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9.9.2011

The Great Spy Chase

When one of the most important arms manufacturers in the world dies, the French agent Françis Lagneau is given the task of finding his pretty widow in order to wheedle out of her the patent she inherited for a thermo-nuclear weapon. However the French are not alone in hitting upon this idea: Françis has barely arrived in the widow's castle before he encounters a Swiss, a German and a Soviet agent all trying to pass themselves off as distant relatives of the widow. Soon the confusion is complete...

Still from the movie "The Great Spy Chase". (© Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen)


The spy film first established itself as a genre in the 1950s. But it was in the 60s that the number of productions really grew, which of course was a reflection of political developments in a divided world. The Cold War was 'hotting up', first with the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and even more so the following year with the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

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About the Movie

The Great Spy Chase

Original Title: Les Barbouzes
France / Italy 1964, 109 min., subtitles

Director: Georges Lautner
Cast: Lino Ventura, Francis Blanche, Bernard Blier et al.
However, Cold War politics were not the only cause of the boom in spy films: the film industry has its own dynamic and that dynamic is success. The success, in this case, stemmed from the James Bond novels, the film versions of which were breaking box-office records. From 1962 to 1967, a new Bond film appeared every year, all starring Sean Connery as the witty, smart, sophisticated and womanising '007'. As the 60s gave way to the 70s, and Sean Connery was replaced by Roger Moore, the pace slowed somewhat and the films came every two to three years.

It was, however, the third film of the series, Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964) that really projected the spy genre into the stratosphere. Its budget of $3.5 million was almost as much as its two predecessors put together; but more than that, Goldfinger grossed $125 million at the box-office worldwide and – inflation-adjusted – became the second most successful Bond film of all time. There have been 24 of them so far, over a period of 50 years, and they've been the most profitable and durable film series ever.

The success of first Bond films, and especially Goldfinger, produced a stream of imitators, competitors and free-riders. Suddenly, spy films were everywhere and the international flavour of the month. They were often based on 1950s spy novels, with heroes who were either Bond clones or at least consciously intended to be Bond look-alikes. This was especially true in Western Europe: Harry Saltzman, who produced several Bond films, was also the man behind the splendid Harry Palmer series (1965-1967), with Michael Caine in the title role. In France, OSS 117 was the codename of the agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath in a long-running series of stories (91 in all!) by Jean Bruce. The first film based on these was produced in 1956; the series was revived in 1963, with a further six films made by 1970. Even the 'New Wave' director Claude Chabrol made two spy films in the mid-60s, with Roger Hanin starring as special agent Le Tigre / The Tiger.

The Italians, meanwhile, went their own way and parodied the secret agent: they brought out two films in 1965 and 1966, whose hero James Tont was a deliberately comedic version of Bond; and a further three films with Ken Clark as secret agent 077. In the late 1960s, West Germany got in on the act with seven films featuring Commissioner X, starring the Italian male model Tony Kendall as the eponymous private detective; the Germans also made a series of Jerry Cotton films, in which George Nader played an FBI agent.

In truth, these were just the tip of a cinematic iceberg, with literally hundreds of spy and secret agent films hitting the screen throughout the 1960s. Some of them were, again, obvious parodies of the Bond genre, and in particular of Goldfinger. One example, from America, was Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (AIP Films, 1965, dir. Norman Taurog); and in Italy, Giorgio Simonelli came up with Goldginger / Due Mafiosi contro Goldginger (1965).

It's remarkable that many films at this period did portray the spy in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way. But there was another trend, typified by East Germany's For Eyes Only – Streng geheim (1963, dir. János Veiczi) and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (UK, 1965, dir. Martin Ritt), which ran directly counter to this. Whilst these films focused in large measure on action and stereotypes, at the same time they rejected satire in favour of an analytical approach to contemporary issues. From the cinema-goer's point of view, they had an agenda: to inform or instruct and not just to entertain. The Bond films, of course, adopted a very different line vis-à-vis the reality of the Cold War and the surrounding political paranoia: they were light-hearted, deliberately cool, always sceptical, occasionally caustic. This approach influenced many other directors and provided a counterweight to often dull, routine, ideologically motivated productions. Another strand of spy films retreated into a complacent reliance on spectacle and sensation. Villains would seize control of horrific weapons of mass destruction and threaten the future of mankind; but those same weapons would then turn out to be pure gimmickry: in terms of the drama, it wasn't important exactly what they were. These films were essentially all of a kind, with their episodic structure, glamorous locations, parties, hot pursuits and set-piece beatings-up.

Released in 1964, The Great Spy Chase is an excellent example of the tongue-in-cheek style of spy film. In French, the word 'barbouze' is roughly equivalent to 'spook', but literally means 'false beard', on the assumption that such agents often wore them. The Great Spy Chase is a light-hearted frolic, full of visual and verbal jokes. If it's occasionally silly and over the top, it's also riotous good fun, brimming with well-honed comic clichés.

The director, Georges Lautner, now (in 2011) 85 years old, belongs to the generation of great directors of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague): he's only a few years older than Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, and a few younger than Eric Rohmer. But Lautner began his directorial career in the 1950s, a period when French cinema, although commercially oriented, was equally focused on quality: and this shows in the solid production values of The Great Spy Chase. Prior to making this film, Lautner had directed several 'serious' crime and spy films, so he was steeped in the detail of the genre he set out to parody. He made a number of other films with his 'Barbouze' stars Lino Ventura, Bernard Blier and Mireille Darc, as well as several with international performers like Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Belmondo's high-action The Professional / Le Professionel (1981) is probably the best-known.

