Friday, May 20, 2011

The best crime film to involve Beethoven's birthplace...

d. Samuel Fuller
Starring Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang Fuller, Anton Diffring, Eric P Caspar & Stephane Audran

I had a chance to check this out thanks to a friend in UCLA's film archives graduate program who had it screened with Christa Fuller (the star and Fuller's wife) talking about it afterwards. This hard-to-find Fuller film was actually shot for German television in the 70s as a TV movie version of a German policier TV show. The effect is rather like finding out that von Trier directed an episode of Law and Order, with all the attendant weirdness.

Furthermore, Fuller, who had little familiarity with 70s West Germany, decided to that he'd throw the street-level "realism" of the TV series out the window and just have some fun.

To be fair, the people involved with this lark of a movie had great pedigrees. Jerzy Lipman, a Polish cinematographer who'd worked with Polanski on Knife in the Water, was Fuller's cinematographer, and art-rock band Can did the score.

The plot, about a call girl (Christa Lang Fuller) and a gang of extortionists taking incriminating photos of politicians and the American private eye (Glenn Corbett) who decides to take them down when they kill his partner, is fairly standard stuff.  But Fuller displays a great deal of wit in the execution.

There's a fair number of meta-film jokes that liven up the film, like a brief detour where Corbett's character follows Lang into a movie theatre showing a German-dubbed version of Rio Bravo, so we can luxuriate both in the awesomeness of that film and the strangeness of a German-speaking Dean Martin imitator. For that matter, Claude Chabrol's wife Stephane Audran pops up in a small role as a former extortionist named Dr. Bogdanovich. Lang's own appearance in Godard's Alphaville is even excerpted as evidence of her character's failed film career!

Beyond the in-jokes, Fuller plays around with the conventions of movies and the policier/noir genre. A shootout takes place in the nursery of a hospital's maternity ward, images of the gunfight intercut with images of sleeping babies, mocking any pretensions of realism the viewer might approach the film with. As one blackmail victim examines his photo, the expected ominous sound cue appears, but the next shot reveals that the sound cue is coming from a band in the same room as the character.

In some moments, the absurdity of Fuller's approach to the story circles around and becomes ominously threatening. As the streets of Cologne fill with Carnival celebrations in the film, the events of the film become seriocomic like an Elizabethan mystery play. Eric P Caspar, as a clown-suited henchman, runs through the streets, confetti covering his lips, muttering drugged-out nonsense as he closes in on Corbett and Lang, and everything resolves into eerie surrealism. Much like in Losey's Modesty Blaise, where Amsterdam's Carnival offers a site where the funny becomes dangerous, Fuller's film develops an unresolved tension from the impossibility of predicting which mode (comedy or thriller) it will end in. As a result, the ending, which brings us back to the beginning and the title, has the gut punch of a particularly well-told sick joke.
Knife in the Water: The Criterion CollectionDead Pigeon on Beethoven StreetA Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking (Applause Books)Eclipse Series 5: The First Films of Samuel Fuller - The Criterion Collection (The Baron of Arizona / I Shot Jesse James / The Steel Helmet)Modesty Blaise