Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Surrealistic Spies in Switzerland: Jean-Louis Roy's The Unknown Man of Shandigor

THE UNKNOWN MAN OF SHANDIGOR / L'Inconnu de Shandigor 
(Jean-Louis Roy, Switzerland, 1967, 96 mins) 

With this stylish Cold War satire, Swiss filmmaker Jean-Louis Roy crafted his own unique Dr. No-meets-Dr. Strangelove hybrid. Nominated for the Palme d'Or, yet unjustly neglected for decades, the loopy results play more like one of those mod '60s films that inspired Austin Powers--say, The 10th Victim--than a big-budget Bond production. And that is definitely not a complaint.  

Roy, who cowrote the screenplay with Gabriel Arout and Pierre Koralnik (director of the hard-to-find Serge Gainsbourg musical Anna) alternates between French, Russian, and American operatives. He starts by introducing a grumpy, aquiline-nose man in a wheelchair, Professor Von Krantz (The City of Lost Children's Daniel Emilfork, looking a little like Miguel Ferrer), inventor of The Canceler XII3, a contraption that neutralizes atomic weapons. 

Though reporters clamor to interview the Professor, he can't be bothered, snapping at one rather large fellow, "You are a walking blob of sperm!" The widowed scientist shares an under-furnished, modernist villa with his albino assistant, Yvan (Marcel Imhoff), and his beautiful blonde daughter, Sylvaine (Marie-France Boyer, Agnès Varda’s La Bonheur), who attends to his every need. 

Another gent with a distinctive visage, actor-musician Serge Gainsbourg, clad in black suit and leather gloves, plays Le Chef des Chauves, the combination spymaster and music director of a band of bald musician spies clad in pseudo-beatnik outfits. In a particularly amusing sequence, one baldie instructs the others on the art of the disguise, except his personas--"a tragedian," "a duchess," etc.--are anything but inconspicuous. 

If The Unknown Man of Shandigor revolves around the futility of war, it's also a treatise on surveillance. Just as the spies, including Howard Vernon's Bobby Gun (great name), a Nazi-turned-American agent, train their sights on the villa, the Professor and Yvan spy on Sylvaine. In other words, they may be on the side of good, but they're not necessarily good people. (For those unfamiliar with the prepossessing Vernon, his amazing filmography includes Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Silence de Mer, Jess Franco's The Awful Dr. Orloff, and Jean-Luc Godard's visually similar Alphaville.) 

While the spies try to figure out how to swipe the Professor’s plans, Sylvaine pines for Manuel, a trench coat-clad figure from her past (played by Ben Carruthers from John Cassavetes' Shadows). Her possessive, controlling father seems glad that he disappeared from her life, but Sylvaine can't let it go. When she attempts to reunite with Manuel, the baldies spirit her away. 

Left alone in an unsecured beach house, Sylvaine makes her escape to the mythical Shandigor (represented by the storybook structures of Antoni Gaudí) to find Manuel. If it wasn't clear by now, the baldies are far more skillful at music-making than spy-craft. As for the increasingly unhinged Professor, he's convinced she'll return, and she will, but not for the reason he thinks, i.e. that she can't live without him. 

Along the way, the various factions attempt to eliminate each other: poisoned gases fill secret chambers, daggers fly across museum spaces, machine guns rat-a-tat at bowlers and chess-players--even "capitalist" rock & roll is wielded as a weapon. Eventually, most of these characters fade from view, and Roy shifts his gaze to a mysterious, amphibious figure with an advantage over all of the others in his attempt to steal the Professor’s plans. 

Roy made The Unknown Man of Shandigor in Geneva and Barcelona, and it's a remarkable-looking film shot by cinematographer Roger Bimpage, who had a fairly brief run (1954-1974). He remains best known, if at all, for his work with the director. I regret that he didn't get or take the chance to work more often. It may be completely coincidental, but I wonder if he wasn’t familiar with Seconds. His use of inky shadows and razor-sharp angles recalls James Wong Howe's disorienting work on John Frankenheimer's 1966 thriller. 

Alphonse Roy's score adds to the appeal, ranging from vibe-saturated passages to guitar reverberations to orchestral maneuvers bolstered by excitable choristers, though the most memorable musical moment arrives with Serge Gainsbourg's pipe organ-drenched performance of "Bye Bye Mister Spy." 

I've never seen a film that combines the more eye-catching elements from the French New Wave and German Expressionism quite like this one--and I haven't even mentioned the ravenous sea creature, the embalming sequence, or the Russian spy's pint-sized sidekick. As Samm Deighan notes in her commentary, the film "is absolutely its own beast--in the best way." 

The Unknown Man of Shandigor is available to stream exclusively via Projectr or see it on the big screen, for one night only, at The Beacon. Better yet, I recommend shelling out for the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray, which includes Deighan’s commentary, an essay from Chris D. of the Flesheaters (a known authority on cult cinema), new interviews, and a vintage made-for-Swiss-TV documentary. Images from Deaf Crocodile and Mubi

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