The Spies (1957, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

I’m not all that familiar with Clouzot, or maybe I am. I’ve seen Wages of Fear and Diabolique. I didn’t even know The Spies was one of his, I was just queuing a Peter Ustinov spy movie. Apparently, Topkapi didn’t teach me anything.

I’m kidding. About The Spies, not about Topkapi. Topkapi is pretty shitty. The Spies is not.

It’s actually one of the lowest 3.5s I’ve ever given. Usually, I score throughout the film, just after the first act, I keep an active count (invariably, my internal dialogue questions itself about the rating and it just pops in–wow, we’re really getting Castaneda about film ratings tonight, must be the lack of sleep). I’ve been thinking about integrating star ratings into the Stop Button experience, but it’ll have to wait. The Spies final rating actually rings in and out in the last scene.

Problematically, Clouzot sets up The Spies as a comedy. If you’ve seen Les Diaboliques (which I remember being okay, nothing more), you know Clouzot likes to mess with the viewer. He likes to trick you, even more than Hitchcock, because Hitch never really messed with you. He messed with his characters and let you watch. Clouzot does both. It’s frustrating in The Spies because he wants the viewer to appreciate how much he’s messing with the characters, but he’s also messing with the viewer.

When you finally figure out what’s going on in The Spies–which takes a while, because Clouzot structures every conversation, every glance between characters, to mislead… or inform–you can begin to appreciate how good the film really is. It’s beautifully shot, of course. Clouzot’s a fabulous director. There’s also not a bad performance in the entire film and the lead is quite good, but I can’t name him because of all the accent marks. It’s 11:45 and I’m really lazy.

What I’ve seen of French New Wave never impressed me and a lot of Truffaut’s stuff embarrassed me (there’s a digital record I rented The Story of Adele H. out there somewhere), but between Renoir, Cocteau, and Clouzot, there appears to be a good thirty years of French cinema I need to check out.

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