The Cold War ’60s were the golden age of espionage thrillers and spy spoofs. And full disclosure here, you don’t find yourself sharing a name with a guy who played James Bond without seeing them all — the the good, the bad and the ones starring Dean Martin or John Phillip Law.
Here’s a Swiss bon bon that I missed, 1967’s “L’inconnu de Shandigor (The Uknown Man from Shandigor)” from the under-employed — he made just four films — Swiss director Jean-Louis Roy.
It’s a deadpan “Doctor Strangelove Meeets Doctor No” thriller about a misanthropic “mad scientist” who has conjured up a formula that “sterlizes” atomic bombs.
Dr. Van Krantz (Daniel Emilfork, wheelchair-bound and irate, first scene to last) was “trying to save the world,” and he’s ever-so-pissed that “they are not relieved” by his efforts.
“I don’t like humankind. Well, I do…in a jar of arsenic.”
Multiple spy agencies — the Russians, the Americans, “the Baldies” — want to grab this formula and attain a terms-dictating edge over everybody else. Dr. Von Krantz, his daughter Sylvian (Marie-France Boyer) and assistant, “the Albino” (Marcel Imhoff) hole up in his remote, modernist lair/mansion and wait for the spies to make their move.
Among the spies are the Soviet chief, Shostakovich (Jacques Dufilho), the “Baldies” led by their music-minded boss (singer, composer, actor and father of Charlotte, Serge Gainsbourg) and the German double-agent working for the Yanks (Howard Vernon).
The Baldies are a generally mute quintet who have mastered classical music just to get close to their quarry, whip out machine guns and execute him. The ex-Nazi prefers a knife, and can scuba dive to get the drop on foes. And the Russian is furious at the whole dust up, hoping to let the others screw up before he and his swoop in to claim the prize.
Director and co-writer Roy chooses such gorgeous (and under-filmed) Swiss locations and stern-faced character actors that you’d swear he’s playing this straight. But when a firing range/martial arts training session in a vast Swiss quarry is interrupted, and a clumsy spy chooses to hide behind the TARGET on the firing range, the joke’s on us.
There’s a bloody dust-up in a museum of natural history, acid and gas attacks, chases (not really) and kidnappings. And spies die.
Being the boss, of course, Gainsbourg sits at the organ and sings (in French, with English subtitles) as the body is prepared, “tears from Lucifer, the veils of mystery, Mister Spy, Bye Bye.” Yes, the rhymes work…in French.
Von Krantz’s daughter only wants to run away to the beach with her beloved Manuel (Ben Carruthers), to ride in his E-Type Jag and forget all this mayhem.
It’s not a laugh riot, but this new 4K restoration, now being distributed by Deaf Crocodile, leaves the mouth agape at how damned beautiful the whole thing is. The architecture, the characters in close-up, the “Baldies” acting, playing and sitting and staring in unison, the “beach” (a Swiss lakeshore with fog added), the classic Jaguars, Rovers, Citroens, a Jeep for the Yanks and a Tatra for the Bolsheviks (of course), all of it looks fine-grained, contrast-rich and gorgeous.
If you’re a fan of the genre, or even if you’re just well-versed in the Sean Connery Bond era, “The Unknown Man from Shandigor” is sure to impress and amuse, shaken or stirred.
Rating: unrated, with violence, murder and suicide, partial nudity
Cast: Marie-France Boyer, Daniel Emilfork, Serge Gainsbourg, Marcel Imhoff, Jacques Dufilho and Howard Vernon.
Credits: Directed by Jean-Louis Roy, scripted by Jean-Louis Roy, Gabriel Arout and Pierre Koralnik. A Deaf Crocodile release of a 4K restoration
Running time: 1:31