Death of a Cyclist: Criterion Review
The cyclist in question crosses the screen as the main title comes up, in long-shot, from behind and in semi-darkness. That’s all we see of him. Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria José (Lucia Bosé) are carrying on an adulterous affair. Driving one night they hit the cyclist. Fearful that their relationship will be found out, they leave the cyclist’s body on the road and drive on. But were they unobserved?
Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista), directed by J.A. Bardem (Juan Antonio, but he’s billed by his initials) is a classic of world cinema likely to be more heard about than seen – at least from an English-speaking perspective. You’ll find it discussed in cinema books, especially those written by critics who were around in the Fifties and early Sixties, a likely golden age for foreign cinema. Those were books that I read when I was learning about cinema, in my teens in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and I suspect some of the people at Criterion did as well. But chances to see them? In those days, before homevideo (which arrived in my home in 1984), you had to rely on TV showings, staying up late if you needed to. And although BBC2 in particular showed seasons of foreign films, they were mostly recent ones – anything older (worse still, in black and white) had an occasional outing if someone involved in them had died. Death of a Cyclist is a good example. It made an impact on its cinema release – the BBFC records its certification in 1956, uncut for an A certificate – but eventually repertory prints wore out and rights elapsed, and the film would have gone out of circulation. And the most recent TV showing the BFI database lists was in (wait for it) July 1965. So I can honestly say this Criterion DVD is probably my first chance even to see this film.
Death of a Cyclist is on the surface a suspense thriller in the mode of Hitchcock, who is explicitly referenced, and film noir. Guilt and blackmail drive the plot. Yet below the surface there is something more, something that no doubt was clearer to contemporary audiences than it might be now, especially to non-Spaniards. Bardem draws most obviously on the Hollywood melodrama, in its plot reversals and glossy close-ups of its stars. But he also draws on neo-realism, the movement that had flourished in Italy in the previous decade: note the scenes where our guilty lovers visit the slum where the dead cyclist lived. There are references to the Civil War, and the death of the cyclist (near a major Civil War battlefield) is meant to be taken as a metaphor for the slaughter of the working classes in that conflict. The film’s political overtones are more overt in a subplot where Juan, a maths teacher, is confronted by Matilde (Bruna Corrà), a student unhappy at the grade she has been given. This episode leads to student protest. Juan has to accept his injustices towards workers (the cyclist) and towards students (Matilde), both key demographics where revolutionaries are found. The ending has a sting in the tail – and that’s without a further scene demanded by the censors whose principle that the guilty should always be punished were not dissimilar to those of the Hays Office in the USA.
Juan Antonio Bardem came from an acting family: his sister, Pilar Bardem, is the mother of Javier Bardem. He was a forthright critic of Spanish cinema of the period, declaring it in 1955 as “politically ineffective, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically nonexistent, industrially crippled”. He was a leader of a movement to form a new cinema relevant to the times – and specifically to criticise Franco’s regime. His direction is often striking – note the use of deep focus when Matilde confronts Juan. While Death of a Cyclist is his best-known film and an object example of how today’s classic can slip into obscurity, not least for lack of availability. But it’s not his only film, and this Criterion DVD does make you want to seek out more of his work.
Death of a Cyclist is number 427 in the Criterion Collection, comprising one dual-layered disc encoded for Region 1 only.
Although widescreen had arrived in the USA by 1955, it took longer to catch hold in Europe and Death of a Cyclist was made in black and white and Academy Ratio. As often with Criterion and their 4:3 titles, this DVD transfer is “windowboxed” (black bars on all four sides) to guard against your TV set overscanning. The result, derived from a 35mm dupe negative,.is very good, sharp when it needs to be and with a full range of blacks, whites and greys. This is an often darkly-lit film though. The mono soundtrack is clear and well-balanced.
This is a Criterion relatively light on extras. That’s a pity, as a well-informed commentary would be useful in unpicking the film’s political overtones, especially those less obvious to non-Spaniards. Marsha Kinder’s essay in the booklet does address this, though. However, on the disc we do get “Calle Bardem” (44:02), a documentary on the director made by Alberto Leal. This is made up entirely of interviews with friends and collaborators of Bardem, critics and historians and is a dense piece. It’s maybe too dense for one viewing, as although it is is broken up into sections (and chapters on the DVD), it is three-quarters of an hour of unrelieved talking heads with no film extracts or anything else.
The booklet provided with this DVD contains a fine essay, “Creating a Modern Spanish Cinema” by Marsha Kinder. This does a fine job of explicating the film’s political resonances as well as analysing the ways it draws on the style of the classical Hollywood suspense thriller. Also in the booklet is “Report on the Current State of Spanish Cinema”, Bardem’s call to arms at the 1955 Salamanca Congress, which I’ve quoted above.
Death of a Cyclist is a textbook classic, but one that you may have struggled to see at all. (It does not appear to be available on disc even in Spain.) So this is the kind of film that Criterion should be releasing, and I’m glad they have. It’s not their most heavily-laden DVD, and a commentary might have been worthwhile, but what’s here is enough.