Dire, inept spoof of private eye noir shenanigans. Olive Films has released on Blu-ray DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET, the 1972 “thriller” from cult director Samuel Fuller, produced by Joachim von Mengershausen for the German police procedural TV series, TATORT (released here theatrically in a handful of spots in 1975 by Emerson Film Enterprises), and starring Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang, Anton Diffring, Eric P. Caspar, Sieghart Rupp, William Ray, Anthony Chin, Hans Blumenberg, and Alex D’Arcy. Barely seen here in the States during a later, aborted run (and in a truncated form, no less), this Olive Blu is a recently restored “director’s cut” that unfortunately provides even more of Fuller’s wildly overpraised “fun entertainment.” Extras for this good-looking transfer include an exhaustive two hour documentary on the making of the TV episode/movie, along with a couple of short essays, and an original trailer.
American private dick Sandy (Glenn Corbett, TV’s STAR TREK, ROUTE 66) arrives in Bonn, Germany when his partner Johnson is killed. They had been working on a private blackmailing case; their client, an American senator with presidential aspirations, sent them to retrieve an incriminating negative showing the senator in a compromising position with blonde Christa (Christa Lang, ALPHAVILLE, WHITE DOG). Intending to interrogate the murderer, Sandy and German customs officer Kressin (Sieghardt Rupp, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, NURSES FOR SALE) arrive at the hospital to find the wounded gunman, Charlie Umlaut (Eric P. Caspar, TV’s ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR), escaping. Sandy gives chase, but he’s subdued by Charlie. A wounded Kressin gives Sandy a key piece of evidence: a coded postcard for a future meet with Charlie. Sandy goes to the location and drugs Christa, before he and an associate, photographer Fritz Spindel (Hans-Christoph Blumenberg), stage compromising photos of their own with a drugged Christa. When Fritz doctors the photo to make it look like Christa was with a famous politician, Sandy is ready to deceive her into thinking he’s in the same game as she is: political blackmail for hire. An unnerved Christa goes to her boss, blackmail ring mastermind Mensur (Anton Diffring, THE BLUE MAX, WHERE EAGLES DARE), with her story, and he “recruits” a kidnapped and beaten Sandy for his own operation. Now Sandy is inside the organization, ready to smash it apart for revenge against Johnson’s death. But love complicates his mission....
Before I slag off DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET, let me make it clear that I admire quite a few of Fuller’s earlier movies, including hard-hitting, violent Bs like THE STEEL HELMET, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (his best), HOUSE OF BAMBOO, RUN OF THE ARROW, THE CRIMSON KIMONO, SHOCK CORRIDOR, and THE NAKED KISS—all of them tough-minded entertainments done with style and an electric, perverse sense of personal taste behind their increasingly lurid facades. That being said... DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET is close to a disaster, both as a comedic “fun entertainment” as Fuller claimed he always wanted to make, and as a supposedly smart-assed, spoofy, faux-New Wave homage to the pulpy B thrillers that buttered a lot of Fuller’s past bread.
When this reviewer was in “film school” (yeech), it was practically verboten to say a negative thing about a Sam Fuller movie, such was the strength of his new-found cult status among so-called “cineastes” (when the suits pulled WHITE DOG, he was suddenly second in line to meet Pontius Pilate). Today, it looks like things may have loosened up a bit with the continuing tiny cracks of movie studies’ democratization (god do ivory tower film professors hate the internet and full-length DVD commentary tracks), as well as with the long overdue fading influence of the auteur theory. No longer is it necessary to state categorically that since a director like Sam Fuller helmed so many enjoyable, visceral, energetic potboilers, then it must follow that every movie he made must be a masterpiece awaiting rediscovery and rescue from those critical dolts and ignorant masses who ignored or maligned these gems in the first place. Of course the number one booster of such a view was probably the bombastic, playful Fuller himself. Always good for colorful copy—and an outrageous ham, to boot—Fuller was an admitted head games player with a sadistic streak, and I’ve always suspected the heartiest laughs he enjoyed in life were at the expense of the sycophantic critics who divined great oracle secrets from anything he turned out—good or bad. He freely admitted DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET wasn’t one of his more distinguished works...and then laughed openly at the French critics who took it for a comedic work of serious art.
One could debate if Fuller intentionally and continually put forth the myriad of aesthetic and thematic convolutions and revelations that long-haired critics find in his works, or if he had a typical peak as an artist and then just rode along with what was in those critics’ “connect the dots” ink blot test reviews and articles (my feeling is his downfall as a crude, ballsy, tabloid exploitation artist began the minute he got a phone call from Cahiers du Cinema). Either way, though, it makes no difference in determining DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET’s worth, or more correctly: the lack thereof. Regardless of DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET’s satirical intent, it doesn’t work as a simple, amusing entertainment, or as a daring, post-modern, avant-garde experience.
