by Ernest Larsen
Cut, no. 9, 1975, p. 8
Sam Fuller’s most recent film, DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET, nominally a detective film, has not been very widely released, but wherever it surfaces, it’s worth taking pains to see it. Two of the most recent detective films, CHINATOWN and THE LONG GOODBYE, conceal within a more-or-less politicized plotline an attitude toward contemporary society which it might be appealing to call nihilistic (if one were to recall the Russian rather than the Latin roots of this word). But to be accurate, it must be described as passively despairing. To the contrary, DEAD PIGEON is truly destructive. By that I mean it takes an aggressive not reflective stance toward the organization of society. With extraordinary energy and some naiveté, Fuller sees all forms of social control as paper tigers. To that extent, DEAD PIGEON is liberating, even if it is still held in bondage to an ideology which in its full-blown form is not, as with the scenarists and directors of the other two films, fashionably liberal, but fascistic.
Fuller, as a devotee of Hobbesian dog-eat-dog-ism, is repellent, an example of all that is most decidedly macho in Western culture. But Fuller as passionate anarchist, as destroyer of all the cozy taboos of U.S. society (see THE NAKED KISS, SHOCK CORRIDOR, and UNDERWORLD U.S.A.) exists almost alone among Hollywood directors with a perception of the direct line that runs from the personal to the social. (It must be remembered, for example, that Fuller gave Bogdanovich the idea for TARGETS.) In accordance with this deep contradiction, DEAD PIGEON is as schizophrenic as U.S. society itself. But the movie is a relief because it treats its subject, a worldwide political blackmailing scheme being investigated in Europe by an U.S. detective, as ferociously ludicrous. It takes real perversity to stage a gunfight, as Fuller does, over the heads of sweet innocent babies, with bullets flying in a maternity ward.
Unlike the heroes of CHINATOWN and THE LONG GOODBYE who merely sport the veneer of cynicism, DEAD PIGEON’s detective hero, played by Gary Lockwood with offensive stolidity, is almost without moral stature. He forfeits our sympathy early on by drugging and entrapping with a phony sex photo a female member of the blackmailing ring. He soon makes his way into the gang as an expert blackmailer. Shades of morality classically maintained in all detective films (and novels) between the detective and bad guys are here smudged beyond recognition. In the plot development, we see one diplomat after another entrapped by Lockwood and the female gang member—while they gradually fall in love, as if they were living in an idyll. True to Fuller’s mangled classicism, Lockwood eventually kills her and the movie ends where it began on Beethoven St., apparently the last ditch of the European graveyard.
Fuller’s conscious manipulation of bourgeois representational techniques constitutes a critique of those techniques—both in content and in form. For example, at the end of the film, the hero confronts the ringleader who happens to be a fencing master in his office, the walls of which are lined with foils and swords. The spectator of the bourgeois entertainment has a right to expect chills and spills. Furthermore, anyone who’s seen a Fuller film knows that he’s better at staging action sequences than almost any Hollywood director. But Fuller denies his audience the romantic or sadomasochistic pleasure of the fight. Instead the two men engage in a grueling duel which soon veers off into the bizarre as the detective hurls one sword after another at the ringleader without killing him. Nearly bereft of psychological realism, this scene instead explores another reality: a reality in which fear and death are not theatrical conventions to be exploited for our edification.
Another example. Fuller sets up a series of equivalencies in which, first, the hero is made to engage in precisely the same corrupt activity as the blackmailers, the sex-photo scheme. Then, the politicians who are the blackmail victims all in one way or another acquiesce to the supposed immorality of the scheme. (With typical Fullerian nasty proto-anarchism, the politicians include an U.S. Senator who just happens to resemble Ted Kennedy, an African diplomat who wishes to uphold his dignity, a Communist Chinese diplomat who is entranced by Western hardware, and a French diplomat who is delighted by the blackmail with the expectation that it should enhance his image.) The cartoon treatment of these equivalencies reveals a similar set of equivalencies of the level of ideas between sex, politics, and money. The characters are not recognizable as people but as mediums of exchange, and they attain the status of commodities in Fuller’s use of rapid plotting.
Uniting these equivalencies is the consistent implicit and explicit prominence of voyeurism as an aspect of the behavior of all the characters, whether blackmailed or blackmailer. What has really been detailed in this tawdry, inconsistent and unbelievable plot (values unacceptable in good bourgeois art) is the mechanism of passivity in which all are implicated by the camera, both the blackmail camera and Fuller’s camera. The repetition of the blackmail allows that mechanism to be detailed since the act in question throughout, the act of sex, is never performed.
One sequence has the hero watching Hawks’ RIO BRAVO dubbed in German in a German theater—meanwhile we, the U.S. audience, are watching an U.S. film made in Germany. Even aside from the ironies of cultural dissolution, the ironies of this simple—even simpleminded—comic situation are enormous. Fuller, with his unerringly insane insight, is perfecting a critique. He reveals that as passive participants in the spectacle we could eventually be led to watching ourselves watch ourselves, a deadly reconciliation of total isolation with total social integration. The limiting factor of this critique is his extreme individualism in which all human combinations are seen as forms of blackmail.
Fuller is usually designated by auteurists as visually potent but intellectually under-equipped. His ideas are in fact very simple, as with all ideologues. But as I have hoped to demonstrate relations between those ideas are far from simple; not far, in fact, from situationist theory. The test of consciousness is coherence, either articulated or in action. Fuller does have a trashy mind, but any less resourceful director would have been impressed enough by the resources of the bourgeois art product to learn to make a wholly convincing work of art. Instead his films increasingly suggest that they are only films and don't attempt to live up to the Hollywood standard—either the acting is bad or the dialogue is cliché-ridden or both. In DEAD PIGEON, Fuller’s wife, Christa Lang, plays her semi-conventional prostitute’s role with exquisite self-mockery. It’s the kind which intimates too much respect for the nuances of daily (real) life to allow the audience to be taken in by mere acting. As an example of Fuller’s playful approach to the demands of convention, when Lockwood asks Lang why she became a prostitute and blackmailer, Fuller doesn't bother to supply heavy motivation or even believable motivation. Instead Lang says, “I always wanted to act.” Similarly, when as bourgeois plot-convention demands, the detective and the bad girl must (appear to) fall in love, the scene as Fuller allows it to happen is patently ludicrous. The pair can barely pretend interest in each other, let alone commit that Hollywood exercise in treachery.
In this film, perhaps with less intensity, but with as much specificity as in several earlier films, Fuller is able to provide a denunciation of the mechanics of illusion that blackmail the spectator into accepting the exciting or merely pleasant nonsense that flickers across the flat surface of the screen.