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The Man on the Roof

National Imaginaries


A recent season of films at a national cinema house called itself Nordic Noir, and one may well wonder how that fits into a general notion of noir that is based on suspicion, corruption, greed and manipulation. All these elements would seem to fit into an American belief in the individual and getting on, and into a social system where there are winners and losers, and often poverty and great wealth. Sometimes the gap will be small but telling: in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the poor male character comes into town looking for some work, and finds it as a mechanic at a small petrol station cum diner. The husband and wife are hardly wealthy, but they have more than the drifter who comes into their midst – and isn’t the wife damned sexy? This is finally less about getting the American Dream, than escaping the American nightmare. James M. Cain’s noir novel was written in 1934 in the middle of the depression, and carried the whiff not of hope but down and dirty despair. Cain’s Double Indemnity was first published in magazine form a year or two year after, and was not exactly a more optimistic story from the point of view of human nature, but was at least from the perspective of human comfort. Walter Neff is an insurance salesman interested in big-time money, and while he wants the girl as much as the mechanic does in the earlier story, he also reckons he can get the lifestyle the wife leads also: the couple are rich.

It would make sense that Italian neo-realism would pick up on Cain’s story, and film it in 1942 as Ossessione, but less likely that such a burgeoning realist and socially conscientious movement would have been interested in Double Indemnity. Both Postman… and Double Indemnity were of course filmed by Hollywood in the forties, and while both seem obviously consistent with American desperation and aspiration respectively – perhaps the twin motors behind noir – other national cinemas, less interested in the notion of the dream, would be more concerned with the former than the latter. When at the end of the recent Swedish film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the young female character goes off with a fortune, you’re not only wondering about the plausibility of the plot – this is a woman of great capabilities who nevertheless has earlier in the film allowed herself to be manipulated and exploited by her supposed social worker/parole officer. It is the sort of characterization that requires she be abused so that she can get revenge, but gains it in so elaborately impressive a way that you wonder how intelligent a person allowed herself to be manipulated in the first place.

Yet that would seem to be only half the problem; the other half resides in its aspirational conclusion where the American ideology sits behind Swedish social democracy. Now this is not at all to say the Swedish system is thoroughly democratic and the American one completely lacking in safety nets, social housing and education, but what is generally the case is that the US presents itself as the land of the free, where Scandinavia, and perhaps especially Sweden, offers itself up as the land of the safe. This doesn’t mean that a film’s hands need to be tied by the social system that the country supposedly works out of, but the avaricious, clever ending seems to be part of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s generic hollowness. It makes the film feel like it could have been made anywhere, that its social dimension is very much secondary to its social claustrophobia, the degree to which Sweden is shown to be a small country with many secrets and power belonging to certain individuals. Though it was shown as part of the Nordic Noir season, it can be seen completely out-with the Nordic context and play easily enough: it could have been set in any number of other countries. Can the same be said of Bo Widerberg’s fascinating 1976 film The Man on the Roof?

Loosely a cop thriller mystery, the film is far less concerned with whodunit than with the problems of the police force out of which certain brutal acts come. Opening on a vicious slaying with a sword, the film muses over who might be responsible for slaughtering a police officer who was lying all but dead in hospital anyway. The victim though was a cop with an horrendous record of complaints against him. While this makes motive reasonably easy to discern, it makes the chance of finding the killer less so: how many people in Stockholm and beyond had a gripe against this man?  Yet what fascinates Widerberg aren’t the large odds against the cops finding out who did the killing, but the manner in which the crime sits uneasily in their conscience, and how they might also be next in line for someone who has a grievance against the police force.

Early in the film the police inspector Martin Beck (Carl Gustaf Lindstedt) comments to his daughter that she used to boast to her friends that her father was a cop; now she seems indifferent. This might at first be assumed to be a problem of the girl now being a teenager, but later on it seems much clearer the remark was made by a cop who wonders whether they’re really doing their job as public servants. Now there are plenty moments in the cop genre where the officer has a crisis of conscience, but these are often located less in social injustice, than in recklessness of behaviour (a buddy gets killed as in Basic Instinct) or massive corruption in the force (Serpico, Prince of the City), but by most cop movie standards Man on the Roof would be an opportunity for police indignation more than social searching. Certainly one of their men as been shockingly killed, but most of the other cops the film focuses upon are almost pacifist in their approach to violence and criminality. One cop who we first see at home in the high rise he shares with his partner and child won’t carry a gun, and another, who does have a liking for weapons, nevertheless insists that the titular character should be arrested without violence, even if the man starts shooting at the cops.

