A spoof made near the beginning of the James Bond-fueled spy craze of the 1960s, The Great Spy Chase (Les Barbouzes, or "The Secret Agents," 1964) is a fairly good if dated comedy. Stylishly directed by Georges Lautner and starring Lino Ventura, one of the great French (though Italian-born) film personalities, the movie is enjoyable if more than a trifle inconsequential, overwrought, and overlong. It's also not as good as the earlier Lautner film Monsieur Gangster (Les tontons flingueurs, 1963), in which Ventura plays a similar character. That movie is subtler and, ultimately, funnier. Still, compared to the much broader spoofs that would quickly follow, The Great Spy Chase is comparatively understated, much more closely resembling Western Germany's krimi, particularly the then-hot Edgar Wallace film series, than it does the 007 movies emanating from Britain.
Apparently part of a package of French titles licensed from Gaumont (some already out on Blu-ray in France), Olive Films' The Great Spy Chase is presented in a sparkling 1.66:1 black-and-white transfer.
Millionaire arms dealer Benard Shah (Robert Secq) dies in a Parisian brothel, and world-weary (and married) spy Francis Lagneau (Lino Ventura) is ordered to deliver the body back to his castle estate. There, pretending to be Shah's cousin, he hopes to negotiate the sale of stolen patents key to the nuclear arms race from Shah's beautiful widow, Amaranthe (Mireille Darc), a former prostitute 40 years Shah's junior.
However, spies from every major world power also simultaneously converge on the castle, masquerading as priests, doctors, family friends, and household servants, the most stubborn of which are Russian Boris Vassiliev (Francis Blanche), Italian Eusebio Cafarelli (Bernard Blier, Javert in Olive's release of Les Misérables), and East German Hans Muller (Charles Millot). After clumsily trying to kill one another there's an uneasy truce among the four spies, especially after an American contingent, led by sweaty O'Brien (Jess Hahn), tries to sway Amaranthe with extravagant offers of American cash, and a veritable army of (mostly) Chinese spies lay siege. (Somewhat annoyingly, the constant beeping of Morse Code-type signals accompanies the Chinese wherever they go.)
The Great Spy Chase is one of those frenetic spoofs where there's a lot of running around from room-to-room (in later movies this was often done in fast-motion), stopping for the occasional fisticuffs where people fly headlong into wardrobes (often with a dead body or two hidden inside) and, especially, crashing through doors and out windows. Local suppliers of balsa wood must have enjoyed an especially profitable month while The Great Spy Chase was in production.
That the beautiful women simply ignore the shooting and furniture-smashing all around them is supposed to be funny, as is the general cynicism among the murderous spies and their endless attempts to do each other in. (More than one review likens this to Mad magazine's "Spy vs. Spy" strip.) But this only succeeds in eliminating all suspense and a willingness to suspend disbelief. One not only can't take it seriously, it's the kind of story that's hard to accept on any level.
Still, the movie occasionally acknowledges its own absurdities. Most of the Asians are clearly Chinese but in one scene (in which Ventura is clearly doing his own stunts), Lagneau battles three clearly Japanese karate experts. Most movies would ignore this incongruity, but after the big battle the European spies disagree over their nationality, Lagneau insisting they were Japanese, the others identifying them as Chinese. In a later scene, set in a Lisbon hotel suite, an especially phony painted backdrop, representing a veranda, is visible in the background. Yet during a subsequent fight Lagneau tries to toss one spy through that window only to discover that it actually is a painted window.
The overlong middle section at the castle (filmed at the sumptuous le château de Vigny) is merely silly though amusingly acted, and the film becomes more interesting when the married Lagneau and carefree Amaranthe decide to make a break, hoping to shed their identities and start a new life together.
Ventura, Blier, and Blanche, who's like a French Peter Butterworth, are all fun to watch. Ventura all but reprises his Monsieur Gangster character, reacting with stone-faced c'est la vie at all the killing and conniving around him. The film is packed with sardonic dialogue, but though the wit of these conversations remains intact in its English translation, for non-French speakers the dialogue lacks the bite it may well convey to domestic audiences.
Video & Audio
The Great Spy Chase looks practically perfect, the 1.66:1 widescreen transfer sporting an especially good high-def, black-and-white transfer, the kind where one can appreciate textures on wardrobe and all those great '60s sports cars, detail impossible on DVD. The film is monophonic DTS-HD Master Audio French only with optional (white) English subtitles that are not intrusive and easy-to-read, while the lone Extra Feature is an original trailer, in high-definition.
Not great but certainly enjoyable, with the excellent high-def transfer of strong elements enhancing the viewing experience, The Great Spy Chase is worth a look for its stylish direction and for its amused (and amusing) leading performances. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.