Directed by Juan Antonio Bardem
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 88 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Spanish
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: April 22, 2008
Review Date: April 15, 2008
Once I got into the scenario for Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist, all I could think about was how Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford would have been playing the female lead in the movie had it been made in Hollywood. The femme fatale nature of the role, her guiltless participation in both a crime and in an adulterous affair, would have fit either of those two actresses like a glove. The melodramatic nature of the story, too, is very Hollywood-like, a fact the openly and rabidly Communist director was never shy about admitting. It’s as close to a Hollywood film of the period as it’s possible for a Spanish film to be.
Juan Soler (Alberto Closas) and Maria José de Castro (Licia Bosé) are sharing two guilty secrets: they’re involved in a secret affair (having been college sweethearts) and both fled the scene of Soler’s car running down a bicycle rider on a stretch of deserted highway without reporting it to the police. During the course of the film, Soler’s guilt begins to eat away at him so much so that his neglect of a graduate student‘s thesis defense leads to her receiving a failing grade, but Maria gives neither problem the flicker of a thought, that is until the treacherous busybody Rafa Sandoval (Carlos Casaravilla) begins dropping hints to both Juan and Maria about secrets that he’s privy to. Maria’s cuckolded husband Miguel (Otello Toso) is a powerful city official who can make or break reputations, so the cheating couple have to decide how they’re best going to deal with the problems that seem to be closing in on them.
The screenplay and direction by Bardem have traces of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train as well as Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai and even Negulesco’s Humoresque. Though Bardem was adamant that Spanish films should reflect real Spanish values and mores, the societal strata and the pressures to get ahead either through political influence or through merit seem undeniably western reflecting decades of Hollywood’s melodramatic views clearly. Still, it’s no accident that the lower class characters get taken advantage of by the heartless upper class ones. Bardem allowed such acerbic views of class injustice to become too obtrusive in his later works and paid the price. Here, it’s not objectionably overpowering.
Lucia Bosé resembles international star Alida Valli in both look and manner as the beautiful but tight-lipped conniver anxious to keep her lush lifestyle going at all costs. Bardem has cast doppelgangers as her husband (Toso) and her lover (Closas): only their mustaches allow us to conveniently keep them straight in our minds, the husband being steely and determined, the lover more overwrought and sensitive. Carlos Casaravilla makes an expertly oily snake-in-the-grass blackmailer. As the failed student, Bruna Corra does what she can with an underwritten part.
Bardem finds one astounding location, a field of sand and a few spindly trees that’s Salvador Dali-like in its starkness and majestic, unearthly beauty. And a climactic car crash also evolves into a stylish finish, a haunting, harrowing glimpse at the universe ironically righting itself.
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is reproduced on this DVD in Criterion’s usual slightly windowboxed style. While much of the transfer is sharp with vivid contrast and excellent grayscale, the element used for the transfer does have some problems with scratches, hairs, and some compression artifacts. There’s a slight green tint to the image which comes on the scene about halfway into the movie for a reel. A herringbone coat flashes momentarily, and there is some expected line twitter in some background wood paneling. The white English subtitles are easy to read. The film is divided into 23 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack is more than adequate and contains no significant audio artifacts that spoil the period sound mix.
Calle Bardem is a 2005 documentary on the life and times of the controversial openly Communist director. Divided into 10 segments covering both his political beliefs and his artistic life, the film is, surprisingly for a Criterion bonus featurette, not presented in an anamorphic transfer. Instead we’re offered a nonanamorphic letterbox picture that runs 44 minutes.
A 29-page booklet contains some beautiful stills from the film as well as a critique of the movie by film professor Marsha Kinder and a 1955 essay by director Bardem in which he pleas for more realistic Spanish films so the world could appreciate the Spain of the time.
Death of a Cyclist offers a Spanish language Hollywood-style melodrama that’s quite entertaining and emblematic of Juan Antonio Bardem‘s early successes before his politics became more important than his artistic interests. In a lean Criterion package without a deluge of extras, this might best be a rental for all but the Bardem faithful.