The plot is, at first glance, a simple one; a policeman, recuperating in hospital is disturbed by an unseen intruder and brutally and repeatedly stabbed to death by a bayonet (pigs blood was used for the effect as Widerberg deemed the fake blood insufficient) Martin Beck, a weary and unhappily married family man investigates alongside his colleague the hapless Einar Ronn. During the proceedings they discover the murdered policeman was known for brutal and sadistic methods, but the corrupt and lazy station house he operated from turned a blind eye. They discover the murderer killed for revenge, in memory of his wife, a diabetic who fell into a coma in the street and was picked up by his the policeman as a drunk, ignored and died in her cell.
This type of story is indicative of Sjowall and Wahloo's writing; as Marxists they didn't just concern themselves with the crimes viewed by the law and society, but the crimes made in society from government and poor management from those we are meant to look up to.
By this time however, the murderer has positioned himself on a rooftop in the city of Stockholm, Charles Whitman style, and is taking pot shots with his automatic rifle at the citizens, and anyone official who tries to stop him, down below. One memorable scene even sees him shoot down a police helicopter, sending it crashing into the tube way entrance on the street below.
A tight, claustrophobic film, The Man On The Roof alternates between a standard police procedural, a social critique and an action movie. Indeed, Widerberg was inspired to make it from viewing The French Connection, and this movie has much in common in terms of realism and the dangerous shoot out and chase that occurs in that film's middle section.
It's easy to see what turned around 750,000 Swedish citizens on to this movie upon it's release, for one they were already fans of the successful books and secondly, they were probably invigorated to see something that could take on Hollywood. It probably made a change from the usual Bergman movies!
As a reader and fan of the books myself, this film is rather pleasing. There are some discrepancies; of course the characters never quite match up to those in your head, but the film's Beck played by Carl-Gustaf Lindstet (a comic actor cast against type as the serious film lead after Widerberg saw him on live TV with a solemn expression, unaware the camera was observing him!) is a little too old, whilst Sven Wollter's Kolberg is too much the natural capable action man rather than the fat policeman of the book.
My own favourite character of the series, the Gene Hunt like Gunvald Larsson is here played by Thomas Hellberg. He scores on making his character brusque and off hand and something of a dapper dresser, but he's too short for the role.
Folke Hjort's Mellander is only briefly seen and rather rotund, whilst Haken Serner makes a convincing Ronn, and just as well for it was he who bagged the Best Actor award.
It's rarely seen on these shores, but it can be picked up, if you look in the right places (make sure subtitles in English are included, unless you're blessed enough to speak Swedish) It is worth a watch, and takes it's rightful place among fellow superb 70s policiers that our American cousins churned out at the time.
And without it, or Sjowall and Wahloo, there'd be no Wallander, no Forbrydelsen aka The Killing, no Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and no Harry Hole thrillers by Jo Nesbo.