You know how some movies wrap up with images of cast members grinning at the camera as their name pops up on the screen? Samuel Fuller's Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street opens that way, and extends the courtesy to the entire crew: we watch as actors, editors, producers and even Fuller himself (smoking a cigar, of course) make silly faces, sport silly costumes and engage in all sorts of silly behavior as a massive carnival unfolds around them. The message is clear: Fuller and co. are just goofing around. This is a film largely defined by a sense of free-spirited playfulness.
If we're being technical, the film isn't really a film, but an episode of the long-running German television series Tatort. The show – which began in 1970 and is still running to this day – is jointly produced by regional public-service broadcasters all across the country, and each local station is tasked with producing a certain quota of episodes. The episodes typically center on a local police force, but the location and characters change depending on who is tasked with producing the episodes. In 1974, Fuller – who had recently done some favors for a German filmmaker who was involved with the series – was invited to direct a single episode of the series. The director agreed, but more or less dispensed with the established tone and conventions of the series in order to do his own thing.
Fuller was going through something of a professional rough patch in the '70s, as he struggled to scrape together financing for any of his planned films and saw one project after another fall apart (he wasn't alone: talented-but-idiosyncratic peers like Orson Welles were facing similar struggles at the time). Indeed, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street was the only film Fuller actually made during that turbulent decade, and he seems to have viewed the project as an opportunity to demonstrate just how vital his work could be. The film is sort of a mess, but it's such a lively, inspired mess.
The plot involves a U.S. Senator (never seen, but seemingly voiced by Fuller) who hires a private investigator to track down some compromising pictures involving the Senator and an attractive young blonde (Christa Lang, White Dog). However, when the investigator is killed (in an amusingly stylish sequence that accompanies the arrival of the film's title card), his partner Sandy (Glenn Corbett, Shenandoah) picks up the case and digs in. Predictably enough, he finds a tangled web of crooks with varied motivations, politicians with wild ambitions and attractive women who may or may not be trustworthy.
The plot technically hits a lot of familiar beats, but Fuller has no interest in revisiting the sort of hard-boiled noir tone he once explored so effectively in films like Pickup on South Street and Underworld U.S.A. This is a looser, shaggier, sillier sort of noir; a movie that takes endless stylistic and narrative detours and always seems to be living in the moment. To modern viewers, it will probably feel like a stylistic companion piece to Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, which shares a number of common elements with this flick (most notably, the Can song “Vitamin C,” which serves as a theme song of sorts for this movie).
As played by Corbett, Sandy is a clueless dope who somehow manages to continually stumble into the answers he's looking for: he resides in a corner of cinema alongside The Dude and Robert Altman's portrait of Philip Marlowe. In one of the film's most charming scenes, Sandy follows a woman into a movie theatre showing a dubbed German version of Rio Bravo. Sandy is delighted to see good ol' John Wayne on the big screen, gets sucked into the movie and forgets why he wandered into the theatre in the first place. You can almost hear Fuller chuckling at the absurdity of the situation we're in: we're watching an American detective watch an American movie dubbed into German in a German movie directed by American.
At every opportunity, Fuller employs some new visual trick, crazy camera angle or wild editing technique, giving the film frequent punches of visual energy. He doesn't seem to expect us to take any of this seriously, and the film's deadpan facade of seriousness frequently gives way to bursts of pure silliness: the film's climax feels like something from a particularly violent Looney Tunes short, as the hapless Sandy engages in the clumsiest swordfight (which subsequently turns into a free-for-all melee involving all sorts of weapons) ever committed to film before Fuller serves up a cutesy visual pun as a concluding button.
Admittedly, it's a little tough to keep up with everything that's going on in this movie... particularly if you don't speak German. Despite the presence of an American protagonist, there's quite a bit of German in the movie, and none of it was subtitled in the original release. I turned on the subtitles on the new Blu-ray version, which proved hilariously unhelpful: every time a German character starts speaking, the only words that appear onscreen are either “(speaking German)” or “(speaking foreign language).” Intentionally or otherwise, the film turns its American viewers into Sandy, forcing them to guess at what's going on but still managing to lead them to solid ground eventually. This won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for those who enjoyed Fuller's more experimental efforts of the '60s (The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor) and want to see him taking that brand of filmmaking even further, it's recommended.
Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Year: 1974