Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) (1955)
Death of a Cyclist is a Spanish-language film that was the winner of the FIPRESCI Award at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Juan Antonio Bardem (Main Street (1956)), this social realist film tells of a couple of secret, privileged lovers residing in Madrid who are involved in a hit-and-run accident involving a cyclist. Afraid that their illicit affair will be known to everybody, María José de Castro (Lucia Bosè) and Juan Fernandez Soler (Alberto Closas) failed to stop and help a cyclist who they accidentally hit in their sports car. What follows is a dangerous game of trying to guess who knows what and who can use that information against whom. Parallel to this, Juan Soler, a university instructor, goes through some kind of an existential crisis which leads to surprising results. Death of a Cyclist is one intriguing thriller with Hitchcockian elements. There is plenty in the film on the topic of class divide and the faults of the upper class. Although frustrating at times with a questionable ending, Death of a Cyclist also benefits from nuanced directing which brings out the best in this story about crime and attempts at redemption.
The best part of the film is probably the story and its social themes: the upper class and the lower class “meet” or come in contact through one terrible incident. It is great to know that before Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities , that was so lauded by critics and audiences alike, there was this little film from Spain that presented an almost exact same situation: a car accident whereby the rich upper class (secret lovers in both instances) hit one member of the poor class and the resulting consequences are disastrous (though both probably took some inspiration from the incident in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby ). The situation here speaks for itself, and both stories even have the same exact circumstances in which the main male character finds about the event after his hit-and-run: while being at work and through a newspaper (a distraction in both cases that gets him nearly fired).
In Death of a Cyclist, Italian actress Lucía Bosé plays Maria, a rich man’s wife, who only thinks about herself and views the death the cyclist only in the light of what it may mean for her future. This self-centredness, as well the indifferent attitude showed by the rich and privileged towards the poor was exactly the point of the story. However, one man, Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla), who is inside Maria’s privileged circle, may know something about the incident and it is that supposed knowledge that causes Maria to have many a sleepless night. On the other hand, Maria’s partner-in-crime, Juan, is slightly different. Coming from a family with money, he remains the black sheep of the family who never really found his calling in life and relies on his prosperous brother-in-law to keep him at the university. He is also a man who went through the war and knows the hardship. In a different way from Maria, but similar to her, he is also completely removed from the realities of life. Then, the automobile accident, as well as the corresponding guilt and shame, threaten not only to test his allegiances, but also to widen the already growing gap between Maria and himself.
The director tried to show the characters’ worries about their possible destinies after the death of a cyclist as contrasted with the concerns of the wider world and the plight of the masses. Thus, Maria and Juan first talk about the dead cyclist during a horse-racing event, Rafa tries to blackmail Maria in an art gallery, and Juan is rethinking his life at a sport arena. They may think otherwise, but neither Maria nor Juan find themselves in reality outside other people’s lives and social situations. The wider world remains there whether they like it or not. The characters’ “public shields” become a circus and an event to welcome American guests. One particular scene shows Maria’s world crashing down around her to the beat of the Flamenco music (traditionally, a poor gypsies’ dance).
Death of a Cyclist may not be the greatest thriller ever, but, on the other hand and in all fairness, it remains to be an overlooked film in many respects that now deserves more recognition and appreciation. It has a decent measure of both suspense and thrills, and presents a fascinating psychological situation, showing sensibilities of one particular group of people who struggle to regain control of their careless and self-absorbed lives. 7/10