B&W, 1967, 96 mins. 2 secs.
Directed by Jean-Louis Roy
Starring Marie-France Boyer, Ben Carruthers, Daniel Emilfork,
Jacques Dufilho, Serge Gainsbourg, Howard Vernon, Jacqueline Danno
Deaf Crocodile (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Though the impact of the French New Wave itself has been well documented in its native country, less has been said about the way it spilled over into its neighboring countries. One wild example showing a delightful mutation of this trend came from Switzerland with the French-language The Unknown Man of Shandigor (L'inconnu de Shandigor), an under the radar riff on spy movies, sci-fi capers, and even the idea of narrative cinema itself. Visually it's been likened to Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville for obvious reasons along with its Jess Franco semi-sequel, Attack of the Robots (with a dash of The Diabolical Dr. Z for good measure), though there's so much going on here you could also liken it to everything from William Klein, Georges Lautner, and The President's Analyst to odd visual and narrative similarities to Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 published two years earlier.
Various factions are swarming to get their hands on the Chanceler Formula, a new invention by eccentric and standoffish scientist Dr. Herbert Von Krantz (The Devil's Nightmare's Emilfork). The plans to get to the device, which can neutralize the world's nuclear weapon supply, all eventually lead to his daughter, Sylvaine (Boyer), whom he keeps under his thumb against her will despite her best efforts to escape to the idyllic spot of Shandigor to be with her boyfriend, Manuel (Carruthers). Von Krantz isn't about to give up his invention willingly though, with defenses including an unseen sea monster swirling around in a pool on the premises. Among the parties involved are French pop icon Serge Gainsbourg as the leader of a team of assassins called the Baldheads, Russian agent Schoskatovich (Zazie dans le Métro's Dufilho) who tortures with decadent Western pop music, and Franco mascot Howard Vernon as Bobby Gun, a former Nazi now working for the Americans.
Wildly unpredictable and a constant delight for the senses, The Unknown Man of Shandigor is a Cold War freak-out unlike any other. The cast alone would make it worth a look, but you also get a feast of unusual architecture here including clever use of Antoni Gaudi designs in Barcelona. It's also beautifully shot by Roger Bimpage and filled with delightful detours like Gainsbourg jamming on a Hammond organ during a candelight-strewn Baldhead funeral for an otherwise unreleased ditty called "Bye, Bye Mister Spy." Despite being shopped around at Cannes, the film didn't get much traction for director Jean-Louis Roy (including no English theatrical release anywhere) and had to be sought out for years through gray market channels pulled from scarce VHS copies.
In 2022, new label Deaf Crocodile gave the film its global Blu-ray release (and first legit English-friendly release of any kind) featuring a glorious transfer from a 4K restoration (using everything possible from the camera negative along with other film elements from the Cinémathèque Suisse). The gray scale and black lavels here are really lovely to behold, making this film look like it just came out of the lab. Great work all around. The LPCM 1.0 French mono track also sounds excellent and features optional English subtitles.
A new commentary by the reliable Samm Deighan is an energetic, deep plunge into the film with appreciative nods to its French influences, a justifiable celebration of Serge Gainsbourg, visual kinship to other films, the comparative marginalizing of Swiss cinema, and much more. An "ultra-rare" special about the film from Swiss television's Cinema VIF (29m15s) is a great bonus that starts with an interview with Roy before expanding to include contributions from Emilfork, Dufilho (rocking an ascot and arguably stealing the show here), and Boyer along with plentiful production coverage and thoughts about the casting and visual choices made in the film. A new interview with the director's wife, Francoise Roy, and first assistant director Michel Schopfer (15m59s) covers their first meetings with the filmmaker, experiences in Swiss TV and film, the possible meaning of the title, the casting of Emilfork (who wasn't aware of the film's comedic side at the time), the story behind Gainsbourg's big musical number commissioned by the director and written by Gainsbourg for the film, and Vernon's participation in French and Swiss productions including his prior collaboration with Jean-Pierre Melville. Finally the disc features a restoration of the very pop art-inspired original trailer, and it comes with an insert booklet featuring informative liner notes by author, musician, and filmmaker Chris D. who contextualizes the film within the Euro spy boom of the '60s while providing additional info about the major players.
Reviewed on January 28, 2022