Perhaps you remember the scene in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Paul Newman peddles Katharine Ross around on a bicycle while B.J. Thomas sings "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head." The scene was good for more than merely cheap sentiment because the two-wheeler, which might have been stolen from Wilbur and Orville's famous bicycle shop, signified the very pre-flight moment in human evolution when robbing trains was no longer a viable means of making an honest living.
As Randy Newman so simply put it:
Sing a song of long ago
When things were green and movin' slow
and people'd stop to say hello,
or they'd say "hi" to you.
Would you like to come over for tea
with the missus and me?
It's a real nice way
to spend the day
in Dayton, Ohio
on a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1903.
But in post-war Rome, Antonio Ricci needed his bicycle for commercial reasons. It was the primary reason he was selected from dozens of men for a job hanging Rita Hayworth posters on city walls. So he goes to the pawn shop and pays sixty-five hundred lire to get his two-wheeler out of hock. Now he can make money for his wife and son. On the first day of work, an Italian wearing a German cap steals the bicycle. Antonio spends the rest of the movie attempting to get it back. His efforts change him, or reveal him to himself.
That is the entire movie.
The movie is, of course, The Bicycle Thief (1949).
And yet it is so much more than what I have said.
In part it is the staggering brilliance of director Vittorio de Sica placing millions of bicycles in the path of Ricci and his son Bruno. In part it is the carelessness of the way Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani, looking very much like a young Robert Duvall) treats the machine when he first gets it back, only to have its value scream at him as it is taken away. In part it is the depths to which he sinks trying to get it back. But mostly it is Bruno watching his father deteriorate in front of him. This kid is no Mickey Rooney, with eyes full of innocent deviltry. This is a kid who talks back freely, a kid who disobeys on a regular basis, a kid who sees his own future and nearly suffocates beneath it.
De Sica knew poverty, he knew desperation, and he knew about the ways that men turn against men. He understood the way that people rationalize within their own economic class. Everyone in the movie is dirt poor and yet each person imagines himself to be in a different economic class from everyone else. Ricci finds an old man who is somehow involved in the theft of the bike. The old man is surviving out of a Catholic soup kitchen. The old man is in far worse shape than Ricci, even though if things do not improve, Ricci will find himself in similar digs, and Ricci knows this. Nevertheless he hounds the old man relentlessly. Antonio encounters an old fortune-teller woman who exploits the misery of those who come to her. He holds the woman in contempt and yet finds himself reaching out to her when he has nowhere else to seek help. He encounters a city block owned and operated by thieving grease-balls who are doing well to have two lire to rub together, yet he takes on the whole lot of them in an effort to retrieve his trusty bicycle. In the end, he must make a moral decision about whether to steal someone else's bicycle.
So there is actually very little simplicity to this seemingly uncomplicated work of Italian cinema.
The irony here, at least for me, is that less than two weeks ago I was railing in these electronic pages about how the idea of a greatest film ever was absurd and now I've gone and discovered what very well may be a contender for just such an honor.
Unfortunately, such a claim cannot be made of today's other movie, Lenny Bruce Without Tears (1972). I so wanted this to be a life-changing film, in large part because, to my knowledge, Lenny Bruce has never been the subject of an entirely satisfying biopic. Certainly Bob Fosse's film Lenny failed on a number of levels, not least of which being the decision to cast Dustin Hoffman in the lead role, especially when George Carlin was vying for the part.
In Without Tears Lenny is played by Lenny, which feels right. The conscience of modern comedy is shown at his televised peak on "The Steve Allen Show," and despite whatever misgivings I and others may have about Allen's rather bizarre attitude toward talented folks in the music business--and here I can only contrast the shabby way he treated Elvis Presley with the nearly fawning respect he gave--and quite appropriately gave--Jerry Lee Lewis--there is no denying that, in the realm of the comedy business, Mr. Allen's willingness to give voice to Bruce at a time when no other television show would touch the man is a feather in the cap of the third-rate jazz pianist. The film is narrated by director Fred Baker, who does a fine job of piecing together the limited filmed moments of the comedian's life and disembowelment. I suppose that in the final analysis, the real problem is with what Baker omits. The biggest thing left out is the revelation (which Lenny made possible) that being a comedian could involve substantially more than just making people laugh. (Yes, as Bill Hicks would later prove, it is sometimes about pissing people off enough to actually get them to think, yet in an amusing way). Baker also ignored ancillary matters such as the actual cause of death and the way the police continually re-positioned the body so that the news photographers would have sufficiently humiliating pictures to put in the papers.
Even now Lenny Bruce deserves better than this. Then again, so do we.
In the meantime, for the all-time greatest treatment of the Lenny Bruce story, I commend to your immediate attention a story called "The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians," by Bradley Denton, something you can get by clicking HERE. You will not be sorry. And that's a fact.