Les Espions (Henri-Georges Clouzot / France, 1957):

A lateral pan followed without pause by a brief zoom introduces the dilapidated asylum like a memory of Le Corbeau, the suffocating terror of the Occupation has become the suffocating farce of the Cold War. The "rat trap" setting is a mental clinic suddenly crowded with undercover agents, the MacGuffin is atomic; the doctor (Gérard Séty) is weak and apolitical, in other words the perfect patsy for the dueling networks. A Soviet kleptomaniac (Peter Ustinov) and a CIA chief moonlighting as a Shakespeare professor (Sam Jaffe) are the chimerical East/West foes, old acquaintances. Platinum-haired Curd Jürgens behind inky-black specs is an unmistakable Mabusean memento, Martita Hunt in matronly whites with cigarillo points up to The Lady Vanishes. Behind the torturous manipulations is the ailing American colonel (Paul Carpenter) who’s sickened by the smell of blood, "a bad soldier" perhaps yet the closest thing to an idealist. "Certain doors shouldn’t be opened, my friend." Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fortuitous conjunction with Lang doesn’t end with the title: Even ocarina chimes trigger unease in this excoriation of neutrality, where characters are perpetually monitoring each other, trying on and doffing off identities, crawling into hermetic spaces and falling prey to "accidents." (The director’s pet sacrificial lamb, Véra Clouzot, is watched through a peephole first on the floor of her cell surrounded by bonbon wrappers, then frantically shredding a pillow.) The collapsing pretenses build quite jovially toward an image of knowledge warped (a contaminated brain must be destroyed, cries the doomed scientist), the stinger lays out the atom-age quandary between being a mute witness and learning that "everything is recorded." (Huston picks up the sardonic line of thought in The Kremlin Letter.) With O.E. Hasse, Gabrielle Dorziat, Louis Seigner, and Pierre Larquey. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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