What Widerberg offers is a rare cop pacifist film, a work that might be dismissed by Jan Dawson in Time Out as a work that doesn’t cut it is a cop movie, saying “the few tense moments… just aren’t enough to make it a thriller”, but better to ignore Dawson’s thrill-seeking demands, and instead muse over the manner in which such a film hovers over the conscience of the cop movie. If one can talk of a national sensibility within a generic format, one could do worse than see what type of films a nation is likely to make in relation to the national values it is supposed to espouse. Sweden is famously state centred, pacifist and non-intervenionist. “The popular image of Sweden abroad”, The Encylopedia Britannica says, “is of a modern welfare state pursuing quasi-socialist policies to assure “cradle to grave” security and egalitarian distribution of income amongst its people.” There are of course problems, the Encyclopedia mentions housing shortages around the big cities, and the flirtation with Nazism and genetic experimentation is well known (indeed the former proves vital to the plot of The Girl with the Dragon Tatttoo as it doesn’t so much utilise national specificity as exploit it).

Thus the general impression of Sweden is antithetical to that of the States, and it is as though a national generic cinema functions best with an awareness of how it is generally perceived, and how it perceives itself, within the context of its national imaginary. For example, frequently the French cop film touches upon racial abuse, from La Balance, to La Haine, from The Young Lieutenant to A Prophet, and a recent article in the Guardian by Michael Cosgrove notes that while as a white man he was perfectly welcome in France, others were not. “Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians – Maghrebis – and Africans make up the bulk of France’s estimated 6.5 million immigrants and they do not appear to have things as easy as I do.” He observes that it is a rare Saturday afternoon in Paris where a number aren’t stopped and searched. Cosgrove also notes that such racism is not acknowledged in statistics, saying that official figures on racial discrimination are hard to find because France sees itself as an egalitarian country. Yet the popular perception of France is not so forgiving, and numerous filmmakers touch upon the racism that is clear to see. In Widerberg’s film it is as though he has taken the problem of people’s dissatisfaction with the police, but placed it in the context of a still pacifist leaning country, and shows the rot without questioning the state and national character at the same time.

The film offers this loosely pacifistic enquiry in at least two ways. One is through relative complexity of character, the other through the film’s choice of shots. One member of the chief’s team announces that he is happy with weaponry is first witnessed getting into his car as his colleague and rival gets out of his. The rival, with his flash, light clothing matching the colour of his blonde hair, and a fur hat which protects him from the cold but gives him an extra couple of inches in height, is cop as dandy. He is clearly contrasted with the other cop, whom we first see standing half naked in an orange football top, his balls hanging out. It is true that Widerberg doesn’t entirely escape stereotyping in general form, but easily does so in relation to detail. The two young cops are the young guns who want to solve a case, except one won’t even carry a weapon, and the other will happily carry his own boss after Beck has been shot by the sniper on the roof. Beck has tried to get up on the roof to bring the man down without violence, and gets shot in the chest for his troubles. His subordinate goes and gets him. Is is not an heroic action but a gesture of humanity, replicating his boss’s own.

Another, more cynical filmmaker might have filmed for farce, offering a cold, cynical eye on the incompetence of the Stockholm police as they struggle to get their man. But Widerberg has always been a filmmaker interested in the tender and the burgeoning over the aggressive and the determined, evident for example in The Pram, Elvira Madigan and Love Lessons, so wonders how such a sensibility plays out in a genre usually given over to the hard-boiled. This is soft-boiled cop thriller, with the tough guys presented as bad eggs, or bad apples next to the good eggs. When Beck muses early in the film over his daughter’s lack of interest now in her dad being a cop, it may finally have little to do with the corruption in the profession from her point of view, but it gives him the opportunity to muse over why the younger generation wouldn’t have much faith in them.

In this first instance of filmic pacifism what Widerberg does is give the film a constantly human core by integrating character into various areas of situation and behaviour. For Beck there are the details of his home life, as a man estranged from his family no matter if he is still living in the same space. With one of the young cops the opposite is true: he has young baby and a wife he is keen to make love with at every opportunity, no matter the baby’s constant presence.  The long lens shot we see of the apartment doesn’t function as a typical establishing shot, designating the space before the event, but instead socially locating it after it: we see the flat as the cop leaves for work.

