Release Year: 1973
Director: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang, Anton Diffring, Eric P. Caspar, William Ray, Anthony Chinn
Writer: Samuel Fuller
Editor: Liesgret Schmitt-Klink
Cinematographer: Jerzy Lipman
Music: Irmin Schmidt
Producer: Joachim von Mengershausen
Original Title: Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße
Out of all the films directed by Samuel Fuller over his long and prodigious career, I have seen but a handful. It will come as no surprise I have primarily seen the ones with a hint of espionage in them, such as the Cold War thriller Pickup on South Street, in which the characters don’t give a damn about the Cold War, and Hell and High Water. I think the first Fuller film I ever saw was The Big Red One, and at the age I was, I didn’t like it. Most probably, I didn’t understand it. The only reason I saw it was that it starred ‘that Star Wars guy’, Mark Hammill. Of course, The Big Red One is a long way from Star Wars, especially to a youthful teenager.
The Big Red One was a personal film for Fuller, based on his own exploits as an infantryman during World War II. However, prior to the war, Fuller worked as a journalist, and it is this, even more than his wartime exploits, that colour him as a film maker. Just a quick glance at any film poster art from his movies, echoes his journalistic experience. His films don’t have ‘tag lines’, they have tabloid press ‘headlines’, such as ‘…the day a man was trapped in the ward of sex-maddened women’ from Shock Corridor, or ‘…suddenly while shooting a huge white shark turned on a stuntman and mangled its victim!’ from Shark.
After the war, Fuller started writing pulp crime novels, which soon lead him to Hollywood – as a scriptwriter. It wasn’t long until he was directing films – his first being I Shot Jesse James in 1949. Again, sorry to labour the point, but simply look at the title – ‘I Shot Jesse James’ – it could come from a newspaper headline. Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets put Fuller on the map as a director of tough, no nonsense dramas; particularly Steel Helmet which once again claimed to be ripped from newspaper headlines, being set in Korea.
Fuller had been courted by the major studios, but instead he chose to work for smaller independent producers, which allowed him a certain amount of autonomy to make the kind of pictures he wanted. And the pictures he wanted to make always seemed to push the boundaries of sex and violence; although Fuller would refute this. He would suggest that he was investing his films with an emotional truth. ‘Truth’ seemed be an ideal that he tried to invest in all his films, much like a newspaper article. There are very few wasted words or scenes. Everything is aimed at delivering the story in an accurate and timely way, always keeping the reader (or in this case viewer) intrigued to the very end.
Although Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street is a stand-alone movie, it was created for a German television series called Tatort. The thing with Tatort is that you don’t see the same characters or detectives in every episode. The show would depict different crime fighting teams from different parts of Germany. The series started in 1970, and is still going to this day (if you flitter over to IMDb, you can see episodes scheduled to air next year in 2011). Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street was the twenty-fifth episode. At the time of writing, the series is current up to its 767th episode. Generally speaking, no knowledge of Tatort is require to understand or appreciate Dead Pigeon. But I do believe it is important to recognise the film’s television pedigree, or else it is very easy to be underwhelmed by the movie.
And with that, it’s time to talk about the movie. First I’ll fill in a little of the backstory for Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street. All these small details are revealed as the story goes on via flashback. Firstly a US Senator, who is not named or seen in the film (although the voice and the cigar would imply that it is Fuller himself), is being blackmailed. A ring of international criminals have photographs of him, shot on a recent trip to Europe, in compromising positions with a blonde. If the Senator doesn’t pay the blackmailers large amounts of money, they will release the photos to the press. This will ruin the Senator’s political career, and as he is a future Presidential aspirant, this is unacceptable. He agrees to pay. But he also hires a detective named Johnson to travel to Europe and hunt them down and retrieve the negative.
As the film opens, Johnson is walking down Beethovenstraße (or Beethoven Street as I’ll call it), when he is shot in the back, by a slimy fellow named Charlie Umlaut (Eric P. Caspar). Umlaut works for the blackmail ring, and quickly searches Johnson’s body. He retrieves a postcard which Johnson has stolen. The gang communicate through the use of postcards, and the within the words are a code. Johnson had broken the code, which linked a girl to the blackmail ring. Umlaut takes the postcard from the deadman and runs, but not before a police officer arrives on the scene. The policeman opens fire and shoots Umlaut in the leg while trying to flee. The killer is taken into custody.
The timeline here is a little screwy, but upon Johnson’s demise, his partner, Sandy (Glenn Corbett) is sent to replace him. I’ll throw a bone here to all the Star Trek fans reading this, yes Corbett played Zefram Cochrane in the episode Metamorphosis in the original series – later the character of Cochrane would be played by James Cromwell in the movie First Contact – but hey, that’s enough geekery. Somehow Sandy teleports immediately from the United States to West Germany and is on the case. Johnson had informed Sandy about the postcard and naturally he wants to see it. As it was not on Johnson’s body, it is surmised that Umlaut must still have it. Umlaut is in hospital, under armed guard, recovering from his leg wound.
