This film is available from Amazon.co.uk
Increasingly, it seems that English language examinations of post-war French cinema begin and end with the new wave directors who graduated from Cahiers du Cinéma. I hate to point it out, but something is seriously wrong here: this stream of filmmaking amounted to just a tiny amount of the total productions to emanate from that country during the period. A whole raft of talented and interesting individuals were also busily at work: Melville occasionally gets a mention, but the likes of Georges Lautner, Henri Verneuil, Georges Franju and Jacques Deray are seeming consigned to the dark vaults of ‘exploitation’ – as opposed to somehow ‘valuable’ – cinema.
In no case is this more unjust than that of Henri-Georges Clouzot. He may not have been the most prolific of directors – just under 20 films between 1931 and 1968 – but, after all, two of them (at least) are now considered to be absolute classics: Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 53) and Les Diaboliques (The Fiends, 55). Perhaps this neglect is due to the fact that he came from the generation before the new-wave proper, perhaps because his films were always populist in nature, but their gradual appearance on high-quality DVD should hopefully act as a carrot to the critical establishment.
Les Espions came just after both of the aforementioned works in 1957. Like them, it displays an incredible degree of prescience: if Diaboliques anticipated the giallos of the late sixties and Salaire the stunt fueled car-chase thrillers of the seventies, Espions was a good few years ahead of the post-Bond influx of espionage films that would characterize the following decade. In fact, it wasn’t the only work of its type to emerge at the time: Jean Sacha’s O.S.S 117 n’est pas mort, an early entry in the popular OSS117 series,was released in the same year.
Dr. Malic (Gerard Séty), an impoverished psychiatrist in the French countryside, divides his time between trying to help the (two) inmates of his asylum and enjoying a few glasses of Muscadet in the local drinking hole. A self proclaimed cynic, he’s much given to railing against the establishment and expressing his fatalistic view of human nature (‘…it’s the pacifists who start wars’).
His life rapidly changes, however, when he is approached by a certain Colonel Howard (Paul Carpenter), who claims to work for the ‘US Institute of Psychological Warfare’. Howard is rather a strange fish – he seems continually worried and even the smell of blood makes him physically ill. Despite this, he has an interesting proposition: that the Doctor should put up a secret agent called Alex in his hospital for a couple of days. Alex apparently has some important information, which various international secret service organizations would give their eye teeth to get hold of, and is need of a secluded hideaway. Seeing the sizeable payment on offer, and in search of a little bit of adventure, Malic quickly agrees.
Disconcerting things immediately begin to happen. His nurse goes on holiday and is replaced by a hatchet faced bag called Miss Harper (Martita Hunt); the maidservant disappears; a couple of hoodlums take up residence in the kitchen; and a number of strangers – all of whom seem to know an awful lot about him – start frequenting his local tavern. When Alex (Curd Jurgens) finally does arrive, he’s a somewhat intimidating chap who wears sunglasses and gloves at all times.
It soon becomes likely that Alex is, in fact, a Russian scientist called Dr. Vogel, and he has invented a horrible secret weapon (a nuclear device the size of a button and as powerful as a neutron bomb) that is much coveted by both East and West. Malic, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly frustrated with all the intrigue around him, and desperately tries to extricate himself from the mess. This however, proves to be difficult; once a contract with ‘the agency’ has been signed, it cannot be broken… except in the case of the contractee’s death.
First things first: Les Espions is very, very different to the fantastical, phantasmagorical spy films of the sixties. It has a much more old fashioned, stately look and feel; most particularly in the expressionistic black and white cinematography. The pacing is slow-building rather than full-throttle, giving it a closer feel to the likes of Franju’s Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face, 60) than the Bond or Bulldog Drummond productions. Certain elements – most especially the appearance of the idiosyncratic Alex – also bring to mind the Andre Hunebelle Fantômas films or, more particularly, Fritz Lang’s marvelous Die Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 60).
It also introduces several narrative themes that were to recur during the espionage boom: the labyrinthine, Kafkaesque world of spying; the innocent who becomes caught up in international intrigue; the eccentric nature of the spies themselves. The central character becomes increasingly paranoid as the absurdity of his position becomes clear, and with some justification; a situation that would crop up again in productions as diverse as Luciano Salce’s Slalom (65) and Ralph Thomas’s Hot Enough for June (65). In this case, however, despite starting lightly the narrative becomes increasingly dark before drawing to an ambiguous, downbeat close. It’s all far from Georges Lautner’s superficially similar Les Barbouzes (The Great Spy Chase, 64).
Clouzot’s direction is top-notch, substantiating his occasional portrayal as the French Hitchcock, and really comes into its own during the second half (after the somewhat convoluted exposition has passed). Most impressive is a stand out sequence in which Malic makes his way through a roomful of drying sheets in search of the unfortunate Colonel Howard, a poetic moment that has something of the gothiqueabout it. There’s also a splendid chase inside a train that seems to be entirely occupied by competing agents (something else that would be replayed time and time again in the following years). He also makes good use of sound, with both a jaunty tune played on the ocarina and a ringing telephone assuming hidden, sinister overtones.
Performances are of a uniformly high quality. Top-billed Curd Jurgens doesn’t really have more than an extended cameo, but he is memorably creepy and Mabusian. Gérard Séty is less showy - but equally impressive - as the befuddled psychiatrist: his character begins rather unsympathetically (especially in his treatment of mute patient Véra Clouzot), but gradually gains the audience’s empathy. French character actors Jean Brochard, Daniel Emilfork and Clement Harari contribute impressive turns, as does American actor Sam Jaffe (as an excitable agent holed up in a local school). Best of all, though, are Martita Hunt as the formidable Miss Harper (a prototype for Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love (63), perhaps) and the late Peter Ustinov as the egg-eating, ursine Kaminsky.
he C’Est La Vie DVD on release in the UK boast a high quality print, albeit with the occasional signs of wear and tear that you’d expect for its age. The black and white photography looks gorgeous, and it does seem to have been presented in its original 1.66:1 ratio. Extras are a (French language) trailer for Les Diaboliques , a decent gallery and some rather half hearted bios for Jurgens, Ustinov and the two Clouzots.