The sparkling, rapier-like dialogue of The Great Spy Chase is in large measure attributable to screenwriter Michel Audiard, a master of the art, who was renowned for his "sharp wit, dry humour and neat aphorisms". Hans Gerhold (Kino der Blicke, Der Französische Kriminalfilm, Frankfurt am Main, Fischerverlag, 1989, p 103). also says of Audiard: "Many film stars, such as [Jean] Gabin, [Lino] Ventura, Brigitte Bardot and Annie Girardot owe their best lines to Audiard. An Audiard screenplay was box-office gold."

The Great Spy Chase is, as it were, a skeleton spy story: we have the bare bones of a typical plot, but with everything left out that might be considered superfluous, such as jumping back and forth between locations, which gives many spy films the distinct flavour of the travelogue or of the tourism commercial. Although part of the action in The Great Spy Chase takes place in Istanbul and Lisbon, we see nothing of the two cities themselves. The main action is played out in a château in the Île de France, which looks strangely like a Bavarian castle!

What we are left with, then, is pure spectacle: the duckings and weavings, the stratagems and counter-stratagems of four agents from France, Russia, Germany and Switzerland, each secretly watching and eavesdropping on the others, each prepared to murder one another in order to get their hands on the plans for a thermo-nuclear weapon, which belong to the young and very merry widow of a recently deceased arms manufacturer. When these tactics come to nothing, they turn their attentions to besieging the young woman herself. There is, however, no solidarity within this den of thieves: only when an American appears on the scene, the only character who makes it abundantly clear what he's up to – and is armed with millions of dollars to do it – followed by a gang of Chinese agents bent on violence to achieve the same end, does this motley crew of Old World spooks decide to collaborate. It all adds up to a brilliant theatre of the absurd, which, with its slapstick routines, recalls the Pink Panther comedies and the hugely popular films by Louis de Funès. The only difference is that the cast of The Great Spy Chase were not normally known as comic actors.

The Great Spy Chase had its première in Germany on February 25th 1965 as Mordrezepte der Barbouzes / Prescription for Murder by Secret Agent; it was later released in the UK as The Great Spy Chase). It appeared, therefore, just six weeks after Goldfinger, which in the estimation of German critics was really an American, rather than a British, film. Given how close in time the two films were released, it's perhaps not surprising that reviewers stressed these links – and the similar context. 007 was clearly the model for the French film, according to the newspaper Münchner Merkur: "[it presents] a series of copycat super-Bonds", whom, "in the best comic tradition", it portrays as each trying to kill the others. "What was once a deadly serious business, what James Bond with a simple wink of the eye turned into a reckless adventure, has now become a exaggerated fantasy." (Münchner Merkur, 18.02.65). To which the Berliner Morgenpost added: "The way the magnificent James Bond spends his whole life cunningly depriving his opponents of theirs, can so easily become the path to a straight parody of the life of the secret agent. [France's] answer to America's No. 1 box-office sensation" pokes fun at every tough "political, amorous and deadly exploit" faced by the secret agent. (Berliner Morgenpost, 04.04.65)

Despite their many differences of opinion, the critics left their readers in little doubt that such a satirical view of the work of the secret agent threw an equally satirical light on his sense of patriotic duty, a duty which demanded no less than that he should commit clandestine murder and other illegal acts in pursuit of the nation's interests. The bottom line was, what was more important for a spy: national honour or living the high life?

Does The Great Spy Chase examine contemporary issues critically? Does it, through satire, expose the evils of the time? Surely not; when we laugh at these secret agents and their political masters, we´re in no way passing a serious opinion on their activities. Nonetheless, some contemporary political implications are clear: the Frenchman – as well as his other European alter egos – is openly anti-American, and this reflects the ongoing rift between President de Gaulle (whose photo is seen twice in the film) and his American counterpart in the 1960s. The Swiss agent comes across as a 'two-faced defender of neutrality'; the Russian is shown as a 'champion of peaceful co-existence', and is in no way demonised, which, again, reflects the contemporary image of the Russian leader, Nikita Khrushchev. At the start of the film Khrushchev´s portrait appears on screen with a line drawn through it: he was still in power while The Great Spy Chase was being shot, but by the time of its French première he had been ousted and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.

Somewhat more puzzling is the significance of the Chinese in the film. There's the obvious theme of the 'yellow peril' – a cliché of western vocabulary at the time – but it remains unclear whether these Chinese are from the communist People's Republic, which had just broken with the Soviet Union and was going its own way, or are 'Nationalists' from the island of Taiwan, which would be a reference to the highly dangerous confrontation between the two Chinas in the late 1950s. Or are these supposed Chinese really Koreans? In that case, we're looking at another far eastern flashpoint, the conflict between North and South Korea.

When we watch The Great Spy Chase we're immediately aware of a mysterious affinity between its star Lino Ventura and the American actor and film-maker Buster Keaton – the man with the immobile face and the all-too-mobile body. We see it in his expressions of horror and of humour, in the way he shows his emotions. And whilst artless actors are busy destroying furniture in the background, a beautiful woman sits at the front, calmly making herself even more beautiful. We can take pleasure in the rondo-like way the director has the film begin and end – or not quite end – in a train journey. For the Absurd is not a state we can slip in and out of at will: it is a revelation that can help us live with, and in, this world.
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Philipp Stiasny

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