The last point leads us into the second instance of filmic pacifism. If the first locates us in character and place so that the human life is sacrosanct through its singularity, the second comes from the form in which the film is contained. The New York Times said while praising the film that “at a time when technique is everything and technique is nil” the film deals with ideas. The New York Times may have been too harsh on other films – even the seventies disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake look thoroughly human next to the nineties spectacle movie – but The Man on the Roof does seem to push further than most into the pacifistic possibilities in action. Here Widerberg film’s action not chiefly from the perspective of the adrenaline rush that creates purposefulness, but from the angle of maximum emotional disturbance. One can think of the killing at the beginning that is filmed with some of the montage dexterity of Psycho’s shower scene, yet with an even greater interest in the mess that results – for many hours the porters are trying to mop up the blood that has stained the floor. On a number of occasions characters comment on the mutilated body being the most extreme violence they’ve ever seen.

More especially, though, it lies in the lengthy sequences where the titular character shoots from the roof, and, later, when the local mayor and the police decide how they are going to get their man. In the former moment the sniper fires apparently indiscriminately into the streets below. The film makes great play of a couple of cops who are lying shot on the street and in the park, and also of a young child who tricycles along the road as a boy a few years older goes to save him. This is the incidental as core subject: where many a mainstream thriller will offer the aftermath briefly as an excuse for heroics, Widerberg is interested in the aftermath as an end in-itself. The film offers what we might call the logistics of pain, as opposed to the logistics of heroism, as it emphasises what happens to a body rather than what a body can do.

The two young cops are amongst those in trouble, and one of them is injured, but as they hide inside a hospital doorway, Widerberg lingers over their fear more than their heroism. Their final escape from the scene is pathetically simple. They work out that the sniper is shooting at cops and leaving civilians to move freely, so what they do is slip on a couple of doctors’ overcoats and walk out of the building and along the street, This is the generic touch of the comedic; not the heroic element of the action film, and as if to emphasize that bravery is a useless characteristic, late in the film when one of the young cops is looking for a couple of volunteers to go up on the roof with him, he insists he is not looking for heroes.

In the other key action sequence in the film, the mayor reckons the best way to capture the sniper is by helicopter. Crack teams and crack technology are put up into the sky over Stockholm, but the misguided mission concludes with the helicopter whirling out of the sky and landing in the city centre at the stairs of a metro stop. What concerns Widerberg here is not the failed mission, and the spectacle image that comes out of it, but the civic confusion that such a moment generates. Plenty action films indicate an absurdist dimension to the dare-devilry, and we may think for example of the conclusion to Jan De Bont’s Speed. The Dutch De Bont comes like Widerbeg from a country known for its social responsibilities, but in this all-American movie he plays the Hollywood game. There is the occasional shot of a fleeing figure in the tunnel as the metro train the leading characters are on hurtles through it and bursts out of the metro tunnel and onto the street, but though the scenes in The Man on the Roof are ostensibly similar, they function rather differently.

Both are scenes where civic confusion arises: in Speed the train comes out of the tunnel wall and onto the street. In Man on the Roof, the helicopter lands in a metro station staircase. But the aftermath in Speed is ironic: a man casually comments on his vehicle being scratched. The civic chaos is a comic touch; as Speed, like many a spectacle movie, wants irony in extremity: observing the absurd catastrophe that has befallen the city. In The Man on the Roof, the comic touch is in the human gesture: in the cops not playing up their identity but playing it down as they don doctor’s uniforms. Comedy comes into play not to desensitise the audience, but re-sensitise the characters: the pair of them aren’t hardened cops in the usual parlance, but softened by the pragmatism of their gesture, as heroic action gives way to a realization that the path of least resistance and the greatest chance for survival lies not in proving themselves as cops, but pretending they are doctors.

Indeed, it is the hardened cop who comes in for the most damning of verdicts here. It has been the tough, murdered policeman who sets the film in motion and puts other cops lives at risk. One of his most faithful acolytes gets interviewed by Beck, and the latter makes clear he has no time for his methods, and had none for the former’s hero either. Yet at the film’s denouement it will be this cohort who volunteers to help one of the young guns and another person to capture the sniper. But he will also disobey orders and start pummelling the man’s head with his pistol.

Widerberg’s film freeze-frames moments later, as it concludes on the sniper’s body, with the sniper unconscious, possibly dead. It is in narrative terms abrupt, even inept, as the film that set in motion a mystery concludes on moral purposefulness. There is no narrative tempo to this conclusion, no modulated suspense that we expect from third act action sequences, but it is we might say morally modulated. Where the beginning of the film showed extreme violence this finally isn’t the action set-piece to set the film in motion; it is the ethical question the various characters in the film will muse over thereafter. The ending might not be dramatically nuanced, but it captures perfectly the moral conundrum that basically will not now go away. If the film has been set in motion by grievance, then another man possibly dead at the hands of the police is unlikely to make their situation any easier.

