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The Unknown Man of Shandigor

by Glenn Erickson Feb 08, 2022

It’s something completely different . . . a genuine obscurity, a Swiss spy fantasy from the 1960s with major appeal to fans keen on (not in this order) art cinema, Fritz Lang, superspy romps, surreal silent serials, Eurocult actors, and visuals with a New Wave-ish flair. Teams of assassins vie for an atom secret held by mad scientist Daniel Emilfork. The spies target his gorgeous, innocent daughter Marie-France Boyer, but she’s obsessed with a romantic memory from ‘last summer in Shandigor.’ Jean-Louis Roy’s unique, precision-crafted gem evokes the graphic-novel pulp appeal of Dr. Mabuse, Alphaville, Judex or Diabolik — yet it is unlike any of them. It’s comic nonsense, but also earnest and original.


The Unknown Man of Shandigor
Blu-ray
Deaf Crocodile Films
1967 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 90 min. / Street Date January 22, 2022 / L’inconnu de Shandigor / Available through Vinegar Syndrome / 34.98
Starring: Marie-France Boyer, Ben Carruthers, Daniel Emilfork, Jacques Dufilho, Serge Gainsbourg, Howard Vernon, Jacqueline Danno, Marcel Imhoff, Gabriel Arout, Pierre Chan
Cinematography: Roger Bimpage
Production Designer: Michel Braun
Film Editor: Françoise Gentet
Original Music: Alphonse Roy
Written by Jean Louis-Roy adaptation by Gabriel Arout, Pierre Koralnik
Produced by Gabriel Arout
Directed by
Jean-Louis Roy

“Inconnu” is an appropriate word for this show — a picture that somehow got left behind in the rush to celebrate 1960s art cinema and canonize film directors with distinct visions. If it weren’t for The Hardy Encyclopedia of Science Fiction I’d never had heard of The Unknown Man of Shandigor at all. Its bare description led me to expect an impenetrably artsy, perhaps unfunny spy spoof: the standard plot synopsis sounds like a bad episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Yet the picture captured me from the start. It may have been inspired by Godard’s Alphaville yet it has its own look and sound. Its comic-book arch-ness (aka tongue-in-cheek?) never turns to coy mannerisms or slapstick extremes. We instead get an absurd pulp epic that takes itself as seriously as a fairy tale. Director Jean-Louis Roy spins cinematic fun with the tinkertoys of paranoid political fantasy and technology-driven anxiety.

This unabashed art-movie thriller underplays spy movie content that was already going sour in 1967, with their tape recorders, surveillance videos, cartoonish wardrobes, and prowling black ‘bad guy’ sedans. The ‘mad’ scientist’s designer house is an impenetrable fortress laced with deadly chemical defenses. And just when you consider taking the storyline seriously, he reminds his trophy daughter to feed ‘the beast’ in his bubbling, steaming backyard pool — some kind of fantastic sea monster that appears to eat slabs of dry ice.

 

And all this is played arrow-straight.

Writer-director Roy put this ‘cult’ item together right just when cult-Camp pastiche pictures were the rage, what with the chaotic, failed 1967 Bond spoof Casino Royale and underachieving pulp comic adaptations like Barbarella and Modesty Blaise. All are basically laugh-challenged comedies where we want to ask, ‘did you have a point in mind, making this?’   Roy has the edge on all of them, as he understands the fantasy artforms that he shadows. It all traces back to Louis Feuillade’s erotic surrealism and Fritz Lang’s mythic thrillers about 20th-century technology and power.

Or just call L’inconnu de Shandigor a droll, artsy spy spoof if you must. It’s funny in the same way that Polanski’s Cul-de-sac is funny — we smile as he try to wrap our minds around his conceptual jests. It’s all made from ‘found content’ yet the approach seems new. The visuals are extraordinarily fussy, yet the overall impression is of a lightness. It doesn’t try to be commercial yet I imagine that a receptive audience (do they still exist?) would go nuts over it, the same way we recognized wonderful qualities in Franju’s Judex and Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers — films that I’ve watched win over initially hostile audiences.

 

A quickie story description: the brilliant but misanthropic, crippled Swiss professor Herbert Von Krantz (Daniel Emilfork of The City of Lost Children) has invented a ‘Canceler’ that neutralizes atomic weapons. Von Krantz refuses to share it with anyone. He instead barricades himself and his formula in his modernistic house with his daughter Sylvaine (Marie-France Boyer of Le Bonheur), where he browbeats his albino assistant Yvan (Marcel Imhoff). Von Krantz cruelly mocks Sylvaine’s dreams of her lost love Manuel (Ben Carruthers of Shadows and The Dirty Dozen), with whom she passed an idyllic summer on the beaches of a fanciful place called Shandigor.

