DVD: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street / Tatort: Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße (1973)

August 9, 2017 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Olive Films

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  April 19, 2016

Genre:  TV / Crime / Neo-Noir

Synopsis: An American detective investigates the murder of his partner in West Germany, both of whom were attempting to infiltrate an elaborate blackmailing scheme by a secretive organization.

Special Features:  Disc 1: Theatrical Trailer / Disc 2: 2015 Documentary “Return to Beethoven Street: Sam Fuller in Germany”(110 mins.) + Essays by Lisa Dombrowski (11:01) and Samuel B. Prime (5:01).




The events that led to Sam Fuller making an episode of the still running German TV series Tatort (‘Scene of the Crime’) is almost as intriguing as the film itself, which exists in 3 distinct versions.

Around 1970, German director Hans-Christoph Blumenberg had flown to Hollywood with a camera crew to interview Howard Hawks and John Ford, but lacking the right contacts, Fuller interceded, enabling Blumenberg to get the material for the series which ran on TV that year. Grateful for the help and aware of Fuller’s inactivity after the debacle of Shark (1969), he offered him an opportunity to direct an episode of Tatort, a unique series that debuted that same year and over the decades gave numerous young filmmakers their first chance, including Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Poseidon).

Although Fuller spoke no German, the prospect of a crime show intrigued him, and his pitch of a spoofy version of the hardboiled detective thriller was given the green light by series producer Joachim von Mengershausen, who soon realized Fuller wasn’t going to make a standard feature-length episode.

The teleplay ended up being filmed in West Germany’s then capital Bonn and parts of Essen, the hometown of wife and co-star Christa Lang. The location-heavy cinematography was handled by Roman Polanksi’s ace Jerzy Lipman (Knife in the Water), and the music score was composed by pioneering krautrockers The Can. Fuller had previously filmed Verboten! (1959) in Germany and was stationed in Bonn during the waning years of WWII, making the teleplay a unique opportunity to craft a story in a country that rebuilt itself with rapid success; when he wasn’t filming & editing, Fuller was regaling the cast & crew with his wartime tales.

When Pigeon was broadcast on German TV, it ran around 97 mins., and a shorter cut 87 min. version was released to international cinemas, but Fuller’s preferred 123 min. cut existed on a print he took back to his home in Hollywood, where it remained mothballed for decades until a chance retrospective of his work led to the print’s rediscovery and later restoration.

Olive’s DVD & Blu-ray sets only contain the longer version, and as per Fuller’s design, none of the German dialogue is subtitled (although the English dialogue that makes up 90% o the script was subtitled for the German TV broadcast). With the film’s return to active distribution, the question is whether this rarely seen work is a mini masterpiece maligned by critics during its broadcast and theatrical release, or a disaster that did more than baffle German TV audiences; the answer lies sort of in between, being neither, but not very good, either.

Revisionists will champion the film for Fuller’s active rule-breaking, his odd sense of humour (he always wanted to do a comedy), heightened absurd moments, and Fuller’s innately and inimitable weird tone, but even pal Wim Wenders (who later cast Fuller in The American Friend) admits the film doesn’t make much sense.

The plot feels like an extrapolation of Foreign Intrigue (1955), in which a lawyer becomes a detective and discovers an elaborate blackmail scheme that kept his deceased boss exceptionally wealthy for years.

Fuller’s idea has fish-out-of water American gumshoe Sandy (Glenn Corbett, reuniting with Fuller after co-starring in 1959’s The Crimson Kimono) investigating the sudden murder of his partner, both of whom were sent to Germany by a U.S. Senator (voiced by Fuller) to track down the negatives being used by a clever organization to blackmail diplomats. Instead of Nazi secrets, the bait is compromising photographs of drugged diplomats and politicians with tawdry women; if demands for $100,000 aren’t paid, the pictures are publicly released to embarrass the men, their families, and their respective countries.

The entire scheme is managed by a fencing school instructor named Mensur (Anton Diffring), who checks in with ‘operatives’ and their progress in honing in and executing plans for specific targets. Among Mensur’s best is Christa (Christa Lang), a cold creature whose past gigs as an actress enable her to assume various types to attract targets and ensure her partner will take premium shots in the bedroom.

American Sandy is initially paired with German customs officer Kressin (Sieghardt Rupp), but the recurring Tatort character is pretty much gone from the film after he’s injured in a shootout with the killer of Sandy’s partner. Fuller gives Kressin a few scenes before dumping him outright, ending the weird German-English exchanges between the two characters, and having the narrative exclusively follow Sandy as he gets closer to Mensur. The mystery also takes a slight backseat as Sandy develops feelings for Christa – a woman whom Lang describes as ‘fully lost,’ unsure of her real identity and feelings. She’s an archetypal femme fatale; Sandy’s the decent-hearted detective; and Mensur the sadistic criminal orchestrator who must die horribly to atone for all that immoral behaviour and smarmy glee.

On the one hand, Pigeon is fascinating for glimpses of Germany and cities along the Rhine (the misty mountains in Bonn and a Krupp train factory are highlights), but it’s also a grim looking film, with overcast skies, sludgy rain, and grunge – a look not atypical for revisionist genre entries, such as Mike Hodges’ crime-drama Get Carter (1971), which was similarly situated in industrial locales and steeped in nihilism. The problem with Fuller’s film resides in the loose, mediocre dialogue, a brutal 2 hour running time with a lot of little scenes and little moments that just aren’t very interesting or relevant, and a cast whose performances are hampered by their English dialogue, or just aren’t very good, as is the case of several minor characters. (Blumenberg appears in a thinly written role of Sandy’s sudden new partner, and he’s terrible.)

