We will probably never know the exact number of Nazi war criminals who escaped from Germany in the aftermath of WW2 and made their way to South America but some of the more infamous ones are Adolf Eichmann, who was later captured in Buenos Aires, brought to trial in Israel and executed in 1962, and Josef Schwammberger, who was arrested in Argentina and returned to West Germany for a trial in 1992 (he was sentenced to life in prison and died there). At the same time, there have been reports that as many as 9,000 Nazi officers and collaborators found a safe haven in countries like Brazil and Paraguay under new identities and were never arrested for their war crimes. This unsettling realization inspires the narrative of Philippe Condroyer’s A Man to Kill (French title: Un Homme a abattre, 1967), a fictional espionage thriller that focuses on a suspected concentration camp officer who resurfaces in Barcelona years later as a low profile German architect.
From the opening moments of A Man to Kill to the bleak finale, the viewer mostly sees the world through the eyes of a small surveillance team who are tracking the movements of a name named Hans Fromm (Luis Padros), who might be the notorious Commandant Schmidt who operated out of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria. This secret four-man group, which includes Raphael (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Georges (Andre Oumansky), are working for Julius (Luis Prendes), a man whose father was murdered by Schmidt during the war and has spent his life searching for him. The problem is a lack of solid proof and Fromm the architect doesn’t look exactly like the missing Schmidt, who was last seen at an architects’ convention in Rio in 1958 and then vanished without a trace. Even his voice sounds different to Julius.
By analyzing past and present photos of their wanted man, Raphael and Georges are relatively sure that Fromm is Schmidt but Julius isn’t positive and wants more concrete evidence if they are to assassinate him…which is the game plan. Hidden cameras, spying with binoculars and wire-tapping aid the undercover team in monitoring Fromm’s every move and, on the surface, he appears to be a lonely, middle age businessman with no social life except for an occasional visit from a woman named Olga (Valerie Lagrange). His boring day to day routines don’t betray any telltale signs that he might be a former war criminal but Raphael takes the extra step of spying on Olga and flirting with her anonymously over the phone, a tactic that pays off when she agrees to meet him out of curiosity at a bar.
[Spoiler alert] The first two thirds of A Man to Kill has a chilling, icy detachment as if you are watching a documentary on surveillance experts tracking a mass murderer. The opening credits take place under a display of identikit reconstructions of a man’s face with different aspects of his features highlighted such as his nose or mouth. The paranoia is further ramped up by the sound effects of professional spies – the click of a camera shutter, a bugged phone, the hum of a 16mm projector, blinds opening and closing – and a subtle but suspenseful music score by Antoine Duhamel (Pierrot le Fou, Mississippi Mermaid), which is used sparingly. As the trap begins to close on Fromm, questions arise. “Is Fromm really an escaped Nazi war criminal? What if he’s the wrong man and they kill him? Who exactly is this four-man team anyway? Are they paid assassins?
One thing is certain: Raphael and his cohorts are deadly serious about their operation and anyone who interferes or jeopardizes their plans is exterminated. We know this from the opening sequence in the film when an acquaintance of Fromm gets too curious about a seemingly empty van and suffers the consequences. Certainly Nazi war criminals who escaped capture, prosecution and punishment is troubling but so is the idea of a vigilante group who act outside the law as judge, jury and executioner. A Man to Kill doesn’t address any of this in an overt way but the evidence is clearly hiding in plain sight.
It needs to be stated up front that many questions are never answered in A Man to Kill. Nor are there any revealing backstories about the individual members of the spy team. Some viewers may find this frustrating but I think it creates a palpable sense of tension and mystery as the events unfold. When the plan to finally capture and confront Fromm in a deserted mansion falls apart, the movie transitions from a documentary-like investigation to a chase thriller.
There are a number of bravura moments in A Man to Kill that recall some of the finest sequences from Hitchcock films. In particular, there is a scene where Julius sneaks into Fromm’s deserted flat for evidence proving he is the former Nazi officer Schmidt and has to hide in a closet. It recalls the scene where Grace Kelly slips into the apartment of suspected murderer Raymond Burr in Rear Window although the outcome is decidedly different here but no less suspenseful. By the way, the cinematography, which maintains an oppressive, voyeuristic quality throughout is by Jean Penzer, who alternated between commercial entertainments like Philippe de Broca’s The Love Game (1960) and art house experiments like Marguerite Duras’s Destroy, She Said (1969) and Chantal Akerman’s The Meetings of Anna (1978).
One of the more intriguing aspects of A Man to Kill is the fact that Condroyer avoids a tourist postcard view of Barcelona, choosing instead to shoot much of it in a non-descript urban neighborhood while the climax takes place in a deserted beachside community that looks like it is ready for the wrecking ball. The final shootout between Raphael and Fromm is like some strange post-modern western where the gunfighters are dwarfed by the abandoned architecture surrounding them. As for the disturbing last scene in A Man to Kill, it suggests that Fromm was merely a disposable member of a much larger underground network of former war criminals.
Except for the brief dead end detour of the Olga-Raphael subplot, A Man to Kill is a minor masterpiece that looks ahead to the high-tech surveillance nightmare of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), the political dramas of Costa-Gavras (The Confession, State of Siege) and more outlandish Nazi revenge fantasies like The Boys from Brazil (1978). Unfortunately, it reminds an overlooked obscurity amid French films of the sixties. It is also one of the few movies directed by Philippe Condroyer, who is better known for his television work and the popular 1964 comedy adventure Tintin et les oranges bleues, based on the famous comic strip character.
The most familiar face in A Man to Kill is Jean-Louis Trintignant who has amassed more than 140 film and TV credits to dale. He has appeared in his share of fringe and cult cinema oddities and the late sixties represented a peak period for the actor. He made Condroyer’s film between Tinto Brass’s Deadly Sweet (Col cuore in gola, 1967), a psychedelic mystery thriller, and Plucked aka Death Laid an Egg (La morte ha fatto L’uovo, 1968), Giulio Questi’s quirky black comedy giallo.
A Man to Kill has never had a domestic release in the U.S. in any format but you might be able to find the Gaumont release on DVD and Blu-ray from an online seller in France. You would probably need an all-region Blu-ray player to view it and there are no English subtitle options.
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