Les Espions (The Spies)

France (1957) Dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot

In small town tucked away in the middle of nowhere stands an asylum which is home to just two inmates – a man being treated for alcoholism and a Lucie, mute woman (Véra Clouzot). The asylum is run by the down on his luck Dr. Malik (Gérard Séty), assisted by Nurse Andre (Gabrielle Dorziat). While drowning his sorrows at the local bar, Malik is approached by American Intelligence agent Colonel Howard (Paul Carpenter) with a very interesting and lucrative offer – five million francs if Malik will let an agent stay at his asylum for a few days.

To show his goodwill, Howard gives Malik a million francs upfront hastening his agreement, despite the warnings that a number of people will show up looking for the mysterious agent codenamed “Alex”, some will be Howard’s colleagues while others are international spies after the important information “Alex” is holding. True to his word, Malik’s asylum soon receives a number of unusual visitors, including some unsolicited new staff members.

Henri-Georges Clouzot is fairly/unfairly referred to as the French Hitchcock and has made his name with classic films drenched with tension, intriguing plot twists and gripping scenarios. This 1957 outing sees Clouzot in what might be either a deliberately devious or playful mood; to be honest it’s hard to tell as this arguably one of the most convoluted and baffling scripts he has delivered.

Clouzot is a master at misleading the viewer so they are just as keen for answers as the main characters are but this spiralling script makes one wonder if Clouzot himself knew what was going on! The narrative is linear, which isn’t a problem but the layers that are constantly piled on serve to obscure pretty much everything. Thankfully the stellar international cast, the intriguing characters and the various hooks Clouzot manages to catch the audience with ensures no-one leaves before the end credits role.

Right from the opening frame we know something is up from the black car lurking by the roadside opposite the asylum gate. When Malik enters the bar at an unseemly early hour of the day it is already full with strange faces. After his conversation with Howard, Malik notices the external interest in his private phone conversations from said strangers as well as the bar keeper (Bernard La Jarrige).

Back at the asylum his trusted Nurse Andre has suddenly gone on holiday, replaced by a terrifying beast of a woman Connie (Martita Hunt). Malik then has two men show up eager for an appointment with him – US teacher Sam Cooper (Sam Jaffe) and Russian kleptomaniac Michel Kiminsky (Peter Ustinov). Naturally when “Alex” (Curd Jürgens) does show up it is under the most clandestine of methods yet for all his attempts at discretion, it doesn’t prevent Connie and the others from trying to get to him at every opportunity.

So far, so straight forward right? In an ideal world then yes but this is Clouzot so nothing is as it seems. True to the unwritten rules of international espionage no-one is above suspicion and elimination of the competition is encouraged as just as much as the forming of alliances – to wit: they all repair to the bar in one big group to console each other on their lack of progress.

Of course duplicity is second nature to spies so seeing the numbers dwindle as the film goes on is no surprise while poor Malik is stuck in the middle trying to keep his moral compass pointing in the right direction while finding himself party to some acts of deception of his own. But just are the good guys and who are the bad guys? With whom should Malik place his trust – if anyone? What is it “Alex” possesses that is so important? 

Clouzot himself is not above holding his cards close to his chest as his devious characters do and indulges his keen sense of misdirection and reliance on red herrings to keep the audience on their toes as much as the spies. Even by the final act nothing is as it seems and the rug continues to be pulled from under the audience’s feet.

There are times when the various twists and deceptions teeter on the farcical to create some lighter moments, but Malik’s exponential decline into moral and personal frustration reminds us this is quite a dark outing. And if one needed a visual reminder of the film’s intensity, much of the impending, claustrophobic style of Les Diabolique and the noir overtones of Quai des Orfèvres are palpably present.

Despite French (and some English) being the main spoken language Clouzot assembled quite an impressive international to play his spies. Sam Jaffe had along and varied career in Hollywood and was well into his 60s when this film was made yet still possessed the sharp vitality his character needed for the various deceptions he would be involved in. Multi-national legend Peter Ustinov displays his flawless French linguistics while his intimidating hirsute appearance as the stocky Russian agent suggests a James Roberston-Justice influence.

German Curd Jürgens also had a long storied movie career, his Teutonic looks a perfect fit for the mysterious “Alex”. Of the two main homegrown talents, Gérard Séty works the hardest centre stage as the good doctor caught in a web of international deceit but arguably most mesmerising, despite having less screen time, is Clouzot’s wife Véra as the childish mute Lucie. If her compelling turn in Les Diabolique didn’t suggest her three film career was shame then this nuanced and emotive performance (her last) drives that message home.

Les Espions is arguably a frustrating film, especially for Clouzot fans, since it epitomises everything that is great about him while falling a little short of the lofty expectations created by his previous successes. Not essentially a bad film but one that feels overcrowded with ideas, a little to deceptive for its own good and is hurt by the obliqueness and lack of satisfying resolve. Worth a watch, just not Clouzot’s best.