The irrepressible Sam Fuller fashions a crime thriller for German TV with his expected eccentricity: old-fashioned hardboiled scripting, freeform direction and bits of graffiti from the French New Wave. Christa Lang is the femme fatale and Glenn Corbett is the twofisted American hero, whose name is NOT Griff. And yes, a pigeon does bite the pavement on Beethoven Street, and I tell you, that’s one dead pigeon.
Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street
1974 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame (for German TV / 127 min. / Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße / Street Date April 19, 2016 / / available through the Olive Films website / 29.95
Starring Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang, Sieghardt Rupp, Anton Diffring, Stéphane Audran, Alexander D’Arcy, Anthony Chinn.
Cinematography Jerzy Lipman
Film Editor Liesgret Schmitt-Klink
Original Music The Can
German dialogue by Manfred R. Köhler
Produced by Joachim von Mengershausen
Written and Directed by Samuel Fuller
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Not that it helped Sam Fuller’s career much, but the critics really loved him. Andrew Sarris put him one notch below Pantheon status, in his category “The Far Side of Paradise,” whereas talents like Billy Wilder and William Wyler were relegated to “Less than Meets the Eye,” and that pretender Stanley Kubrick was condemned to Sarris’ creative ghetto, “Strained Seriousness.” Fuller had worked well under studio supervision and even better when operating independently. But in the 1960s his highly personal style didn’t help get him jobs, even if the film magazines snapped up for study whatever he did. By the 1970s he was an older veteran of earlier wars (studio and real-life) and a freelancer chasing projects that didn’t bloom and producers that wouldn’t back him up.
Fuller’s popularity abroad netted him an interesting assignment in 1974, for a German crime TV show called Tatort. This happy connection gave him the opportunity to write and direct one more time, with relative freedom. The crime caper thriller Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street was filmed on a relative shoestring in several German cities, with a mixed-nationality cast, staring with Fuller’s former leading man Glenn Corbett, from 1959’s The Crimson Kimono. The pulpy story has no overt political element and instead harkens back to Yankee crime pictures about cops and crooks that infiltrate criminal organizations. Fuller had already directed a couple of these, in House of Bamboo and Underworld U.S.A..
When his partner is shot dead on a German street, American investigator Sandy (Glenn Corbett) cooperates with German customs cop Kressin (Sieghardt Rupp of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars). They catch and then lose the killer, Charlie Umlaut (Eric P. Caspar) but he leads them to Christa (Christa Lang) and the crime ring she works for, a group that extorts big money from diplomats by staging compromising photos. Sandy pretends to be in the same line of work and tricks Christa into recommending him to her boss. Sandy helps Christa fleece several targets — consuls from China, an Eastern bloc country and an emerging African nation, but finding the ‘Mr. Big’ behind the operation proves difficult. Worse, Sandy falls genuinely in love with Christa, who sincerely wants free of the criminal ring.
We saw Dead Pigeon at UCLA after it was cut by its American exhibitor. It made sense, just barely, but seemed a complete mess. Finally reaching Blu-ray in an uncut quality transfer, we can better judge what Fuller is up to. The patchy visuals are more in keeping with the ‘New German Cinema’ of the day, than they resemble Fuller’s polished Hollywood products of twenty years previous. The screenplay is in Fuller’s hardboiled pulp crime style unchanged since the old days, but the scattershot direction shows the influence of the European ‘new kids’ that, when they wrote reviews, worshipped the director. Fuller sees nothing wrong with fronting a self-conscious attitude. An early action scene revisits some classic fight staging from Pickup on South Street. The title sequence in this original broadcast version introduces some crewmembers wearing carnival hats that fit in with the concluding scene at a street festival. Fuller’s title card fits over a shot of him smoking a cigar while wearing a clown’s costume.
The show itself is both slick and rough at the same time. It moves with assurance from one stock investigation-espionage sequence to another. Sandy pulls in a hipster drug expert to zonk out Christa with drugs, and then to make her think that she participated with him in an extortion grift. The individual crime scenes are staged well enough: they drug the African under the nose of his bodyguards, and successfully compromise the Chinese trade official (Anthony Chinn, an all-purpose Asian for English spy pix, including four Bond films). Oddball actor Alexander D’Arcy is given a great showcase scene, in a shakedown attempt that fizzles badly. The scenes on various German streets and shopping districts have a certain tacky realism, as when Sandy shadows Christa from location to location. For his final fight Fuller just gives his combatants a full room of fencing swords and antique weapons, and lets them go to it. Knowing he’s up against a fencing master, Sandy can fight back only by throwing things at him. The only way to keep continuity was to shoot it with multiple cameras.
