In 1949 Jean Cocteau adapted the Greek myth of Orpheus to the cinema, in a contemporary setting of post-war Europe. His use of motorcycles in this dark, evocative tale set the pattern of associating Death with Motorcycles in film forever after, and established the Dark Rider phenomenon in the popular imagination. In short, Cocteau was the first to associate motorcycles with menace in the arts: previously, they had merely been interesting kinetic props, but Cocteau, already famous as a Surrealist poet and playwright/set designer before WW2 in France, was first to see something very different and dark on two wheels.
Cocteau’s first commercial film, the stunning adaptation of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1947), was a huge success, and is still the best version of the story, with wonderful special effects created ‘in camera’. Cocteau then shifted from fairy tale to ancient myth, and was the first director to fully grasp the totemic power of the motorcycle, and used it to stunning impact, creating a lasting association with Death which echoes through movies even today, and powerfully influenced the filmmakers who followed him, most notably Kenneth Anger (who spent time with Cocteau in Paris, and later directed the ultimate art house biker film, “Scorpio Rising”) and Laslo Benedek, director of ‘The Wild One’.
In Cocteau’s film version of the myth, Orpheus is a poet whose fame is great, but who lacks respect from the new, young, existentialist/beatnik poets who hang out at the Café des Poétes. While visiting the café, Orpheus is disrespected by the very drunk but very hot new poet Cegeste, who is shortly killed by a dark pair of motorcyclists roaring past. A rich woman in a Rolls Royce (the Princess), who escorted Cegeste to the cafe, orders Orpheus to help carry the body of the young poet in her car. She reveals to Orpheus that she is Death, and the lethal motorcyclists are her henchmen. Orpheus and Death fall in love, and Death sends Cegeste’s poetry through the radio in her Rolls to Orpheus, who becomes obsessed with this poetry and with Death herself, and ignores his beautiful wife Eurydice.
Death is jealous, and her henchmen kill Eurydice, although a guilty Orpheus follows her to the Underworld through a mirror, a simple and effective special effect using dual film stocks, reversed footage, and a 2-ton tub of mercury. For interfering with Life, the Princess must stand before a tribunal in a ruined building (much of the Underworld is a bombed-out French military school), for it seems that while nobody really gives the orders for who is to live and die, such orders echo through Hades like the sound of drums. Orpheus wins Eurydice back to Life, but catches a glimpse of her in the rear-view mirror of the Rolls. The Bacchantes, habitués of a lesbian beatnik bar, are furious that their former bar-girl Eurydice is dead, and kill Orpheus. Cocteau’s use of in-camera special effects is simple and evocative, and using motorcyclists as the Henchmen of Death is memorably effective; the roar of their approaching engines is the cue that someone is about to die; the bikes roar into the scene for a shadowy instant, then blast away down the road, leaving a body sprawled on the pavé.
As it turns out, Death rode an Indian in 1949, or two in fact; the machines used in the film look are a 1937 Chief and a 1940 Sport Scout with skirted fenders. The two machines are mismatched, but ‘Orpheus’ was made on a very limited budget, and only much later DVD technology revealed the bikes’ details. Watching the movie, one can tell they’re Indians, but it hardly matters – what they really are is Death in motion. The Henchmen’s outfits are standard motorcycle gear – leather helmets with shaded goggles (a darkened half-lens can be flipped up or down; I have a pair), dark wool shirts and trousers, gauntlet gloves, and wide leather kidney belts. No special costume was required to create the kind of menace a motorcycle policeman uses daily as a tool of intimidation.
All motorcyclists intuitively feel their visual impact as a rider on pedestrians or automotive observers. On a motorcycle, we become Centaurs: half-human, half-roaring mechanical beast, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we love the thrill of that dark power, which some riders exploit as a total lifestyle. There’s an alchemical transformation of a rider on a motorcycle, and the erotic bond of human/machine is part of what makes them irresistible, and mesmerizing to watch. Jean Cocteau was the first to recognize and exploit this power artistically, which is no surprise given his pre-war identification with the Surrealists, who were disciples of the unconscious, rigorously exploring Freud’s writings, and using his theories as tools for their art. Undoubtedly Cocteau’s meditations on hidden psychological forces led to his realization of the motorcycle’s power, even though he was not himself a motorcyclist. The totality of the riding experience is both sides of the coin Cocteau flipped – the underside being Death’s henchmen, the bright side the thrill of being fully alive on two wheels.