Even the gas mask designed by Glauco (Michel Piccoli), the central figure in Marco Ferreri’s 1969 Dillinger Is Dead, offers little protection against the toxicity of materialism and bourgeois living that hangs thick in the movie’s petrified ’60s air. A signature love-it-or-hate-it provocation from the Italian ringmaster best known for giving us the gorging gastronomes of La Grande bouffe and the self-castrating Gérard Depardieu of The Last Woman, the rarely screened Dillinger (which plays at BAM this week in a new 35mm print) unfolds almost entirely within the confines of Glauco’s mod apartment, where consumerist clutter is the abiding principle: One room’s sleek, modular furniture abuts another’s Navajo chic. In the kitchen, where the majority of the action takes place, a garish floral tablecloth stands out against rustic brick walls like a fuchsia raincoat in a blizzard.
Working at the height of his powers, Ferreri turns this domestic prison into a centrifuge of ideas about the loss of self in an age when movies, TV, and commercial advertising had come to promise us the ability to be whomever we wanted. Returning home late one night, Glauco sets about fixing himself a gourmet dinner while his migraine-afflicted wife (Keith Richards paramour Anita Pallenberg) rests in a pharmaceutical slumber and Wall of Sound pop blares from a radio. Rifling through a cupboard stacked with sundries and old magazines, he chances upon a six-shooter wrapped in old newspaper headlines about the death of John Dillinger. As he fillets and sautées, Glauco likewise cleans and polishes the firearm, at one point stirring it in a bowl of olive oil, as if it, too, were on the menu. No wonder Jean-Luc Godard (whose influence on Ferreri looms large) was said to be a fan: Taking his master’s immortal words about the high body count of Pierrot le fou—”not blood, but red”—one step further, Ferreri gives us a movie in which a revolver is no different from ravioli.
Dinner is followed by a movie, as Piccoli’s post-industrial Little Tramp reflects and refracts 8mm vacation films off his living room’s gleaming white walls. Glauco stands so close to the makeshift screen that he blends right into the image, becoming a bullfighter, an ocean swimmer, and, finally, a shadow puppet, brandishing his pistol—reborn as a red-and-white polka-dotted objet d’art—the way Dillinger (who was said to have copied his own best moves from watching Douglas Fairbanks movies) might have. Thus the reel becomes real, or at least a primitive MRPG, and, 40 years later, the final moments of Dillinger Is Dead can still send an audience startled and scintillated into the night.