Everyone wants the Canceler. The Russian spymaster Schoskatovich (Jacques Dufilho of Saadia) leads a group of trench-coated goons that use old-school Soviet techniques and drive clunky Czech sedans. A French agent known as Le Chef des Chauves (Serge Gainsbourg of Mr. Freedom) coaches a team of identical bald agents with slightly more progressive methods. America’s man on the case is Bobby Gun (Howard Vernon, lately of Alphaville and The Diabolical Dr. Z), an ex- Wehrmacht officer (?) convinced that his kinder, gentler approach will secure the coveted formula. Bobby’s devoted lover Esther (Jacqueline Danno) doesn’t realize that he’s in such a dangerous business.

 

Von Krantz stays hidden, so one team of spies concentrates on nabbing Sylvaine, while Bobby Gun tries simple bribery on Yvan. Sylvaine manages to rendezvous with her adored Manuel in the wondrous land of Shandigor, but Manuel doesn’t react to her problems the way she expects him to. And none of the ‘players’ realize that a fourth competitor has entered the arena, an ‘Asiatic’ loner (Pierre Chan) backed with seemingly unlimited technical resources.

Composer Alphonse Roy’s jazzy & romantic musical accompaniment leads us into an eccentric art-film take on the Spy Craze. Cartoonish characters inhabit realistic surroundings: Schoskatovich screws his face up with devilish concentration, gripping a monocle in one eye. The Chef des Chauves is followed by a string of ‘Beagle Boy’ like ‘balds’ that act in unison even when crossing their legs, all except for one ‘Chauve’ who affects a non-conformist smile. Singer-songwriter Gainsbourg’s ‘Le Chef’ plays a pipe organ to sing a funereal ode to a fallen colleague: ‘Bye Bye Mister Spy.”  Jean-Louis Roy’s classy presentation brings off this campy theme song — the show ‘believes’ in its absurd alternate reality.

 

Remembered as Godard’s dictator of Alphaville and Fritz Lang’s sinister assassin “No. 12,”” and as various Jésus Franco villains, Howard Vernon here plays against his twisted screen persona. His Bobby Gun kills only when necessary and tries to befriend Yvan instead of torturing him. That this ex- German officer’s girlfriend is named Esther makes us wonder about unexplored backstory: is Bobby a ‘rehabilitated’ Nazi?  Or could he have been a U.S. double agent in the Wehrmacht?

The ‘spy chase to find an all-important invention’ has been around since the silent days (1916’s The Intrigue is an interesting example) but Jean-Louis Roy doesn’t allow a standard storyline to develop. Herbert Von Krantz is determined to withhold his wonder formula out of pure hubris and spite. We therefore pay more attention to the scurvy assassins seeking to steal it. Every time we think we’ve got a handle on the film’s brand of realism, something absurd pops up, as when we’re reminded that Von Krantz has a sea monster in his back yard. Yves and Von Krantz use their fab home surveillance gear to monitor Sylvaine’s movements, and to catch an interloping spy. They use a horrible gas to ‘liquefy’ him, a process depicted with bizarre makeup effects.

 

Instead of encouraging an emotional connection to its agreeably melodramatic characters The Unknown Man of Shandigor keeps them at arm’s length. Marie-France Boyer’s Sylvaine is sympathetic but remains as pure as a fairy tale princess. When she gets loose from her father’s (incestuous?) grasp and re-connects with her handsome lost love, we fully expect them to start righting wrongs as a team. Yet the handsome Manuel, the ‘unknown man,’ doesn’t bloom into a combo Sir Galahad and James Bond. Shandigor resolves interestingly, but not with conventional action thrills. Its refined visual-intellectual riff on Pop Culture spydom plays outside normal genre boundaries. It’s one of a kind, that’s for sure.

 

It’s also a great show to LOOK at.

The Unknown Man of Shandigor’s biggest draw is its evocative visuals. Everything is filmed in silky B&W with precise framing and camera moves. The style substitutes ‘docu-real’ for conventional superspy glamour. Von Krantz’s mad lab is beautifully tricked out with ornate, mostly un-identifiable equipment and electronics. Schoskatovich is seen manipulating a bank of what look like light dimmers in some giant theater. ‘Le Chef’ lectures his spies before an odd, spray-painted symbol that’s completely meaningless to us. Bobby Gun takes Esther to a natural history museum, where a killing takes place among the bones of giant prehistoric animals.

One nice point is that Shandigor is a ‘No Hommage’ zone: director Roy doesn’t waste our time with ‘recognition effects,’ recreating specific situations and images from classics. The only instance of that kind I noted is when Schoskatovich slams his gloved hand down on a table, like the underworld chief in Fritz Lang’s “M.”

