By Thomas Puhr.
Contemporary audiences will hear Roy’s sardonic message loud and clear. Whether they’ll laugh or cry (or both) is a matter of taste.:
“Swiss director Jean-Louis Roy’s long-lost mid-1960s Cold War super-spy thriller is a marvelous and surreal hall of mirrors, part-Dr. Strangelove, part-Alphaville,” reads the press release for Deaf Crocodile’s Blu-ray restoration of The Unknown Man of Shandigor (1967). These comparisons are understandable (plenty of atomic angst and solemn men in trench coats to go around), but they downplay the novelty of the film’s central premise. The McGuffin for which a motley crew of international spies are vying, “The Canceler,” has the power to disarm every nuclear weapon on the planet. In this sense, The Unknown Man is the antithesis of Dr. Strangelove (its first shot shows a nuclear explosion in reverse, a mushroom cloud folding in on itself and disappearing). The fear isn’t annihilation, but sterilization. Imagine a world where we can’t blow each other up. Oh, the humanity!
The man responsible for this device is Herbert Von Krantz (Daniel Emilfork, whose aquiline facial features make him the perfect fit for a mad scientist), who is holed up in a booby-trapped villa with his daughter Sylvaine (Marie-France Boyer, of Le Bonheur fame) and faithful assistant Yvan (Marcel Imhoff). Those trying to steal The Canceler designs include American spy/007 wannabe Bobby Gun (Howard Vernon), Russian spy Schoskatovich (Jacques Dufilho, who seems to be channeling Colonel Klink with his monocle-wearing buffoonery), and a mysterious group of men named The Baldies, who move together with perfect synchronization in matching black sweaters and are headed by Le Chef des Chauves (a scene-stealing Serge Gainsbourg, who even gets his own musical number).
As you may have guessed by now, Roy’s humor is a bit more erratic than that of Kubrick or Godard. Sometimes this works to the film’s benefit. One of the stronger bits shows the head Baldie testing out a new disguise kit – one which can seamlessly turn you into “a duchess,” “a Chinese man,” and “a black man” (each “disguise” is played by a different actor). “Be assured, they all fit in this case,” he tells his underlings, holding up a small carry-all bag. “You just have to know how to fit them in.” And Gainsbourg’s jazzy musical number, delivered at a comrade’s funeral, is a peak moment of absurdity. “Bye Bye, Mister Spy,” he laments, accompanied by organ. “Go to the country where silencers find silence.” Other setups – such as a mysterious “Beast” which Von Krantz keeps in his swimming pool for some reason – fall flat or disappear without a punchline. But at the end of the day, the writer-director keeps things moving swiftly enough to make the film’s 90ish minutes move along at an agreeable clip.
Most striking is Roy’s and cinematographer Roger Bimpage’s visual style (the black-and-white imagery looks gorgeous in the new 4k restoration). Their integration of distorted low angles, sweeping dolly shots, 8mm footage, and enough title cards to compose a short story (“A Russian Intercepting an American Message” being a particularly verbose example) is a mad cauldron of influences, from German Expressionism to Action Comics. Coupled with a similar hodgepodge of musical cues (Bond-like guitar riffs, Gothic organ arrangements, even some garage rock), the net effect can occasionally be dizzying rather than thrilling. But at least it’s never boring, and it never seems slapdash. Even the most chaotic moments feel carefully arranged.
Editor (and wife of Roy) Francoise Roy affirms this in an interview included in the Blu-ray release. When asked if the film underwent many revisions from script to screen, her response is quick and resolute: “No. Jean-Louis had an extremely specific idea of what he wanted. And there were no major changes. And he chose a screenwriter to write the script he had imagined.” It’s also in this interview that we learn of Roy and Emilfork’s falling out; apparently, the actor thought he was in a “serious film” and didn’t know it was a dark comedy until its Cannes premiere.
But in its own way, the film is quite serious, even bleak. This is a satire, after all. Consider Von Krantz’s monologue about various governments’ responses to his discovery: “I try to find a way to save the world…I find it. I kick anxiety in the teeth. Do you think they’re relieved? No. All they want from my invention is to ensure military supremacy.” Scholar Samm Deighan’s audio commentary, also included in the new release, echoes this very-real fear of destructive global competition, particularly during the Cold War. “Something that I think this film reflects in a really wonderful way is this idea…that it almost doesn’t matter what the advancements are, or how they help people,” she says. “It’s this competitive, almost macho quality of making advancements just for the sake of it, and just so you can say you have the technology, or you did it first.” It’s a fantastic audio track, one which persuasively displays how Unknown Man is closer in spirit, despite its surface silliness, to the likes of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) than first-time viewers may think.
It can be a bit depressing how topical films like The Unknown Man of Shandigor remain. But it’s also encouraging that more of them are seeing the light of day, thanks to boutique releases like this. Contemporary audiences will hear Roy’s sardonic message loud and clear. Whether they’ll laugh or cry (or both) is a matter of taste.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.