Swiss filmmaker Jean-Louis Roy only made two feature films and two made-for-TV movies during his lifetime but, on the basis of his debut feature L’inconnu de Shandigor (English title: The Unknown Man of Shandigor, 1967), he should be famous among cinephiles. The reason you probably haven’t heard of him is because The Unknown Man of Shandigor vanished after its premiere at Cannes in 1967 and never received a theatrical release in the U.S. Only in the past few years has the film resurfaced as a DVD-R from Sinister Cinema and most of those who have seen it have been delighted and amazed by this pop-art curio from the sixties.
The film defies easy categorization but on the surface it unfolds like a Cold War espionage thriller with a maniacal sense of humor. Even though it emerged during the Eurospy craze inspired by the James Bond franchise, The Unknown Man of Shandigor is much more than a parody of spy movies. It becomes a visually dazzling exploration of film genres in general, riffing on topics like mad scientists, hired assassins, mind control and the media while utilizing a variety of picturesque settings such as Barcelona’s Park Guell and Casa Mila, both designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.
Synopsis: Scientist Herbert Von Krantz (Daniel Emilfork) has created a device that renders all nuclear weapons useless but instead of inspiring world peace, his invention is coveted by other countries for use in their own nuclear war strategy. A French contingent led by Le Chef des Chauves (Serge Gainsbourg), the Russian operative Schoskatovich (Jacques Dufilho) and an American team headed by Bobby Gun (Howard Vernon) are among the many interested parties who aim to steal Von Krantz’s blueprints for the Annulator X-113. There are obstacles, of course, like Von Krantz’s bobby-trapped mansion where he lives a hermetic existence with his assistant Yvan (Marcel Imhoff) and his lovely daughter Sylvaina (Marie-France Boyer). Complicating matters are Manuel (Ben Carruthers), a former boyfriend of Sylvania who might be a double agent, and a mysterious Japanese skin diver.
The relentless plot twists and numerous characters featured in The Unknown Man of Shandigor might seem overly convoluted at first but the best way to enjoy the film is to just sit back and let the stunning black and white cinematography by Roger Bimpage tantalize your eyes while Alphonse Roy’s eccentric music score conjures up a fascinating comic strip universe.
The oddball casting works wonderfully and Daniel Emilfork practically steals the film in a rare leading role as the misanthropic Von Krantz. The actor, who was born in Chile, was mocked as a child for his bizarre, cadaverous features but later used his physical appearance to his advantage by playing an assortment of villains and freaks in such cult films as The Devil’s Nightmare (1971), Fellini’s Casanova (1976), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Belle Captive (1983) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s The City of Lost Children (1995).
Emilfork’s introduction at the beginning of The Unknown Man of Shandigor establishes the film’s sardonic tone as reporters mob the scientist at the airport, firing off questions like “Who is the person you admire most in the world?” to which he responds “Dracula.” The actor’s voice can alternate between a purr or a hiss and he really knows how to milk a line like “I don’t like mankind or rather, I like it in a jar full of arsenic.” Emilfork’s mad scientist also has fun tormenting and dispatching intruders such as one hapless spy who is lured into an underground chamber before being gassed and liquified.
There are so many clever and ingenious sequences amid the fast-paced narrative that it is hard to choose a favorite but I do love the fact that the secret headquarters of the American spies is set in a bowling alley (It later becomes the site of a machine-gun massacre where the fallen bodies look like Helmut Newton compositions). Another highlight takes place at Le Chef’s secret headquarters where the art of disguise is explored in varying degrees of absurdity; the bald-headed, lookalike assassins take turns playing a tragic actress, a gravedigger in mourning, a black man, a duchess, etc.
The most outlandish set piece might be the scene where a dead spy is embalmed while Le Chef performs the show-stopping musical number “Bye Bye Mr. Spy” on an organ. It is both comical and macabre and feels like as a stand-alone music video long before that format ever existed.
Other visual stand-outs include a torture session that utilizes psychedelic lighting and rock ‘n’ music for disorientation, hypnotism via an atomic brain that sends people on kamikaze missions and a parody of romantic cliches as Sylvaina and Manual run toward each other in slow motion on a deserted beach. Did I already mention the unseen, carnivorous beast that lives in the murky waters of Von Krantz’s swimming pool?
Serge Gainsbourg is especially droll as the cunning Le Chef and Howard Vernon, the star of numerous Jess Franco films, performs with mock seriousness as the unflappable Bobby Gun (Despite his name, he is actually an expert knife thrower. Go figure!). Marie-France Boyer makes a fetching damsel-in-distress and Ben Carruthers as her shadowy lover is an unusual but intriguing casting choice. His first major role was in John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1958) but he spent the rest of his relatively brief career (he died at age 47) in bit parts and supporting roles. Among his more memorable work is The Dirty Dozen (1967), the prison drama Riot (1969) and Man in the Wilderness (1971), a survivalist tale that would later be revisited by Alejandro G. Inarritu in The Revenant (2015).
Film critic Zeev Toledano, who created the website The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre, can be merciless in his reviews of experimental and avant-garde cinema but he surprisingly endorsed The Unknown Man of Shandigor: “The 60s and 70s saw many wacky and colorful James Bond exploitative spoofs, but this unique one is somehow both art-house B&W and comically amusing at the same time…A marvel to look at, perhaps the most beautiful spoof and exploitation movie ever made?”
As I mentioned earlier, The Unknown Man from Shandigor is available from Sinister Cinema in an attractive DVD-R transfer with English subtitles/French language. But there is even better news. Deaf Crocodile is going to release a 4K restoration of the movie on Blu-ray and in streaming venues in early 2020 through OCN distribution
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