As with Alphaville the art direction exploits real locations, making them sinister or exotic through selective angles and busy set decoration. The romantic dreamland of ‘Shandigor’ co-opts architectural delights in Barcelona, mainly those bizzare neo-Gothic Antoni Gaudí creations, the ones that look more like abstract art than practical buildings. When Sylvaine and Manuel either make love, or stroll on the staircases below Gaudí’s strange towers, some of which look like rows of stylized demon helmets. Otherwise Shandigor is a hideway on a deserted beach, and a curious empty fun fair, where the lovers pose next to a giant The Third Man– like Ferris Wheel and other odd amusement rides.

 

Is Jean-Louis Roy really using the spy caper genre as a jumping-off point for surreal visuals?  A scuba diver emerges from a futuristic underwater spy headquarters onto a bleak beach, an image suggestive of Salvador Dalí. His ride is a sleek black Jaguar, while the ‘Chauves’ travel in a sleek corporate jet. The Americans make their headquarters in a noisy bowling alley, no explanation offered. Spies throw knives and blast away with machine guns with ritual-like solemnity. Poker-faced kidnappers pluck Sylvaine from a snowy roadside, and subject her to truth serum treatment. Like an image Luis Buñuel proposed but couldn’t afford for one of his Mexican films, a wholly unmotivated line of perhaps fifty silhouetted spies appears at the edge of a rooftop. That’s a lot of trench coats and slouch hats.

Spy ‘spoofs’ quickly devolved from James Bond escapism to Derek Flint overkill to Matt Helm vulgarity, with 101 imitators trying to walk the line between tonal extremes of Peter Gunn and Scooby-Doo. Awful Eurospy pictures abound, dreary items like Franco’s Attack of the Robots: imagine not being able to sit through a thriller with Eddie Constantine. The difficult-to-describe Shandigor is a bit like Alphaville but uses a cinematic vocabulary of its own — the pulp characters hold our interest and Jean-Louis Roy’s imagery is highly entertaining in itself. My last attempt at a capsule description is “Alain Resnais meets Dick Tracy,” but filmed as if it were a serious treatise on The Human Condition.

 


 

Deaf Crocodile Films’ Blu-ray of The Unknown Man of Shandigor brings back this rarity in a pristine presentation. The package text cites a new 4K restoration from the original 35mm elements by Cinémathèque suisse with additional digital restoration by Craig Rogers of Deaf Crocodile. I can’t see how it could look better — the stunning B&W images constantly draw our attention to textural details, like the soft complexion of the leading lady, or the water droplets on the shiny hood of that black Jaguar. Director Roy’s show may not have clicked with the critics but it will definitely speak to film fans — we think Fritz Lang would have loved it.


The attractive presentation features arresting artwork and menus. In a fine, thoughtful commentary film journalist Samm Dieghan does her best to describe Roy’s film; her background on the Swiss filmmaker accepts that Shandigor is something of a one-shot. I appreciate Deighan’s information about the film’s actors, an interesting group of special talents. The intimidating Daniel Emilfork was clearly cast for his visual appeal as a maladjusted, discontented genius.

Ms. Deighan brings in many of the same filmic comparisons (I wrote before listening, honest) but goes even further, contrasting Shandigor’s pulp viewpoint with Jacques Rivette’s intriguing Paris Belongs to Us, and its father-daughter dynamic with Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. Jean-Louis Roy’s emphasis on B&W texture contrasts rhymes with Franju as well.

More proof that Shandigor is a real movie from 1967 comes with a full French TV docu on the show, in which Jean-Louis Roy is put on the defensive for daring to direct: apparently French film culture was loath to recognize Swiss filmmaking. Roy almost comes off as too nice, insufficiently arrogant to succeed. A new interview with the director’s widow and the film’s assistant director offers more personal memories. A really well constructed original trailer is included; it’s long, like the film’s main title sequence, and a good teaser for the film’s terrific soundtrack. Chris D.’s liner notes in the insert pamphlet relate Shandigor to the contemporary international spy craze.

This is one elusive movie; it fits into no neat categories. Will fans of Our Man Flint and The Ipcress File really connect with it?   I’ll be looking for other reviews to see if someone else magically pegs a dead-on accurate description of the appeal of The Unknown Man of Shandigor in a hundred words or less. Different isn’t always Good, but in this case I was intrigued and entertained for the entire running time.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Unknown Man of Shandigor
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good — Excellent?
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent (French)
Supplements (all new):
Commentary by film journalist Samm Deighan
Interviews with Francoise Roy, wife of director Jean-Louis Roy, and 1st assistant director Michel Schopfer (17 min., in Swiss French with English subs)
1967 Making-of documentary from Swiss TV’s Cinema VIF show, with interviews with director Jean-Louis Roy, actors Daniel Emilfork, Jacques Dufilho & Marie-France Boyer, with BTS footage (28 min., in Swiss French with English subs)
Original trailer (4 min., in French with English subs)
Illustrated pamphlet with essay by Chris D.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature and video extras)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 7, 2022
(6662shan)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.