25 May 2008 | k_t_t2001
Cold War Spy Paranoia with a Sense of the Absurd
In 1957 the Cold War was in full swing, "The Bomb" was a thing of terror, the arms race was still a brand new concept and international paranoia was running rampant. It was the perfect atmosphere for Henri-Georges Clouzot to release LES ESPIONS (THE SPIES) upon the world. A less celebrated film than the director's other films of the period, THE SPIES nevertheless wages a war of nerves upon a level equal to that in THE WAGES OF FEAR or DIABOLIQUE, and keeps its sense of humour as well.
Running out of patients, money and hope, psychiatrist Dr. Malik (Gérard Séty) makes a deal with the devil. In this case the devil presents himself as an American Intelligence Officer (Paul Carpenter) who offers five million francs if Malik will keep a special guest, identified only as "Alex", for a few days at his rundown sanitarium. Malik is told that this person is of interest to foreign powers and that there may be strangers looking for him. The desperate Malik accepts one million francs as a deposit, a bundle of bills that grows increasingly heavy as he awakes the next morning to find that his staff has been enigmatically replaced during the night and that the strangers he was forewarned of have begun popping up even before the arrival of the mysterious "Alex".
From this point on neither Malik, nor the audience, know what is true or who to believe. Both the friendly American, Mr. Cooper, (Sam Jaffe) and the affable Eastern European, Kiminsky, (Peter Ustinov) ooze menace from the chinks in their veneer of civility, and nothing and no one can be trusted - not the child playing in the road, the bartender across the street and certainly not the mysterious Alex (Curd Jürgens) hiding his identity behind dark glasses and leather gloves. Yet, for everyone involved except Malik, all of this is business as usual, and the sheer ridiculousness of this contrast brings a dark humour to the proceedings.
In fact the greatest weakness of THE SPIES comes in the film's last fifteen minutes, when Clouzot unwisely lifts the veil of uncertainty and makes all clear. There is no great revelation that stuns the audience, only explanation which washes away the wonderfully absurd grays that have fuelled the film up to this point, in favour of a black and white clarity that weakens the film. Clouzot attempts in the film's final two scenes to recover what he imprudently surrendered a dozen minutes earlier, but THE SPIES would have been a far finer film if the last reel had never existed.
Less easily seen than some of Clouzot's other work, THE SPIES has been given a respectable release on DVD in the UK.