In action cop thrillers there are often three elements: character, story and action; with the character functional (or dysfunctional) rather than one-dimensional. They often have wives that have left them (Sea of Love), drink problems they’re overcoming (Lethal Weapon), or children they are too busy to see (Heat). Domestic chaos, past wounds or the problem of staying on the wagon are then dealt with through the development of the story and the action sequences that help sublimate the personal problem into external behaviour. Now obviously some films do it much better than others, and indeed Sea of Love is clearly a much more character based film than Lethal Weapon, but the general point holds: there are three arcs at work: character, story and action, all played out to create a satisfying denouement.

It is this ‘satisfaction’ that seems to be missing from Widerberg’s film, and to conclude it may be useful to look at each in turn and how The Man on the Roof subverts them. First of all there is a proliferation of character and, in each instance, marked specificity. Whether it is Beck, or his two young assistants, we know more than we would usually need to know. For example the sort of information we’re given over concerning one of them – the love he shares with his wife, their young baby – isn’t remotely utilised for plot. In a mainstream work wouldn’t they later be endangered, justifying the couple of minutes’ screen time devoted to their domesticity earlier on? Wouldn’t Beck’s domestic dissatisfaction play out against its dramatic justification later in the film? It is true that he looks willing to sacrifice his life to catch the sniper, but this has much more to do it would seem with his professional beliefs than his attempt to prove himself to his wife and daughter. Even the moments early on with the two young cops might lead us to expect tension later in the film, or categorical conciliation, but neither is the case.

Thus character doesn’t augment story in the sense that Bordwell talks of classical Hollywood storytelling, saying when such narratives “asks us to compare characters or situations, we’re typically given a causal framework.” He notes in The Way Hollywood Tells It that “apart from Intolerance (1916), in which Griffith sought to bring out abstract similarities among four historical epochs, Hollywood has discouraged this sort of construction” Widerberg isn’t quite looking for abstract patterning, but he is searching out the narratively impertinent, the sort of details that add little to narrative thrust, and instead offer narrative idling, as he gives us moments that aren’t based on anticipating what happens next, but an observational sense of what is happening now. Even a small scene of potentially high suspense is played out for its social nuance over its suspensefulness. When the little boy is saved by the older one, the tension generated seems secondary to the empathic feeling displayed.

Action generally gives way to contemplation, to the action contained by the dimension of the contemplative. In the film’s major set-piece with the helicopter, the scene doesn’t function in the tradition of classic set-piece cinema, a form that can incorporate anything from the car/train chase in The French Connection, the Mt Rushmore sequence from North by Northwest, and the helicopter raid on the village in Apocalypse Now, where adrenaline is central even in very fine films like the ones mentioned. In The French Connection and Apocalypse Now, the purpose is to put us into the position of Hackman and the troops respectively. No matter the cross-cutting to the villain and various onlookers in the former, and the village in the latter, both still have a strong dimension of the formally aggressive as Friedkin and Coppola deal more with the rush of violence and speed, where Widerberg wants the pacifistic sense of chaos. This tension between the aggressive pleasure of the adrenaline rush and the need to place that rush within the context of those feeling the opposite is evident in anything from The Wild Bunch to The French Connection, in films that possess scenes of action within a social milieu. Widerberg pushes further than most in the direction of the pacifistic over the aggressive. Generally speaking the action film functions on the basis that the adrenaline is more prominent than the dread, even in disaster films where there are always handful of character involved in adrenalized problem-solving. In Widerberg’s film this adrenalized problem solving is barely evident at all, as the various characters aren’t especially determined to get their man, as minimise the social upheaval surrounding the sniper’s actions.

Hence we notice the film’s threefold questioning of the usual cop movie. The characters are presented with more irrelevant detail than we need of the purposes of the story and thus subsequently slow it down, and the action set-piece eschews much of the adrenaline rush that is usually vital to their very presence. One may agree with Dawson that the film fails, but just as easily argue that it is instead a different type of success; a film far more ‘appropriately’ Swedish than the generically homogenised The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The latter is clearly putting Swedish cinema on the map, but it is as if the map is the least important elements of its success. The Man on the Roof, however, feels decidedly Swedish within the nature of cinema’s national imaginaries.