Lang’s performance style is also very odd, and the disaffecting character may be due to a combination of flaws which render her as snooty, cold, and disingenuous. It may in fact be rooted in giving the femme fatale too much dialogue, robbing the archetype of necessary mystique. The implausible blackmail scheme also becomes increasingly ridiculous because Christa and new partner Sandy pull off each job with such ease, fattening up Mensur’s organization quite generously. Fuller’s cyclical fixation on the thrill of luring, doping, and ensnaring diplomatic targets negates any explanation of the organization’s inner machinations.

A scene with Claude Chabrol’s muse Stephane Audra (Le Boucher) in a notorious real-life sex shop is played for dry laughs (music is performed by a topless frauleine in leiderhosen), but the scene and the pair’s next target just add to the film’s length, although the payoff is a rare failure for the duo, causing both to sip drinks and confess their love in a scene that should’ve come earlier.

Action scenes are sometimes clumsy and crudely edited, such as the final duel between Sandy and Mensur that probably read great on paper – fist-fighter Sandy hurls everything in the room at fencing master Mensur to stay alive – but is so badly shot and edited, it’s a complete mess. Why Sandy doesn’t just leave the room is a mystery, because the door neither auto-locks nor is clamped shut by Mensur, and when Sandy exits after the kill, it’s clearly unlocked.

Also strange is how Fuller avoids showing any gory details: when Sandy attacks his partner’s killer, the pavement slams are obstructed but also covered from an angle that makes the pivotal revenge look fake; and although it’s pretty definite Sandy cleaves Mensur in a powerful death blow, the coverage and face-saving edits are incoherent.

Fans would argue the action set pieces reflect the French New Wave style to which Fuller was paying homage – and a chunk of that logic is true – but bad cutting is bad cutting, and Pigeon varies from sometimes brilliant and playful interjections of material to glaring continuity gaffes and bad footage. According to Lang, Fuller dusted off his D-Day 16mm Bell & Howell camera and shot loose second unit footage at a train station and later carnival sequence, but the blown-up footage is filled with fixed gashes in all frames and an overall washed out look. The director similarly played with film grain and applied weird angles in Kimono, but the qualitative shifts in Pigeon are very jarring.

Like Kimono, the film’s finale involves a street parade and mass of crowds, and it’s here where Sandy finally gets to tackle his partner’s killer, the cheekily named Charlie Umlaut (Eric. P. Caspar), who dons a court jester’s costume and painted face, and screams to passersby (and into the camera) ‘I am Charlie Umlaut!’ and other nonsense. It’s either playful teasing with audiences won over by Fuller’s little spoof, or annoying.

The Can’s prog-rock score is good but often too sparsely applied, and sometimes looped to extend rhythmic tracks that drone and add to the meandering nature of scenes. Most of the material seems derived from the group’s 1972 album Ege Bamyasi and the song “Vitamin C”.

Reportedly written off as a dud by most critics, there is great significance within Pigeon as a prime example of Fuller’s rule-breaking habits that led him to become a maverick, an independent writer-producer-director, and seek work as writer and occasional director in Europe. The ballsy choice of locations, some genuinely inventive editing, and brash characters in Kimono are echoed in Pigeon, but his editing style is even more jarring.

Being an uneven film, sometimes the editorial jousting with audiences pays off beautifully: instead of sticking to shots of the actors, Fuller cuts to historic etchings of the train station that’s being discussed; and when Sandy gains the upper hand in the duel with Mensur, his sudden dominance is punctuated by a rapid repetition of similar shots. The script was reportedly written fast, then improvised in spots during filming, and production and post-production were tied to a tight schedule – challenges to which Fuller was game to conquer – but somewhere within those successes the latent flaws seeped out; the film is a tough slog at 2 hours, and more than likely the shorter edits made scenes more jarring, if not incoherent.

Olive’s added the film’s original awful, awful spoiler-laden theatrical trailer that does nothing to sell Fuller’s steamy film, but a shorter variant also exists (see end of review). An excellent feature length documentary covers every aspect of its genesis, production, release to the masses, rediscovery, and restoration. Robert Fischer’s Return to Beethoven Street: Sam Fuller in Germany (2015) is more fascinating than the film because it perfectly contextualizes it within the director’s canon and life with Lang. Fischer also uses Fuller as an example of the many veteran talents ignored by 70s Hollywood, and their struggles to just make a movie.

Fuller did end up more lucky than Nicholas Ray (Don’t Expect Too Much), perhaps because the cigar chomping eccentric retained his journalist’s regimen and wrote everyday, and moved to the next project when a script didn’t sell nor a deal fell through. It’s an ethic that kept his mind sharp, and when given the chance to direct, often yielded a unique work that sometimes too years to emerge in its intended form. Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980) was recut by UA but restored in 2005, and the deeply flawed but fascinating White Dog (1982) took decades before it emerged in a proper home video release after being locked up in “film jail.”

Among the familiar faces in Fischer’s doc are actress / widow Lang, daughter Samantha Fuller (who directed the 2013 documentary A Fuller Life), Wim Wenders, actors Caspar and Blumenberg (who would himself direct several episodes of Tatort), producer Rohrbach, and film historians Janet Bergstrom and Bill Krohn. (Fischer’s massively prolific career is packed with documentary and interview featurettes, including the classic Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock, portions of which appeared in Kent Jones’ 2015 film Hitchcock/Truffaut.)

Both feature film and feature doc go hand-in-hand and illuminate Fuller’s European-late American years, which also include acting in Wenders’ The American Friend (1977) and the Hammett (1982).



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  — The Can Wiki
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk





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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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