Accompanied by a German detective, Sandy heads to the hospital to interrogate Umlaut. But moments before Sandy’s arrival, Umlaut clobbers his guard, and puts on the uniform. As he is making his escape, the German detective recognises him. Fleeing, Umlaut runs into a nursery filled with sleeping children and opens fire – somehow, the babies continue to sleep despite the commotion. Umlaut makes a break for it, shooting the German detective as he makes his escape. Sandy continues the chase, catching up with the killer at the train station. Leaping from the roof of the station platform, Sandy ambushes Umlaut, but despite the element of surprise, Sandy blows it and gets knocked unconscious, allowing the killer to hobble to freedom.
However, in his escape, Umlaut forgot to take the postcard with him, and Sandy is able to decipher the code hidden within. He goes to a cafe and waits, and sure enough a girl turns up. Her named is Christa (Christa Lang). She is the girl in the photo with the Senator. Sandy begins to follow her. Her first stop is at a movie house that is playing a German language print of Rio Bravo (the ‘Muddy Boots’ scene). Sandy, who sits in the back row appears to be genuinely amused to watch John Wayne and Dean Martin dubbed into German.
Afterward, he follows her to a coffee shop, where he discretely drugs her drink, and then when she collapses in the street, he takes her to a hotel room, and with the aid of a conspiratorial photographer, takes some photos of her in compromising positions. Of course, as she is already working the photo racket, the shots that are taken will not offend her, or make her give up the negatives – but it will allow Sandy to draw out the whole gang of blackmailers, by posing as a man in the same racket. In fact, he is hoping, she’ll attempt to recruit him.
Sandy’s scheme works, and Christa immediately contacts her boss, Mansur played by malevolent character actor Anton Diffring. Along with Peter Van Eyck and Werner Peters, Diffring must be one of the leading German character actors. He appeared in over one-hundred and thirty productions including Where Eagles Dare, The Double Man and Escape to Victory. Here he once again plays an icy villain, who happens to be a fencing master. In fact, barely a scene goes by without him holding a fencing foil in his hand (can you see how this is going to end?)
Eventually Sandy is recruited, and teamed up with Christa to extort money from visiting diplomats. Their relationship starts off antagonistic at first, but then the ice begins to melt. Christa begins to have a change of heart, and wants to get out of the business. Sandy, agrees to help, if she will help him obtain the negatives. Tarts with hearts – got to love ’em, and the cornerstone of any movie like this.
For its time, compared to contemporary American television shows, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street could be considered to push the boundaries of what could be shown in relation to sexual content. Today it all seems very tame, and wouldn’t raise a ripple – the odd flash of breast, implied lesbianism, and a plot about pornographic images used for blackmail, all just grist for the mill. But to put it in its context, West Germany, while always having a seedy underbelly, had until the late 1960s been quite vigorous in its censorship of sexual material. However in 1970, the Schulmädchen-Report films, and others of their ilk flooded the German market. These films, while purporting to be ‘educational’ films, were light hearted sexual romps which unwittingly allowed West Germany to move, if not ahead, then at least to catch up with some of the more liberally minded nations. Oh, if only Dead Pigeon had a Gert Wilden musical score!
By the 1970s and ’80s, the autonomy that Fuller had as a film-maker had eroded. Big corporations owned the studios and had final say over the product they produced. Dead Pigeon was made just after Shark, which was allegedly a very troubled production with a large amount of studio interference. In fact most of the Fuller’s films from this period have legendary – almost passing into mythical status – director’s cut prints which have yet to see the light of day, while the studio prints are the ones in circulation. With all the studio interference it is not so surprising then that Fuller should agree to make a tele-film in Germany. The opportunity to work relatively autonomously again must have been a big lure. But of course, working on a German television production is very different from working on a Hollywood feature – most noticeably in the size of their budgets. This is quite evident of Dead Pigeon because it appears to be done on the cheap. Some of the acting and fights scenes are poor, and this may simply boil down to, there wasn’t enough money for additional takes.
I may be wrong here, but the promotional artwork and book tie-ins would indicate that Dead Pigeon received a cinematic release in the United States, which is a great disservice to the film. As a film, beyond the German location shooting, this film offers very little that is new – in fact if you were to compare it with Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, which is similar in many ways, then Dead Pigeon, with its thin veneer of mystery, sloppy acting and clunky fight scenes could be considered trash. But that isn’t really fair, because the film was never intended to be held alongside Klute for comparison. If a comparison is required, then maybe look at it alongside an episode of The Streets of San Francisco, and then the strengths of Dead Pigeon become more apparent. The journalistic ‘truth’ that so often filled Fuller’s work comes to the fore.
Earlier I mentioned how Sandy leaped from the roof over a railway platform, attempting to take the killer, Charlie Umlaut, by surprise. Yet his sneak attack backfires. Later he is ambushed in the shower, and while he has the presence of mind to spray hot water in his assailants face, he is still taken captive. This adds up to the fact that out hero is a bit of a whimp, but in reality, that’s what happens. Not everybody is John Wayne and can knock a guy out with one punch. That’s the movies, not real life. Dead Pigeon plays like real life. Sandy may be the nominal hero, but as far as heroes go, he is pretty piss-weak. But that is the strength of Dead Pigeon and the strength of Fuller. Realism. Sure it may be ‘tabloid press’ realism, highlighting the more extreme sides of human nature, but at the end of the day, it is still a movie, and it has to entertain…and generally it does. But having said that, I am easy to please. I expect this film is really only of interest to Fuller completists, or those interested in Tatort and German television. Others may find it pretty limp.