My review of Juan Antonio Bardem’s 1955 Death of a Cyclist, the noir-ish crime thriller with a jab of social satire recently released on DVD by Criterion, is running on the Turner Classic Movies site:
Death of a Cyclist was Bardem’s breakthrough film both in Spain and abroad, rousing audiences at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival where it was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize. And while the bleak thriller of adultery and blackmail was reportedly affected by state censorship under Franco’s oppressive shadow, the portrait of the rich and the ruling elite of Spain seen through Bardem’s lens is shallow and sour at best, and thoroughly corrupt at worst. The stunning Lucia Bosé, with her high cheekbones and polished skin, looks like a woman carved out of marble and holding on to the appearance of youth as if it were her fortune. Her Maria is about as warm and expressive as stone, with a cold, calculating mind under the facade of youth and innocence. Carlos Casaravilla plays Rafa as a social parasite who despises the arrogance and hypocrisy of the rich, and surely must despise himself for playing the court jester. The toll is apparent in the his rictus of a face: he looks as much gargoyle as human, his face a mask seemingly frozen in a wide, empty crocodile smile. Even Alberto Closas’ Juan is a man defined by apathy, but the experience jolts him out of his self-pitying complacency.
Imagine a Michelangelo Antonio drama of upper class disaffection by way of a film noir, all of the beautiful people and their high class homes and high living toys cast in shadow, figuratively if not literally. Shooting on location and composing scenes in deep focus, Bardem’s style is most often described as realist yet the effect is closer to Orson Welles than the neo-realists. The film is never again as oppressively dreary as the overcast gloom of the opening scene, but the creamy black and white photography tends toward the somber, with Juan often found drowned in darkness and isolated from other characters.
Running a tight 88 minutes, Bardem jolts the film ahead with startling edits between scenes that both connect Juan and Maria and contrast their divergent paths. Where Maria is to be found in high society, rubbing elbows with the socially elevated and engaging in bland small talk, Juan is with the teaching students at the university or journeying into the working class neighborhood to track down the family of the dead man. The cluttered homes and ragged inhabitants of the crowded slum and the outraged students of the university, roused by idealism and solidarity to protest the unfair treatment of a fellow student, make a dramatic contrast to the empty small talk and self-important manner of Maria’s chosen orbit. The clever cross cuts – Juan lies awake smoking in bed and exhales into a shot of Maria brushing away a cloud of smoke, far away in her own bedroom with husband Miguel – only illustrates the growing distance between them even as it connects them in their thoughts and ours. (Also note that Maria and Miguel have separate beds, which was surely a convention of Spain’s conservative production code but, inadvertently or not, becomes a defining detail of their marriage.)
Read the complete review here.