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The Great Spy Chase(1964)
A cold-war spy parody. After the death of an armaments manufacturer, an international group of spies is drawn into a high-stakes battle of wits to obtain the valuable military patents which have been inherited by the lovely widow.
For more about The Great Spy Chase and the The Great Spy Chase Blu-ray release, see the The Great Spy Chase Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on March 4, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Lino Ventura, Francis Blanche, Bernard Blier
Director: Georges Lautner
» See full cast & crew
The Great Spy Chase Blu-ray Review
Bonde. Jean Bonde.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, March 4, 2013
The term "British humor" gets bandied about with a fair amount of regularity, but what exactly is so-called British humor? Is it fair to lump Benny Hill in with Tom Stoppard? Do Monty Python and P.G. Wodehouse belong in the same category? These examples merely point out the sometimes futile attempts to easily classify things in an easily understandable group, but they might also help to illuminate a somewhat related question, namely is there such a thing as French humor? That question is a salient query with regard to The Great Spy Chase (released in France under the title Les Bourbouzes), for this parody of James Bond-esque adventures has a distinctly Gallic flavor, though some (including this reviewer) would be hard pressed to adequately describe just what that flavor is. Without coming to any huge, overweening general conclusions, a lot of The Great Spy Chase features a rather childlike, even cartoonish, ambience, that sees a bunch of international espionage agents going after each other with a variety of mechanisms that might have come directly out of an old Tex Avery Looney Tune. We see exploding toilets, showers that drip acid, scorpions in beds, and falling chandeliers (shades of Phantom of the Opera) that have deadly spikes attached, all of which are greeted with a fair amount of fist shaking, grimacing and other patently silly reactions that may or may not be your particular cup of tea (or whatever French folks drink). The film has a certain lunatic charm that can't be denied, but I have to admit I felt myself smiling wryly more than laughing out loud throughout vast swaths of this picture.
The famous Hercule Poirot mystery Murder on the Orient Express has nothing on the train ride that starts The Great Spy Chase out with quite a little flourish. We see an ever increasing panoply of spies from obviously different ethnic and/or national backgrounds slowly but surely kill each other. This is played out in a sort of "domino effect", where Spy A is killed by Spy B, only to have Spy C come along and kill Spy A. This continues unabated for several minutes through several more letters of the alphabet (as it were) with a variety of techniques which vary from stabbing to shooting to poison gas to simply pushing one poor hapless fellow off the train through an open door. After this rather shocking assemblage of deaths, we segue to what must have been the reason for all this nefarious activity—some sort of official personage who has been on the train and who is squirreled off of it amidst the mayhem (which frankly continues even as the unaware official makes his way to his waiting limousine). The punch line to all of this is that official himself is soon dead, albeit for slightly less overtly evil reasons. After having left the train, this "gentleman" visits a bordello and expires during his "adventures" there.
Finally, several minutes into The Great Spy Chase, after having been introduced to several more international men of mystery, we get to the nuts and bolts of the plot. It turns out that the dead bordello client was a notorious arms dealer, and because this man knew that nuclear holocaust would put an end to his client base, he had been scooping up patents right and left for the most horrible weapons of mass destruction (this of course raises an ancillary question as to whether nuclear bombs are patentable, but I digress). The French Intelligence Agency wants those patents very badly, and they send their crack agent Francis Lagneau (Lino Ventura, Greed in the Sun, Monsieur Gangster) to try to retrieve them from the dead guy's widow.
Lagneau retrieves the dead guy's body from the bordello and gets it back to the widow, at which point he discovers she is not some middle aged matron but a rather buxom (and scantily clad—hey, it's a French film) young blonde named Amaranthe (Mireille Darc). He also discovers he is of course not the only secret agent who has been charged with retrieving the patents, and soon the widow's home is literally overrun with a bunch of various spies, all of whom have adopted alter egos to help worm their way into the widow's heart. Lagneau himself is pretending to be the dead guy's favorite cousin, while other agents pretend to be a priest, a doctor, and a surrogate father of sorts. It's all patently ridiculous, but it's part of the peculiar charm of this film, which often plays like a cross between Benny Hill (that iconic "British humor-ist") and second tier Mel Brooks.
While dealing with the various other spies who show up at the palatial mansion (including a pretty funny American, who is all about "showing the widow the money"), Lagneau of course finds himself attracted to the pretty young woman, despite the fact that's he's already married. This being a French film, that isn't the problem it might otherwise be, and in fact Lagneau's bosses end up encouraging a relationship which they hope will further their aims to retrieve the valuable patents from the widow.
It's kind of ironic that this film features dialogue by the great Michel Audiard, who also provided the dialogue for the two Ventura films linked to above in this review. Audiard was a master of neat little character beats delivered in sometimes piquant, even snarky, interchanges between characters. What's ironic here is that the dialogue is almost unnecessary, and in fact in some ways is absolutely intrusive, into what is otherwise almost a silent film built up on sight gags and physical humor. Who cares if the agents argue amongst themselves about who's to blame for various "mishaps" they've all just managed to escape? What generates the laughs here are those very mishaps.
The Great Spy Chase is one of those films that you simply need to surrender to on its own terms in order to enjoy its admittedly manic charms. There's nothing even slightly intellectual about most of the humor in this film—this is resolutely about people slipping on banana peels or getting hit with a pie in the face. And in that regard, this is true universal humor, albeit with a slightly French accent.
The Great Spy Chase Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Great Spy Chase is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.66:1. The bulk of this high definition presentation looks very good indeed, with only minimal and typical damage to report in terms of the elements. Most of this presentation features excellent contrast with some superb fine detail in the many extreme close-ups (peruse some of the screenshots accompanying this review for several good examples). What I'm assuming was second unit work suffers considerably by comparison with the bulk of the rest of the film. These sequences look pretty blown out and noticeably softer than the majority of the film. There's also one fairly noticeable instance of moiré that crops up on Lagneau's herringbone suit jacket in the scene where Lagneau receives his "marching orders" from his superior. As with most Olive releases, there's no sign of aggressive digital tweaking of any kind.
The Great Spy Chase Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Great Spy Chase features a perfectly serviceable lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track in the original French language. There are some odd sound editing choices throughout the film—abrupt cutoffs and some inartful segues—that were no doubt either intentional or at least endemic to the stems, and those are reproduced here in all their oddness. Dialogue is cleanly presented and the silly sound effects and occasional music cues also sound fine. Fidelity is fine if not outstanding and dynamic range has a few spikes courtesy of an explosion or two.
The Great Spy Chase Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Great Spy Chase Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Perhaps rather than talking about so-called French humor we should instead focus more squarely on French farce, a more readily identifiable genre and one which The Great Spy Chase falls into fairly easily despite its modern espionage trappings. There aren't a bunch of slamming doors here (more like sliding hidden doors), but the silliness and arch behavior that is part and parcel of great masters like Feydeau are completely in evidence here as well. Some of the film's humor falls a little flat, but over all The Great Spy Chase is charmingly humorous, if not flat out hilarious. This Blu-ray offers nice looking video and serviceable audio, and comes with the original theatrical trailer. Recommended.
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