The language barrier hurts some scenes. Fuller chooses a split between English and German. Agent Kressin speaks a lot of German without subtitles, and Fuller uses context and Sandy’s English rephrasing to cover. We feel like we’re missing out anyway. A couple of the German and French actors are very polished in English, and some have heavy accents that work in their favor, like Christa Lang. But too many German speakers are awkward reading Fuller’s comic book English speeches, with the result that too many scenes just seem to be badly acted. Even Stéphane Audran seems a little stiff. The result is some scenes that progress in fits and starts. Fuller respects the story and has a good dual anchor in Glenn Corbett and Christa Lang, so the film’s forward momentum is not broken. Corbett is consistently charming and self-assured, and Ms. Lang is appropriately seductive-shifty. Lang’s Christa is to some degree the main character, as she’s the one who deals with the big crime boss Mensur (Anton Diffring). A conventional Mr. Big mastermind, Mensur runs his little racket with the aid of Mabuse-like videoconferencing tools. He’s effective, but awfully old-fashioned. Dead Pigeon starts in a fairly realistic mode and quickly becomes a comic-book fantasy, without fantastic visuals or themes.
Does Dead Pigeon pack Sam Fuller’s trademarked ‘cinema fist’ excitement punch? Well, a little. No scene can compare with the alarmingly good set pieces that dot most of Fuller’s earlier work, and no instantly memorable visual compositions stick out (such as the literal close-up of a fist in Underworld U.S.A.). A scene that comes close is when Charlie Umlaut takes time out from his escape from the hospital prison bed, to enjoy looking at the newborn babies in the maternity ward. The gunfight that breaks out doesn’t exploit the location well, and Umlaut’s apparent love of babies doesn’t figure into any subsequent scene. A more personal scene is a gunfight in the Beethoven Museum, which passes by the composer’s piano. A strong memory from Sam Fuller’s autobiography A Third Face is a night in Bonn in 1945, in which the young infantryman Fuller took cover for the night in a museum, and discovered that he was sleeping under the famous musical instrument.
The production doesn’t attempt a fine polish, and a few of the rough edges are too rough. To fool Christa, Sandy alters a photo by pasting another man’s face over his own. That first example is passable, but later faked shots of Anthony Chinn and Alex D’Arcy crudely inserted into photos with political celebrities simply look terrible, incompetent. Fuller’s few attempts to inject ‘New Wave-ish’ ruptures in his conventional shot assemblies also seem pasted-in. Jean-Luc Godard admired Fuller’s earlier willingness to dispense with continuity niceties, and cut directly to the core image. But when Fuller tries to be European, the result is an odd shot of a close-up ‘shattering,’ with the pieces flying away, as if animator Norman McLaren had committed a drive-by.
Also seemingly inspired by Godard are bits of scenes from other movies. A clip from Hawks’ Rio Bravo dubbed into German is just weird, especially because the source is a print faded to brown. The other clip makes a bit more sense. It’s a piece of Godard’s sublime Alphaville in which Christa Lang plays a prostitute. it almost takes the place of a generic stock scene in which the tough detective asks the soulful hooker about her past. Ultimately, the most hip thing in Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street is its title. Fuller picked a title that’s cool in both languages — the English ‘Dead Pigeon’ has a hardboiled twang, while the German ‘Tote taube’ has an alliterative snap. Sehr gut.
Sam Fuller’s German television thriller experiment is a fun experience for sold Fuller fans — I’m one — but will be a hard sell to those not familiar with the, to put it mildly, highly individualistic writer-director. Few of his later film projects made to the screen, but he did get to do two films of personal importance, The Big Red One and White Dog. The first had been his dream project for decades. The other is a return to Sam Fuller’s hard-hitting, topical social outrage filmmaking style, with the good old ‘cinema fist’ strongly in evidence.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street is a clean restored encoding of a movie that’s been around in ragged versions for quite awhile. It’s so well transferred that even the haphazard art direction looks better. Since this is the TV version it’s been formatted for flat 1:33. I’d say that most of the shots look as though a widescreen matte to 1:66 would look just fine. I might try watching it that way next time — when it isn’t so important to see English subs.
Adding immensely to the attraction of Olive’s disc is a feature length making-of documentary. It interviews most of the principals, including actress Christa Lang-Fuller, Wim Wenders and the young writers and producers for German TV. Text essays by Lisa Dombrowski and Samuel B. Prime examine the film as well. Fuller completists will want this. I confess to being one — I even made a point of seeing Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made and Samuel Fuller’s Street of No Return.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – minus
Audio: English and German
Supplements: Long making-of documentary, two text essays, Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 23, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson