male parts. Of course we the viewers see the desperate meaninglessness of his actions while at the same time realize that Glauco’s just doing what he does is an avenue for “seeing “ life in a new way, without the masks. It’s not an ordinary film. It is ageless. Absurd. It’s an idiosyncratic look: the film takes a big bite of male ego, restores it to its owner, and then tricks the same away in the finale. It’s an art film. A masterpiece, if at times a tedious one.
You could call it a silent film as well. There’s not much dialogue.
And what is truly remarkable about the film is its total unselfconsciousness. The actors, the camerawork, the casualness of the sets, and the artistic details that go into the fabric of Dillinger is Dead blur into a timeless statement about the nooks and crannies of masculinity and the ease at which a man can commit a crime when he experiences despair, albeit a somewhat detached despair, at a perceived pointlessness of existence. There are no norms, rules, or laws in Glauco’s life on this particular evening.
What does the unselfconsciousness serve?
The unselfconsciousness serves the genuineness of the quotidian, the uniqueness of the quotidian, the power of a particular event within the quotidian that has transformative impact. In this case Glauco finds a gun in the closet. He doesn’t find a gun every day, just on this day. And true to Chekov’s law: gun revealed in act one goes off in act three. At the end of the film, in a surreal act, Glauco commits uxoricide. Does it change his life. Yes, for a while he is restored, he is a man with possibility, a man able to dream.
There is a lot of watching within the watching of the film: Glauco spies on his maid as she dances in front of a poster of a pop star; he imagines newsreel clips of the American gangster Dillinger; he watches super-8 film clips of his wife and himself at a bullfight; and he looks at himself in a mirror as he holds a gun to his head and grimaces, pretending to shoot himself. Yet the multiple dimensions of looking don’t come across as voyeuristic, as similar behavior/ techniques might do in a Warhol film, or a Woody Allen film or a Chaplin or Luis Buñuel film. In other words, the cinematic screen does not flip back at look at us– the viewers– while we watch this fellow do what he does during this particular evening.
This phenomenal coup can be credited to great acting and great directing. The film’s star, Michel Piccoli, a French actor, possesses the amazing and uncommon on-screen charisma of a Cary Grant and Heath Ledger. Marco Ferreri, the director, was one of Italy’s most original film artists. Upon his death in 1997, critics wrote: “No one was more demanding nor more allegorical than he in showing the state of crisis of contemporary man.”
Criterion restored Dillinger is Dead to DVD in 2009. It’s a bang of a film that’s fun to watch for all sorts of reasons. You could make it a scavenger hunt, too, by finding a multitude of visual references in the film to the work of other Italian filmmakers and pop culture. In addition, films made after Dillinger is Dead (1969) refer back to it with gusto. So it’s an important work of cinematic art.
RED AND WHITE SYMBOLISM IN THE FILM
When Glauco returns home from his workday, he puts on his wife’s red bib apron that has a white polka dot border. Mid-film he paints the gun red with white polka dots. The feminine garment evolves into a phallic object decorated with the same dots. Red symbolizes the baseness of life, the routine, the sense of smell and the anus, the spirit of war and destruction, and the libido. White dots are points of pure consciousness. The white dots represent what might be possible in union with god. White is also the color of death–we wrap the dead in white sheets. The wife is sleeping in a white bed and when she dies, there is a white pillow over her head. We do not see blood.
The wife ( Anita Pallenberg) plays with an orange goldfish that she keeps trapped in a bowl by the side of her bed. At film’s end, Glauco is seen in an orange wrap-around towel skirt. Orange denotes energy, warmth and sun. Orange is the symbol of the second chakra, the seat of creativity. In the film we see orange emerging out of the bowl as a fish and then wrapping around the man. Does the wrap mean a man must wear a mask of one kind or another in order maintain masculinity ?
WHY HAS MAN LOST HIS VIRILITY?
There is a madness about how we live. The male can no longer penetrate the female. Glauco cannot have a sexual relationship with his wife. He takes a toy snake and rubs it against her arm. The act is evocative of the garden of Eden–the snake charming Eve. The modern female does not respond. Consequently the male regresses to toys and games, to gangsters and bullfighters for entertainment.
After he kills his wife, Glauco take a shift in attitude: grandeur tinged with, perhaps, madness. He clips his wife’s huge gold necklace under his shirt, as if it is a garland, a symbol of the winner in an athletic contest.He hops into his car and heads down the highway. There’s tension. Did the maid find the wife’s body? Are the police going to get him? He drives to the seashore, takes off his clothes–except for the orange wrap and his wife’s champion necklace — and dives into the water. Suicide? No. Rebirth!!! .Wearing his orange skirt and his dead wife’s necklace, Glauco boards a French ship headed to Tahiti and takes a job as a cook. The ship is manned by men and for a while Glauco is saved. Then the ship’s owner appears on screen: s a young woman who wears a skimpy green bikini. Out of the oven into the fire for poor Glauco!