DVD Review: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street

DeadDVDSTUDIO: Olive Films | DIRECTOR: Samuel Fuller | CAST: Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang, Sieghardt Rupp, Anton Diffring, Stephane Audran
RELEASE DATE: 4/19/16 | PRICE: DVD $11.99, Blu-ray $13.99
BONUSES: documentary “Return to Beethoven Street,” two essays
SPECS: PG | 127 min. | Crime | 1.33:1 | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video | Overall

The term “delirious” hardly begins to cover it. Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street is a 1972 hardboiled detective saga with double- and triple-crosses. It’s also a film that stresses the fact that its hero can’t speak the language of the country he’s in (Germany). There are gaps in communication, gaps in logic, and gaps in the action that are all overshadowed by kinetic camerawork, jarringly composed shots, and editing that re-situates the viewer on a second by second basis.

For this is a film by the legendary Sam Fuller (The Naked KissShock Corridor) — one that hasn’t been released on either DVD or VHS until now. Fuller was the colorful Hollywood maverick who served as an inspiration to both the French New Wave and the New German Cinema, and who always operated on his own wavelength.

It is stressed in the impressive documentary included in this two-disc package that he approached Dead Pigeon as a send-up of noir crime pictures (several of which he had made years before), but the intensity of his style was such that his intentions don’t matter. Like Welles (Citizen Kane) and Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly), Fuller’s innovative visuals and bravura set-pieces dwarfed his storylines and characterizations.

If one does require a plot, Dead Pigeon has one, although Fuller does his best to undermine it by throwing in tangential elements that one remembers far longer than the details of the storyline. To summarize: private eye Sandy (Glenn Corbett) searches for the murderer of his partner (Maltese Falcon, anyone?). He discovers that a blackmail ring selling fabricated, salacious photos of politicians is connected to the killing, so he infiltrates the ring and becomes the partner to femme fatale Christa (Christa Lang, Fuller’s wife).

Having dispensed with that, let’s move back to the element that dominates the film — namely Fuller’s feverish visuals. The version of the film seen here is his director’s cut, which is a bit long for a detective picture but worth the time because of the all the unique elements that Fuller introduces.

DeadPigeonThe first of these is the opening credit sequence in which the actors and crew are seen in carnival outfits. Other directors might have placed this light touch at the end of a film (think of the “circus”-themed finale of Altman’s Brewster McCloud). Fuller was unafraid, though, to strike a discordant note right off the bat.

Other bizarre elements include bilingual conversations (in German and English) that are simple enough for viewers who speak only one language to understand. Fuller also punctuates scenes with non-diegetic (read: “external”) imagery: historical images and photos when a character speaks of the past; Fuller’s own home movies of places mentioned in the dialogue; and, most jarring of all, a sequence from Godard’s Alphaville that appears when Christa talks about her acting career (Lang was indeed a supporting player in Godard’s classic sci-fi noir).

If those odd elements aren’t enough, Fuller set some sequences in very odd locations — the best being a gathering of businessmen holding a meeting in a porn shop, while a topless woman in lederhosen plays the accordion in the background (!). He also confounds genre expectations, as when one intended blackmail victim says he’d love to be blackmailed — a photo of him with a sexy woman would improve his image in the press.

The most strikingly effective device is the simplest: Fuller moves between kinetic shots of his characters walking down the street (shot from behind, using a camera hidden in a baby carriage) to overhead shots taken from a great distance, which show the characters dwarfed in a bleak urban landscape.

One gets the impression at these moments that Sam was particularly proud of these shots, as Dead Pigeon came at a time he had great difficulty getting a film made in America. To obtain shots like these must’ve invigorated Fuller, who previously worked on much larger budgets as a studio director at Fox.

This release contains two print essays and “Return to Beethoven Street,” a wonderfully comprehensive documentary on the film made by Robert Fischer (who made the excellent docu included in the recent release of Rivette’s Out 1). Speaking about Dead Pigeon are Christa Lang-Fuller, Samatha Fuller (Sam’s daughter), Wim Wenders (The American Friend), and producers, cast members and film historians.

One of the primary focuses of the documentary is how Fuller shot on location, tailoring certain sequences to the areas and landmarks in Bonn and Cologne that he was most impressed by. Also discussed is a missed opportunity: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) reportedly wanted to play a role in the picture (a crazed killer), but Fuller wound up using Eric Caspar, a young German actor. Caspar is entertainingly manic in the role, but one wishes Fuller had used RWF so we would have had the joy of seeing him interpret that very strange character (named, in a flourish typical of Fuller, “Charlie Umlaut”).

Also discussed at some length is the fact that the film began life as an episode of the popular German TV crime series Tatort. Fuller convinced the producer to finance a longer theatrical version of the show to be distributed internationally, but he still delivered a much shorter, TV-friendly version of the picture to air as part of the series. It was disliked by regular viewers of the show, since Sam had minimized the screen-time of the only Tatort character that appears in Dead Pigeon, and the Fuller visual style was too intense for the casual TV viewer.

This package does full justice to this thus far hard-to-find work by Fuller. One can only hope the same will be done for his other missing European productions, Tinikling (with Jennifer Beals) and Thieves After Dark.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”