It starts with a cold and cold-hearted opening scene. On a fog-shrouded road amid a desolate, Godot-like landscape, a cyclist appears in the foreground and heads toward the horizon where the road bends and vanishes. We hear a car swerve and a quick cut presents us with a close-up of the bicycle, twisted and broken with one wheel spinning. A couple steps from the car and the man kneels over the unseen cyclist as his lover stands at a remove, urging him to get back in the car. He does and the car pulls away.
Juan Antonio Bardem knew how to get an audience on the hook. At a time when the younger generation of European directors—in France, in Italy and in his native Spain—were breaking away from the American influence, Bardem embraced it. The filmmakers of France’s nouvelle vague and Spain’s neo-realist movement were establishing a more intimate, more auteurist style, forsaking light commercial fare for a more topical approach, delving into social and political commentary. While he shared their inclination to make more substantive films, Bardem used different methods, employing all the conventions and devices of conventional Hollywood storytelling in pursuit of a more engaged cinema.
In Death of a Cyclist (1955), newly released on DVD by Criterion, Bardem starts with a perfect Hollywood plot device: a stark, dramatic event which leads to a dramatic shift in fortune for his two lead characters. Only gradually will we piece together an understanding of these two, of their social milieu, their relationship, of their origins, motives and desires. There is a bit of Hitchcock here, a bit of noir, and plenty of A-movie Hollywood, with the luminous Lucia Bosé as a sort of self-absorbed femme fatale version of Ingrid Bergman, and Alberto Closas portraying a coddled ne’er-do-well with a bit of the droll, world-weary nobility of Humphrey Bogart. It’s Casablanca turned on its head, stripped of its romance and pervaded instead with cold calculation and bourgeois disillusionment.
Out of this tale of adultery, manslaughter, nepotism and blackmail, Bardem spins a story more meaningful and complex, as Closas finds himself on “a journey back to myself,” a long, difficult climb out of the morass of privileged narcissism toward absolution. Though the censors demanded an amended conclusion for Death of a Cyclist, the compromise is handled with great aplomb, coming full circle with a final flourish in which a cyclist must decide whether to report a fatal accident or simply keep pedaling. And in the end the film packs as much punch as any of the more overtly topical films of Bardem’s contemporaries, but with a style that retains all the gloss and sheen of the slick entertainment those films rejected.
There is one curious moment, however, that I have yet to see explained or even mentioned in discussions of the film. Toward the end, in a shot from the back of a car looking over Lucia Bosé’s shoulder, a mysterious gloved hand appears briefly in the corner of the frame. It’s more than likely an accident, the director or cameraman briefly intruding on the image—though how it could have gone unnoticed in the editing process is anyone’s guess. But could it have been intentional? Could it have meaning? Nowhere else is it suggested that there is someone else in the car, not before and not after, but the subtle suggestion of collusion, of an unseen partner, could greatly alter one’s interpretation of the film’s closing sequence.
DEATH OF A CYCLIST (1955)
Directed by Juan Antonio Bardem. Starring Lucia Bosé, Alberto Closas. 88 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles.