"Man on the Roof," opening today at the Outer Circle 1, is an admirably incisive and witty police thriller, probably the best movie in its genre to emerge from Europe since Costa-Gavras' "The Sleeping Car Murders."
Bo Widerberg, the Swedish director best known here for the lushly photogenic but languid "Elvira Madigan," seems to have recharged his batteries with this exemplary adaptation of "The Abominable Man," the seventh in the remarkable cycle of crime novels written by Maj Sjowall and her late husband, Per Wahloo.
Widerberg hasn't ceased making good-looking movies, but "Man on the Roof" has a taut, edgy, exciting quality that took me by surprise, since I doubted that Widerberg could transpose the book as faithfully and tensely as he has.
If "Man on the Roof" has its flaws, languor is not one of them. On the contrary, Widerberg seems more likely to inconvenience or unnerve some viewers by achieving an incisiveness that borders on the perverse, since it tends to enhance moments of almost sickening apprehension or slightly sardonic, macabre observation.
The opening murder scene is a model of terrifying economy. The setting is a hospital room, lit with chilling suspense by cinematographer Odd Geir Safther, who also photographed the recent "Edvard Munch." Returning from the bathroom, the victim climbs back into bed and notices a slight change in the shadow pattern on the ceiling. He looks toward the window, where dark curtains billow gently from the night breeze. He notices something odd, dislodges the bell pull that might have summoned help and staggers toward his doom.
In a slight, darkened opening between the two curtains there is a glint of something. The victim draws close enough to discern that the glint is an eye, which blinks. Suddenly, the curtains fly apart . . .
No one will accuse Widerberg of failing to make the next few seconds count. Each shot and cut is brilliantly calculated to make one feel stunned and appalled at the onslaught of violence. A director with this sort of technique doesn't need to linger on brutality. A few quick, slashing strokes are more than sufficient.
Widerberg lingers in another respect. The hospital room becomes soaked with blood. Hideous as it is, there's more to that spilled blood than meets the eye: its bad blood in many senses of the term. Widerberg keeps returning to the blood-stained scene of the crime as the investigation proceeds. Eventually, it appears that the stains are permanent. They literally can't be washed away.
At the same time we are discovering that the crime itself has evolved out of a history of injustice and neglect that has been festering for years. The police find themselves confronted with a bloody murder that turns out to be intramural: The victim is a policeman, notorious for his brutal methods and considered shameful or at least an embarrassment by the detectives now charged with apprehending his bloodthirsty killer. Soon they have reason to believe that the killer may not be appeased by the death of only one policeman.
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo were purposeful writers of crime fiction. The crimes investigated by Martin Beck, chief of the National Homicide Squad, and his colleagues were pretexts for a critical appraisal of modern Swedish society. The criticism grew more explicit and avowedly Marxist toward the close of the series. In their most effective books - and "The Abominable Man" was one of these - the condemnation of a supposedly socialist system that they considered increasingly harsh and hypocritical seemed more devastating for being implicit in the events and social milieu described. It would surface slowly but inexorably, like some dreadful corpse that refused to stay hidden.
Widerberg has assembled a splendidly anonymous cast, at least to American eyes. There is not a familiar name or face anywhere, just a succession of strong and interesting players, people who seem right instead of recognizable. Safther's lenses are particularly sensitive to variations in facial contours and skin tones, and this photographic astuteness enhances the crisp, realistic acting, designed to fit hand-in-glove with the expressive economy of the directing style.
Even people familiar with the Sjowall-Wahloo books are likely to feel that they're encountering fresh faces. The actors chosen to play at least three of the detective heroes - Carl Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck, Sven Wollter as Lennart Kollberg and Thomas Hellberg as Gunvald Larsson - don't really correspond to the physical descriptions given by the authors, but they embody the personalities. For example, one might expect the tall, trim, solitary Beck to appear in a form closer to Max von Sydow's, but Lindstedt is such a quietly persuasive presence that one accepts his bulk and his beefy jowly visage, which is reminiscent of Broderick Crawford's.
Hakan Serner, cast as mild-manered homicide cop Einar Ronn, is especially ingenious at minimal expression that provokes considerable amusement. Serner has a meek little Elisha Cook Jr. Face that now and then acquires a blank expression recalling Stan Laurel at his most perplexed. Ronn is dead tired when the murder is discovered and must function in a state of near exhaustion throughout the story.
Serner is a wizard at little shrugs and hollow-eyed glares and puzzled frowns. Widerberg and Safther have even composed one shot around his shrug, placing his left shoulder in the foreground during a conversation with Lindstedt during a conversation with Lindstedt at the scene of the crime. That slight lift in his shoulder as Ronn registers another noncommittal response provides the scene with a peculiarly droll visual capper.
Ronn's exhaustion is an entertaining ruse to begin with, since Ronn comes up with one of the key observations in the case while apparently asleep on his feet. Serner's playing enhances the joke without ever falsifying or broadening the premise of a man fighting off the need to sleep. Most of the performances are distinguished by this humourous clarity and discretion.
There are startling little details that make you realize anew how fabulous realistic acting can be. For example Birgitta Valberg, who plays the victim's wife turns the act of swallowing sedattives into an oddly touching, revealing moment by throwing her head back with each swallow and apologizing when one of the pills catches briefly in her throat.
There is one ragged stretch of cutting during the spectacular climactic scenes, when the police attempt to dislodge the killer from his outpost on an apartment house roof. Widerberg doesn't establish the rooftop perspectives clearly enough to illustrate the utter, if ambitions, folly of one particular mass assault. However, the flaws may be obscured by a general sense of excitement:
To his credit, Widerberg shows more interest in the incongruous, psychologically terrifying aspects of a violent episode than exchanges of gunfire per sc. The strongest images from these scenes are probably the shots of onlookers peering at the spectacle from neighboring apartment house windows: the sight of a dead policeman dangling from a rope as an unsuccessful assault helicopter ferries him back across the rooftops of Stockholm: and the efforts of one policeman to carry a wounded friend to safety, an agonizing task that involves a creepy variation of the dangling posture witnessed only moments earlier.
Those who haven't read the novel may feel confused by the denouement, which is abrupt and seems to leave the fate of a leading character hanging in the balance.For the purposes of a single film. Widerberg may have erred by copying the book's ending so faithfully. It was abrupt in print but seems even more so on the screen.
The abruptness may be less dismaying if one anticipates it, and perhaps it will help to reveal that the character hanging in the balance had recovered when the next novel in the series was published. Sjowall and Wahloo must have felt that the ironies and implications of this ingeniously loaded crime story would be compelling enough to excuse and abrupt sign-off, and they were right.