Thursday, April 2, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Death of a Cyclist (1955)

Death of a Cyclist (1955)
Directed by: Juan Antonio Bardem.
Written by: Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis Fernando de Igoa.
Starring: Lucia Bosè (María José de Castro), Alberto Closas (Juan Fernández Soler), Bruna Corrà (Matilde Luque Carvajal), Carlos Casaravilla (Rafael Sandoval), Otello Toso (Miguel Castro), Alicia Romay (Carmina), Julia Delgado Caro (Doña Maria), Matilde Muñoz Sampedro (Vecina del ciclista), Mercedes Albert (Cristina).
Even if you don’t know about the political situation in Spain under Franco in 1955 – that led to director Juan Antonio Bardem to make Death of a Cyclist – a film that smuggles in a lot of ideas under the guise of a genre film – it still works. The film is part melodrama, part Hitchcock-ian thriller, part film noir, part neo-realist drama – all of it designed to lash out at the Franco regime, without ever once mentioning it directly, or criticizing it. These are elements that probably shouldn’t work so well together – at there are awkward moments to be sure in the film, and the criticism of Spain is so thinly veiled you cannot imagine how it got by the censors – and yet the film still does work.
The film opens with the title incident – a loner biker is riding along a seemingly empty road – before the offscreen crash. We then flash into the car that hit the cyclist – to the upper-class couple driving. Behind the wheel is Maria Jose de Castro (Lucia Bose) – the wife of a wealthy man, and in the passenger, seat is Juan (Alberto Cloasa) – her lover. They inspect the cyclist – he’s still alive, but Maria is worried about having their affair exposed – so they leave him to die, which he eventually does. Everything that follows is the fallout.
Director Juan Antonio Bardem was among the filmmakers who felt that Spanish cinema during the Franco regime had grown stale – had become disconnected from people and their problems, and aesthetically was boring and dull. He was a committed communist, and he certainly smuggled that viewpoint into Death of a Cyclist – a film in which most of the characters represent their various classes in total. Maria is upper class, privileged, monstrous in her way – uncaring of the people that she has hurt or killed – especially if it affects her. If she is the femme fatale of this noir, then Matilde (Bruna Corrà) – is the opposite – the good girl, the victim. She is a student of Juan’s – he is an assistant professor at university – and he at first ignores her as she is giving her presentation – and then is cruel to her, eventually resulting in giving her a failing grade. She will emerge as almost too perfect – a symbol of the innocent being hurt be the unfeeling bourgeoise.
The one character this doesn’t apply to is Juan – who is clearly the most complex character in the film. He is upper class – but slumming it in a way. He only has the job he has because of his brother-in-law – that allows him into the upper-class parties, but he holds himself apart for them as well. He was with Maria before the war – but when he left to fight, she left him. The war changed him – but even he is aware that he is using it as an excuse. Bardem’s screenplay gives Juan a few too many monologues where he can explain everything, which makes the character feel a little bit like a pretentious intellectual – but it also fits his character somewhat – he is that.
As far as the visuals in the film, Bardem goes back and forth – something akin to Hitchcock when he is focused on the lovers and their various attempts to protect themselves – from a blackmail scheme, scenes where Bardem ratchets up the tension. This is great filmmaking as the noose slowly tightens around them. But you see the influence of the neorealists as well – the camera often pulls back, to take in a wider view – not just these two characters, and their sins, and whether they’ll get away with it (or even want to) – but how they relate to the larger picture.
I’m not sure the two ever quite mesh – or rather, I think Bardem does a remarkable job of meshing the two different visual styles, but think he pushes things too far with the screenplay. By essentially making every character a stand-in for their class, the movie becomes too didactic, and you wish that the film made its two major female characters even half as complex as it does Juan. Lucia Bosè delivers a terrific performance as Maria though – which helps salvage that character.
And then there is the ending, which Bardem found a way to make perfect even as the censors stepped in – insisting on a different ending that what Bardem had planned. He finds a way to give them precisely what they asked for – but convey the meaning he wanted. That is perhaps the movie as a whole – which has some flaws, but really did accomplish just what Bardem wanted.

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