Looking at just the basic conventions of the private eye/spy-like spoof, you can initially hope that DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET is going to deliver some amusing moments, what with absolutely hopeless Glenn Corbett’s absolutely hopeless private eye Sandy playing macho and not realizing he’s getting nowhere in the investigation. One or two scenes come close to capturing earlier Fuller vulgarities, such as Corbett’s forced photo shoot with drugged Lang (the crappy lighting and bad framing make it look like PG-rated Euro-porn). And some of Fuller’s lines are, as expected, quite funny (Lang states, “The last time a man opened the door for me we were going 60mph,” before this parody of clichéd movie romanticism between Lang and Corbett: “Everybody likes everybody when they kiss.” “You’re not everybody.” “And you don’t kiss like everybody,”). However, the thriller angle itself is repetitive and remarkably tentative and awkward. There isn’t one action set piece here, save for the final saber sword showdown between Corbett and Diffring, that would pass muster on the most lackadaisical MANNIX episode (it’s the one good scene in the movie, where we really feel the threat of violence when fencing novice Corbett is woefully out of his depth with rapier-bearing Diffring. We feel how scary that might be when he’s repeatedly wounded...before the editing botches the fudged pay-off—what is that shot of Diffring, pinned to the wall? And what is Corbett whacking off with that battle-axe???). The “famed” hospital nursery shoot-out isn’t a shoot-out at all (if the joke is the babies don’t wake up...it’s not funny); it lasts about 30 seconds (why does everyone go on about the “chin on the stairs” bit—a pitifully bungled bit of sub-Three Stoogery); and the resulting car chase is laughably inexpert. The long, lengthy middle section of the movie has almost no internal drive; it’s just seemingly endless repetition of the same set-up (Corbett and Lang pulling their scams), with scenes going on far too long beyond any intended point of satire or unintentionally awkward exposition, and with desultory talk that isn’t ironic, or spoofy, or anything, while we wait and wait for the movie to kick back into gear.
And please don’t try and argue that’s Fuller’s whole point: New Wave smartness and deconstruction masquerading as ineptitude. That argument didn’t hold water when Peter Bogdanovich could still hold his water. In behind-the-scenes footage of Fuller discussing the movie’s shoot (included on this disc’s documentary), he admits he didn’t get the action footage he wanted for the chase, blithely saying he’ll just fix it in the editing (an increasing, compromising fact with too-fast-shooting Fuller’s later efforts, whether through budgetary considerations or just plain laziness). And yet the critics beam that he did it all deliberately in the name of movie rules-smashing (even funnier are the critics who stolidly state that since Fuller was an expert action director 25-years prior to DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET, he still must be one here...and instead just chose not to be one in service of a gag or a theory—which discounts the harsh fact that even the best directors like Ford and Hawks and Hitchcock could and did increasingly falter, against their own wishes, as their careers dragged on).
If DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET is meant as an intellectual goof, frankly, it’s not all that unique or thought-provoking. Or even interesting (is it really all that hilarious or groundbreaking to see his cast nudging the fourth wall by wearing carnival costumes in the opening credits? 40 years before, Groucho Marx was a hell of a lot more direct, often breaking scene and telling us right to our faces that we were watching a terrible goof of a movie). Fuller’s crappy production values, sloppy construction, and straight-up gawd awful direction of his performers (notice how everyone starts hammily exclaiming like real-life Fuller?), for some tortured, intellectualized reason, are like truffles to critical swine. It’s mental jerking off and philosophical parlor games that admittedly can be fun, but which, more often than not, fools no one (and any so-called “rebel” like Fuller who plays it up big for interviewers, angrily thumbing his nose at the powers that be—while cashing checks that would pole-axe any real nonconformist—automatically gets heaps of servile hosannas). Cringe-worthy scenes here like Corbett’s banter with a hotel clerk over his missing room key, or the Beethoven birthplace museum piece where Christa natters on interminably, or Stephane Audran’s wholly inexplicable dance with Christa, or Christa’s so-called charming seduction of the three doltish diplomats—scenes that if they were featured in some anonymous hack’s work would be mercilessly derided—are instead argued as Sam’s playful breakings of establishment cinema’s rules (how in the world can anyone argue that Lang’s truly terrible performance here is deliberate? You can have a great actor give a great performance playing someone who’s a bad actor, such as Olivier in THE ENTERTAINER, but Lang’s attempt at satirical overplaying, guided by her director husband, is ludicrous). If they’re “in games” in DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET, they’re tired ones, and they don’t work on their own, being too broad, too “cute,” and too corny, going right past satire and coming full circle to amateurish and embarrassing. The average, casual viewer doesn’t have to know a thing about the games Robert Altman is playing with noir conventions in his masterpiece, THE LONG GOODBYE, to enjoy the movie “straight.” That’s how a real piece of art is supposed to work: engaging one on any level in which it’s met.
The full-frame, 1.33:1 (uploaded to an anamorphic platform) AVC encoded 1080p HD transfer for DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET, which now runs 127 minutes in this “director’s cut,” shows every crappy composition and rushed set dressing to its best/poor advantage. Fine image detail is not bad, and grain structure pretty tight (except for some obvious inserts of alternate source material shots). Color is washed out and muddy (Germany looks dismal and gray and wet here), contrast well-balanced and blacks reasonable, while screen anomalies like dirt and scratches are present, but not obtrusive. The DTS-HD 2.0 split mono English/German audio track is pretty clean, with hard-to-hear dialogue coming from Fuller’s hand, not Olive Films. English subtitles are included (but the German dialogue, as originally intended by Fuller, is not translated). Extras include "Return to Beethoven Street: Sam Fuller in Germany", running 1:50:07, a meticulous, far-reaching look at the movie’s inception as a random job offer from German TV producer Joachim von Mengershausen (after film critic Hans Blumenberg set up the meet for out-of-work Fuller), and its complicated production and muted reception. Interviewees include Christa Lang, Eric P. Caspar, Hans Blumenberg, executive producer Gunter Rohrbach (you can still tell he doesn’t like what Fuller pulled with his TV show), director Wim Wenders (who unwittingly gives some insight into why the editing is so choppy here: Fuller was giving interviews in the editing bay, playing the “big director,” while screaming instructions at his editor), and “film historians” Janet Bergstrom and Bill Krohn (parlor games). A pretty thorough look at the movie, and probably a must-have for Fuller fanatics. Also included on-screen are the two essays from Lisa Dombrowski and Samuel B. Prime that are printed on an enclosed 8-page booklet (they mean well), as well as an original trailer. (Paul Mavis)
BACK TO REVIEWS