Pigeon’s Birds of Prey

How refreshing that the 1970s proved that those old masters of the hard-boiled flicks hadn’t slowed down a bit.  That their extension of a genre they virtually defined – now christened “neo-noir” – was alive and well and splattering thugs, dames and pushovers all over that R-rated asphalt.  Indeed, even today, I still relish revisiting late works of Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), Robert Aldrich (Hustle), Phil Karlson (Framed), and now, thanks to Olive Films/Bavaria Atelier GmbH (in association with CHRISAM Films) the long-awaited return of Sam Fuller’s marvelous 1972 wink at his malevolent cinematic past, the deliriously crazed DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET.

It’s been years since Olive first taunted us Fullerites with news that this bizarre masterpiece was headed for American Blu-Ray (at least since 2010), but, noiristas can exhale – at last, it’s here, and well worth the wait.  Not only is Sam’s semi-spoof restored to the director’s intended 127-minute running time (longer than the version I originally saw), but there’s a fascinating feature-length documentary by Robert Fischer (Return to Beethoven Street:  Sam Fuller in Germany) that would be worth purchasing on its own.

DEAD PIGEON‘s narrative is about as funky as “out there” cinema can get; in fact, the plot is downright kooky.  An American detective in Germany has been paid to infiltrate a gang of blackmailers who use beautiful women to seduce politicians.  The sleuth is portrayed by Glenn Corbett), yet another of the director’s “Sandy”s. Sandy’s client is the favored U.S. candidate for president whose rightwing opponents are out to get the politico ‘cause he’s “a goddamn socialist.”  Uh-oh.

The gang is a sophisticated operation run by Mensur, a smooth, suave Mabuse-esque fencing master (the great Anton Diffring, acknowledged in the documentary to be the best thesp in the pic, which is saying a lot in a cast that also includes Sieghardt Rupp, Alexander D’Arcy and, in a breathtaking cameo, Stephane Audran).  Mensur’s style reflects Mabuse’s in so many ways, specifically his obsessive high-tech (for the 1970s) methods of tracking, stalking and invading his intended victim’s privacy (he also utilizes video conferencing via large flat screens in his posh office).  But there’s another Lang connection, a namesake one – his nummer eins girl and ultimate femme fatale, Christa Lang (Fuller’s real-life wife and the most dangerous delectable human strudel since Josef von Sternberg unleashed Marlene Dietrich’s X-27 in Dishonored; toss in Lola Lola and Shanghai Lily by way of the Manson family and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the trouble awaiting any dumb-ass male).

Christa, whose name in the movie is also Christa, is immediately dispatched to “meet cute” with Sandy, who is doing the same from his end.  Their finesse at treachery and penchant for violence at once ignites a spark of genuine attraction.  Of course, neither can trust each other, and each does have a job to do.  And so it goes.

The movie’s history, originally conceived as an episode for Tatort, a long-running German crime series (quite possibly the world’s longest running TV show, still broadcasting after nearly fifty years), is a textbook of filmmaking deception in and of itself.  Sam, as Fischer’s doc reveals, was unable to secure the kind of projects he wanted in the States, and began talks with the producers of the famed Deutsche Fernsehsendung.  Once agreed, Fuller relegated Kressin, the show’s lead character (Rupp), to a minor background supporting player, moved in Corbett and basically made a bogus installment of Tatort, but a 100% authentic Sam Fuller picture (the producers, interviewed by Fischer, laugh it off at how they were so seamlessly bamboozled, not knowing what to make of Sam’s English-language final cut).

The parallels between Diffring’s organization and  Rupp’s agency are striking, as are the tactics used by Christa and Sandy.  The latter even hires a sleazy sometimes pornographer (actor/director/film historian Hans C. Blumenberg) to help frame dupes by placing their heads on incriminating hooker action candids (in essence the 1972 version of Photoshop, another nod to technology, albeit not as refined as Diffring’s).  There’s a wonderful dual sequence of Christa/Corbett complaining about their plight with one another to Diffring/Rupp (essentially whining “bastard”/ “bitch” to their uninterested, but amused, superiors).

Of course, there are some trademark Fuller set pieces, including a chase and shootout in a maternity ward (featuring Diffring’s key assassin, a ruthless psychopath with comical moniker of Charlie Umlaut, played with panache by Eric P. Caspar).  This unorthodox gunplay is Sam’s idea of being wacky, culminating with Fuller paying homage to himself when Umlaut gets chin-bumped down a flight of stairs, a la Richard Kiley in Pickup on South Street.

