Death of a Cyclist is a polemical tale that borrows the grammar of the Hitchcockian murder mystery as well as the forbidden romance of film-noir to achieve its ideologic ends. Juan Antonio Bardem made this picture in the midst of right-wing censorship, at a time when controversial cinema in Europe was just beginning to weave its spell on Spanish filmmakers; Italian Neorealism had already provided a cinematic model for rebellion, both against the conventions imposed by state ideology and its apologists. Bardem the socialist must have known that the bourgeois elements would be appeased by the melodrama while the proletarians would be attuned to his political commentary. And he was clearly looking toward the international critics with this picture, toward European dissidents especially. In ’50s Spain, the preeminent symbol of the lives of these characters is death, and for one character, the protagonist appropriately named after his director, it’s expression may mean martyrdom.
Juan (Alberto Closas) is an academic, his career stalled by the civil war, who takes the job of assistant professor of mathematics at the local university, a position granted him by his brother-in-law, the dean. María José (Lucia Bosé) is your typical bored socialite, married to Miguel Castro (Otello Toso); she was Juan’s sweetheart before the war, but she married into wealth rather than tarry for her soldier. Without knowing what promulgated it, María José and Juan once again become lovers, in secret. During their tryst they hit and kill a cyclist on an isolated country road. Reporting the incident means exposing their infidelity; María José will lose her husband and her wonted social graces and Juan stands to lose his teaching position. Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla), a pianist, an embittered art critic and friend of the Castros, knows something of their relationship and seems to know a great deal more about what transpired that fateful day. He’s tired of playing parties for the rich and famous and resolved to blackmail the pair for all its worth.
Beginning with the techniques that are most efficacious, it’s necessary to emphasize Bardem’s brilliant use of cuts and dissolves throughout. What will be remembered most by viewers is the way the film jump-cuts effortlessly between the seemingly primary melodrama and scenes of so-called ‘social realism’. At first the cuts are employed between bourgeois and working-class milieus, but later more abstract associations will be made. It’s apparent that our pair of privileged sinners lie totally outside of ‘social reality’: when their sports-car hits the cyclist we do not see his twisted frame, only the twisted frame of the bicycle, and the reactions of Juan and María José. Through the course of events Juan will be forced to interlope within the reality of the cyclist and his family, while María José will be further ensconced in the delicate net of her delusion.
Bardem exposes us to the cracks in Juan’s psyche through cuts and contrasts between his preoccupations and those of María José and her ilk. There is a scene that cuts between María José with her husband Miguel in their posh bedroom and Juan, alone, in his ebon chamber, his face lit only by the moon. Juan’s gaze is cut into Miguel’s and vice-versa as María José appears to apprehend them both at once, and there is obviously a resemblance in their physiognomy too. In making the three occupy the same temporality, Bardem obliterates the confines of space, so that their entanglement seems just as psychologic as physic. María José tries to forget her sins by retreating into the arms of her wealthy husband. Juan broods.
There are a number of surreptitious references to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but I’ll leave the viewer the pleasure of finding them while noting that his influence is a marked one on this film. Composer Isidro Maiztegui does for Bardem what Bernard Herrmann made a career of doing for Hitch. His score is almost like the film’s heartbeat, you can hear it coming before it does because of its regularity and appearance at moments of anxiety and fear, but it’s gripping nevertheless. It’s gripping even after Bardem utilizes its comic aspect as counterpoint to the irrational fears of the lovers.
In an effort to ameliorate María José’s fears, Juan strikes out to learn of the progress of the police investigation and this takes him to the home of the cyclist. Bardem cuts from a posh wedding ceremony to the urban crumble of tenement buildings, black puddles and woefully-clothed children playing in the street before Juan meets one of the cyclist’s neighbors. Juan masquerades as a journalist and elicits from the neighbor information about her daily station and that of the cyclist’s family, miserable details that will weigh on his conscience. When Juan looks over a balcony to spy the cyclist’s eldest son, Bardem has once again cut away; this time to the socialite sector and back to melodrama. It’s so effectively aligned in the frame that at first we don’t notice a cut has been made, until we see María José and Miguel walking toward us arm-in-arm. This happens again when Rafa, his schemes defeated by Miguel, throws a champagne bottle in the air. We see something shatter a glass window and assume it’s the bottle, but Bardem has cut once again to the university where students are demonstrating by throwing rocks at the building.
We are given a film-noir resolution. But this time around, the protagonists yearn to come clean and pay for their crime. Juan has resigned his post at the university and is resolved to turn himself in, María José with him. They drive to the spot of the titular incident and, as it turns out, this is the very same field Juan bivouacked in during the civil war, and where he dreamed of reuniting with María José. Of course, Juan was fighting for Franco. Now one of Bardem’s arguments has come full circle. The government grinds up people like Juan, and relegates people like the cyclist to anonymous poverty.
Things like war are benign for the wealthy who aren’t even asked to fight for their station. Bardem’s social ills thus begin at the top of a system that is partial, the rewards of partiality unmerited. María José refuses to lose all the loveless wealth she has gained at the expense of others. Earlier on Juan attended the funeral of the deceased cyclist, even gazing at the body, while María José turned up only to put a pittance of her largesse into the church coffers. The climax is a logical one. And a second climax, demanded by the censors, will give the audience something to cheer, though it conflicts with Bardem’s careful design and ultimately lessens the impact of its social comment.