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The Criterion Collection presents

Death of a Cyclist (1955)

"There's something more important than you or me: fear."- María Jose (Lucia Bosé)

Stars: Alberto Closas, Lucia Bosé, Otello Toso, Carlos Casaravilla
Director: Juan Antonio Bardem

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:27m:19s
Release Date: 2008-04-22
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

The tools in the arsenal of film noir have been put to all sorts of uses, but if you're seeing this movie for the first time, it's kind of stunning that the trappings of the genre can be so effectively deployed into making an anti-Franco parable. But that's precisely what Juan Antonio Bardem did with this stunner of a film, which in many respects did for Spanish cinema what Rashomon did for Japan—that is, give it a newfound international legitimacy and stature. Even if your knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco years is hazy and your familiarity with the evolution of Spanish filmmaking is only passing, there's an extraordinary amount here to admire and to entertain nonetheless.

Bardem's world in many respects evokes that of F. Scott Fitzgerald's, and his characters have a Gatsbyesque sense of dangerous self-absorption—it's perilous to get anywhere near them, for their recklessness can be lethal. At the heart of the action is Juan (Alberto Closas), an adjunct professor of mathematics without much professional ambition, happy to take the professional protection offered by his well-connected brother-in-law. Getting to phone in his job allows him to spend more time on the sly with Maria Jose (Lucia Bosé), his onetime high-school sweetheart, now the wife of a powerful industrialist. It's clear that she married only for money, though, and reserves her passion for her trysts with Juan. The very opening of the movie shows us the vehicular homicide of the film's title—while on their way to or from one of their rendezvous, they take out a bicyclist sharing the road, stopping long enough to see that he's still breathing, and then leave him for dead. (They get the news of his passing only from a later newspaper report.) Juan's conscience is more guilty than Maria Jose's, and we see her revealed as a true femme fatale, a woman brazenly in pursuit of the finer things in life, no matter the cost to others in blood and treasure.

They're in the crosshairs of a potential blackmailer, however, and just how much he knows about them fuels countless hours of their paranoid speculation. Rafa is an art critic and self-appointed tastemaker, and intimate of Maria Jose's husband, who has seen her out and about with Juan—but does he also know their darker secret about having killed someone and fled the scene of the crime? As played by Otello Toso, Rafa is a marvelously pretentious and dangerous sort, with a passing resemblance to Waldo Lydecker, a press hound who will pursue his own glory at any expense. He's clearly the embodiment of everything the film finds so repugnant about Spanish society, a parasite who preys on the weaknesses of others and creates nothing but his own self-aggrandizement. He's the walking, talking apotheosis of the corrupt Franco regime.

Bardem weaves a tale of academic politics, with protesting students and paramilitary repression, and his characters inhabit a bourgeois stratum that's grotesque and decadent by any measure—and yet the politics of the piece never become lunatically didactic they way they frequently do in Oliver Stone movies, in part because the story is so crammed with the stuff of thrillers, dead bodies and smoky rooms and cuckolded spouses. Some of the shots are right out of noir, and as the movie goes along, Bosé comes more and more to resemble Phyllis Dietrichson. The movie is full of stark and moody images, and great sharp cuts that are pregnant with impact—it's a terrifically tense movie, and its virtuoso aspects can be dizzying. You don't even have to brush up on Spanish social history to appreciate the many merits of this picture.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: An odd, Jekyll-and-Hyde transfer—some of the images look astonishingly sharp, while in other instances, the grays are dulled down, and even bits of debris are evident. (Perhaps these were in Bardem's camera and are unavoidable?) Strangely inconsistent, though frequently beautiful.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: An occasional excess of ambient noise; the sort of thing you're unlikely to notice much if your Spanish isn't fluent and you're reading along with the subtitles.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
  2. color bars
Extras Review: The most notable extra is Calle Bardem (44m:02s), a documentary directed by Alberto Leal, that interviews collaborators, fans, friends and critics of Juan Antonio Bardem. It's very much a Great Man piece, with biographical information, a career overview, and his twin undying commitments, to cinema and to Communism. The accompanying booklet features an illuminating essay by Marsha Kinder on Bardem's place in Spanish film history, and a 1955 manifesto by the director on the need for revolution, on the screen and in the streets.

Extras Grade: B

Final Comments

Even if the allegorical aspects of its Spanish politics may be lost on most of us, this remains the startlingly clear work of an angry young man with the talent to match his brio. It works as a manifesto of sorts, and as a Mediterranean noir, and looks fantastically sharp on this DVD. Criterion deserves particular praise for helping this stunner of a picture find a new English-language audience.

Jon Danziger 2008-04-22