The dialog, too, is often inspired – with Christa getting the best lines (to verbally accentuate her curves).  As Corbett attempts to be gentlemanly with the seductress, she suspiciously (and beautifully) delivers a killer bon mot response:  “The last time a man held a door open for me, we were going 60 miles per hour!”  When the pair finally succumbs to what Cole Porter famously pegged as the “urge to merge,” Corbett ponders if this is at last the real thing.  Christa heads him off at the pass:  “Everybody likes everybody when they kiss,” she snarkily replies.

DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET also answers an age-old movie question that has bothered me ever since I saw my first Bijou duel.  When someone loses their blade, why don’t they go hog wild and do a kitchen sink retaliation at their opponent?  Corbett gets to do just that in an epic fight with Diffring, with startling and satisfying results.

I first saw DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET at a special screening in 1973 at Fabiano Canosa’s legendary First Avenue Screening Room. Ric Menello and I couldn’t wait to get there and were appropriately dazzled by the results, even though the version we saw was around 100 minutes, nearly a half-hour shorter than the Olive Blu-Ray.  For more than forty years, two sequences remained embedded in my admittedly demented mind:  a scene where Corbett follows Christa into a cinema showing a revival of Hawks’ Rio Bravo (with the Duke joyously dubbed in German), and a mountaintop castle picnic between Christa and Corbett.  Proud to say that both these segments hold up AND are integral to the scenario.  In the movie theater episode, Corbett is so jubilantly enthralled by seeing Wayne that he almost loses sight of the reason he came (and nearly loses Christa, who ducks out).  In the second bit, the picnic/romantic date, Corbett clumsily attempts to woo Christa with some “sweet nothings” love talk; while many a man would talk of his would-be conquest’s soft skin, limpid peepers, tempting lips, Corbett instead offers how much he admires “the little circles under your eyes.”  Christa smashes his coy charm with a loud and happy “They’re BAGS!”  Shelley couldn’t have written it better (and I mean Shelley Winters).

The sumptuous locations of DEAD PIGEON, of course, are part of the movie’s plot (and include a climactic festival and, naturally, some action on the title’s mean strasse.  The lush photography by Jerzy Lipman (with some 16MM handheld inserts by Fuller) looks swell on this meticulously restored Blu-Ray.  The audio occasionally comes off as slightly muffled, but it’s in no way annoying or irritating enough to harm the enjoyment of this freewheeling excursion into movie lunacy (beginning with the daft credits, where cast and crew members appear in mostly clownish attire).

I spoke briefly with Christa Fuller over the phone, and she, as usual, served up some enticing ancillary tidbits about the pic.  “Jerzy Lipman, the d.p., was told in no uncertain terms by Roman Polanski [Lipman was the cinematographer on Polanski’s Knife in the Water] to ask no questions and to do whatever Sam Fuller says.”  When I inquired as to any personal memories of the shoot, she replied, “I remember it was so bitterly cold during the filming, but it was a totally pleasant experience.  Sam, you know, adored the New Wave, and DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET, I believe, was his affectionate wink to that movement and to the filmmakers.  By the way, I think I’m very funny in the film, don’t you?”  Hell, yeah, Christa!

As indicated, the documentary is quintessential viewing, offering not only a comprehensive look regarding DEAD PIGEON‘s pre-production, shooting, post-production fate and resurrection, but also serving as an authoritative visual guide on Sam Fuller and his overall career.  With clips, sidebar interviews (including Lang, Caspar, Blumenberg and Wim Wenders), on-location home movies, and even music by CAN (the rock band who composed DEAD PIGEON‘s original score) Return to Beethoven Street is an exhaustive, thoroughly entertaining and frequently rollicking ride with one of motion picture’s true mavericks (ideally complemented by Samantha Fuller’s superb feature-length work on her father, A Fuller Life, available at http://chrisamfilms.com/).  Simply put, Olive Films’ DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET is one of the best Blu-Rays of the year.

Oh, and as for Christa and Corbett, hey – it’s a Sam Fuller movie, fill in the blanks (except, Spoiler Alert, they rarely use blanks).

DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition].  2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/ Bavaria Atelier GmbH (in association with CHRISAM Films).  CAT # OF1189.  SRP:  $29.95.

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