Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street and White Dog

The Museum of the Moving Image's Samuel Fuller retrospective finishes today after several weeks of screenings and the highlight for many Fuller fans came at the end. Yesterday the Museum screened two rarely seen late gems from the director, 1972's madcap comedy-thriller Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street and 1981's White Dog, deemed so controversial by studio brass that it was never released theatrically in this country. Although White Dog was the more anticipated of the two screenings, having amassed a reputation as one of the great unseen masterpieces of the cinema, Dead Pigeon proved to be a worthy accompaniment to the more recent film and a perfect compliment, a piece of wild entertainment to enjoy before tackling the serious provocations of Fuller's final masterpiece.

A delirious post-modern stew, replete with constant cinematic allusions, over-the-top shootouts in unlikely locations (a maternity ward, the Beethoven Museum) and a vivid color palette (the scratchy print notwithstanding), Dead Pigeon on Beethoven tracks the efforts of an American private investigator (Glenn Corbett) to track down incriminating negatives involving a prominent senator with presidential ambitions, efforts which involve the infiltration of a German criminal organization. The PI, Sandy, spends most of his time drugging various individuals and photographing them in compromising situations in order to blackmail them into helping his cause. This ruse is carried out four times throughout the picture, gaining comic momentum with each subsequent effort. One of the film's highlights, and a scene characteristic of the picture's comic sensibility, finds Sandy in a movie theater watching Rio Bravo dubbed into German. Apparently unaware of what film he had paid admission to, Sandy is surprised to see John Wayne on the screen. When Wayne speaks in German, the PI starts laughing. Delighted, he yells out the actor's name. Then when he sees Dean Martin, he repeats the procedure yelling "Dean Martin" to an indifferent theater. According to Fuller, this was Corbett's one deviation from the actor's straight-faced characterization. "Glenn couldn't control his laughter when he saw his pal Wayne speaking perfect German up on screen," the director wrote in his autobiography. "The laughter was so spontaneous, we left the sequence in."

The film's climactic scene, a showdown between Sandy and the leader of the criminal group, Mensur (Anton Diffring), offers a comic twist on Fuller's usual gritty action sequences. Having gained access to Mensur's private chamber under false circumstances, Sandy finds his cover blown and the German pulls a gun on him. A sporting man, Mensur offers the PI one chance to escape with his life: he must best Mensur, a fencing master, in swordplay. Sandy swings wildly with his foil as Mensur toys with him. Finally, in an act of desperation, Sandy grabs all the swords, spears, and axes from the wall (Mensur has a large collection) and heaves them at their owner. Fuller keeps his camera fixed on Sandy, so we see his efforts but not their results. The audience assumes that the weapons have missed their mark, since the expectation is that Fuller would show the immediate result of Sandy's throws if they had hit their target. However, the director deliberately subverts this expectation and only reveals the scene's upshot once Sandy has finished his efforts. Fuller cuts to Mensur and we see him pinned to the wall by his weapons, fatally injured. As Sandy leaves the room, Fuller's camera pans across the wall, emphasizing the sheer amount of weaponry discharged in the struggle, a pan that brings out the absurdly comic nature of the previous scene. By keeping the violent impact of the fight offscreen, Fuller, known for his blunt action sequences, deftly offsets audience expectation and, by showing the result all at once, puts his authorial manipulations in the service of an impressive comic effect.

White Dog is a film that has built up a reputation by not being seen. Bowing to pressure by the NAACP and other groups who hadn't viewed the picture, Paramount shelved the completed film before it could be released commercially. It had its first US screening in 1991 (10 years after the film's completion) at a Samuel Fuller retrospective, which caused J. Hoberman to name it the second best picture of that year, and it has been screened occasionally since, though never given a full theatrical run. Based on the "fictional memoir" of the same name by Romain Gary, to whom the film is dedicated, Fuller's film strips away the novel's dross and goes right to the heart of the material. The novel concerned the discovery and adoption of a dog by Gary and his then-wife Jean Seberg. Eventually they find that the animal is an attack dog trained to kill any black person it encounters. The couple bring the dog to an animal trainer for reconditioning, only to find that the black trainer responsible for the rehabilitation, Keys, has trained the animal to attack white people. As fascinating as this premise is, Gary treats it as little more than an anecdote, a springboard for the writer to offer his musings on American racism and outline his and Seberg's involvement with various radicals. The story of the dog is introduced in the novel's beginning, largely dropped for the remainder of the work, and returns only at the end. All this would be fine if Gary offered interesting material to fill out his book, but his musings offer limited insights and his insistently ironic tone grows tiresome. Luckily, Fuller and co-screenwriter Curtis Hanson have eliminated Gary's extraneous material and focused exclusively on the dog.

A relentless picture, White Dog is one of the cinema's most unsparing treatments of racism. Like Fuller's 1963 film Shock Corridor which features a provocative sequence dealing with racial integration, the director's 1981 film was unwilling to sidestep the main issue and, in the dog, found the perfect means to treat the material with all the bluntness it demanded. In the film's most terrifying sequence, the dog escapes from the complex where it is being reconditioned and finds itself wandering in a black neighborhood. Fuller baits the audience by showing a young black boy standing on the street and then cutting to the dog, suggesting that the child will be its next victim. The viewer here is forced into complicity with the dog, since he is forced to see the boy in terms of his racial identification, to see him as first and foremost "black". For a white viewer, there is no escaping a queasy sense of guilt at the ease with which he adopts the dog's discriminating perspective. Luckily, the boy's mother appears before the dog can so much as snarl and whisks him away to a nearby building. Another man walking by at that moment, however, is not so lucky as the dog chases him into a church and mauls him beneath a stained glass window of St. Francis of Assisi, pictured in perfect communion with a variety of animals, an ironic commentary on the scene transpiring below.

Needless to say, racial hatred is not a condition which dogs learn themselves; it takes human agency to teach them. In one startling scene, the black trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) explains to the young actress who found the dog (Kristy McNichol) the process by which "white dogs" are indoctrinated. When the dog is a puppy, he explains, the owner hires a black wino or junky desperate for a fix and has him beat the dog. The dog comes to associate this cruelty with black skin, which he learns to fear. As he gets older this fear turns into hatred and aggression until he attacks any one with the same skin color as his tormentor. When we finally meet the dog's real owner, who comes responding to ads the actress has placed, Fuller disarms us by showing us a kindly old man holding a box of chocolates and accompanied by two young grandchildren. When the actress questions him, he admits with a smile that he had trained the animal himself to be a "white dog". Fuller, like Hannah Arendt before, reminds us that even the most seemingly innocuous individuals are capable of great barbarity. By showing us evil in all its banality as well as in its full destructive force, Fuller paints a complete and terrifying portrait of the sickness at the heart of society. Such a potent examination of evil may have scared the studio execs, but it has resulted in a film that demands to be seen. The picture screened earlier this year at the Film Forum as part of an Ennio Morricone retrospective and now has shown at the Museum of the Moving Image, so it is possible for interested New Yorkers to view it periodically, but just about everyone else is out of luck. We can only hope a full theatrical release is forthcoming.


gina landi said...

dead pigeon sounds fascinating - i'm really into detectives these days . . . and i love cine file's bright new look!

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

Last night Germany's WDR network broadcast a pristine print of Dead Pigeon. A very good film indeed...