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IN A TYPICAL murder mystery of any era, the delineations of good and evil are always clear. On one side is the bad guy, the man who has flaunted all social and moral conventions by taking the life of another human being. On the other side stands a force representing society, automatically identified as the good guy, no matter how perverse or corrupt the person or organization may be. For example, even Dirty Harry, the psychopathic vengeance-seeker, becomes one of the "good guys" within this basic framework. These opposing forces usually are taken for granted, and most murder mysteries do not delve any further into the matter, save for a few offhand comments on the fallibility of the men in the white hats. Bo Widerberg's Man on the Roof, however, confronts this automatic assumption in a serious and thought-provoking manner, functioning not only as a top-notch suspense film but also as a valuable comment on our naive notions regarding just who is good and who is evil in both fictional and real-life situations.
Man on the Roof deals with the murder of a Swedish police inspector, Stig Nyman, who meets his Maker in a Stockholm hospital room at the hands of a bayonet-wielding figure. The murder is horribly bloody and practically guaranteed to turn the stomachs of the squeamish. In fact, only Sam Peckinpah could really enjoy it. But like the rest of the film it is quite realistic, and therefore effective.
The mystery involved is fairly simple. Man on the Roof is not a whodunit in the traditional sense. True, the identity of the murderer, who late in the film takes to the rooftops and opens fire on policemen with deadly accuracy, is not known at the outset, but the question of who he is is nowhere near as important as those of what he is and why he is there, elements absent from most conventional mysteries. If you like to pick up cleverly strewn clues and try to beat the heroes to the inevitable punch, you'll be disappointed, for Widerberg has something very different in mind, although he uses the mystery vehicle very well.
The police proceed methodically and unemotionally about the solution of the heinous crime. Carl-Gustav Lindstedt turns in a strong, understated performance as Detective-Inspector Martin Beck, an unlikely protagonist given his nondescript, middle-aged appearance and his plodding method. Hakan Serner plays Beck' partner, a worried, weary little man who does most of the legwork. The foils are provided by Kollberg (Sven Wollter) and Larsson (Thomas Hellberg), two handsome young cops who cordially and sarcastically detest each other, but who manage to wrap up the case in the end. One is wealthy and arrogant, the other working-class, bright and likeable.
None of the characters are heroes, or even whipcrack detectives. But they all seem very real, as opposed to the ridiculously larger-than-life heroes of most films. Realism suffuses the film and makes it credible. The cops are just men doing their jobs. In fact, the murdered inspector turns out to have been a brutal and incompetent policeman, a man who made countless enemies during his career. The iconoclastic Kolberg notes that he best remembered Inspector Nyman for teaching him how he cut off a pig's penis without making the animal squeal.
Here Widerberg begins to make his point. What is a policeman, after all? To some, he is an esteemed protector of law and order. To others, he is a licensed thug, doing society's dirty work to maintain the status quo. Of course, the truth lies somewhere between those two extremes, as Widerberg tries to show. One cannot assume that a cop is good solely because he is a cop. But this does not necessarily imply the opposite--the killer is not justified just because his target is evil hiding behind a facade of goodness. Some men are good, some bad, but their value is determined by their characters, not by their jobs. Other films have made this point, but Widerberg brings it home with his sharp characterizations.
WIDERBERG provides two compelling portraits of men of flawed character behind the socially acceptable role of public servant. One is Lt. Hult, the victim's sidekick, a vicious bully who proudly wears his uniform on his day off. The other is the Commissioner, who presents a slick media image but is completely ineffective when presented with the crisis that ends the film. Both are scoundrels, but they are also cops, which blinds most people to their failings. Widerberg will have no such nonsense, and therein lies the strength of Man on the Roof.
The film is technically superb as well. The cinematography is excellent; Widerberg avoids typical shots and mixes in a few striking ones, including a terrifying glimpse of the murderer's eye peering through the drapes of the hospital room. He effectively cuts back again and again to the bloody scene of the crime, and as the suspense builds towards the end, he moves back and forth with devastating effect between the horror in the streets and some incredibly mundane dialogue. The tension mounts toward a swift climax, and although the ending is a bit too abrupt and ideologically confusing, it is effective.
Man on the Roof is no pulpy lightweight thriller--it has something important to say, and it says it very well. It is not, however, the kind of film you'll rave about, but it is quite good and definitely worthwhile. And compared to most of the films showing during what Vincent Canby aptly calls the "silly season," you can't lose. The only thing you can lose, in fact, is a couple of ingrained preconceptions about who and what the good guys really are.
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