Original title: Coplan sauve sa peau
AKA: Devil’s Garden / Requiem for a Snake
Country: France / Italy
Director: Yves Boisset
Starring: Claudio Brook, Margaret Lee, Jean Servais, Bernard Blier, Jean Topart, Hans Meyer, Klaus Kinski
Music: Jean-Claude Pelletier
Based on the book Coplan Paie le Cercueil by Paul Kenny
Coplan Saves his Skin is the first film I have watched in the Coplan series. I do have a copy of an earlier entry FX-18 Superspy directed by Riccardo Freda, but the print is so diabolical even I couldn’t watch it. It looked like a polar bear in a snow storm, rather than the beautiful glossy colours I know the film proper has. So I tossed that to one side waiting for the day when a better print surfaces (it’s been a long wait). But while I wait, Coplan Saves his Skin has landed in my lap.
Now this is one of the very few titles not covered in the indispensable Eurospy Guide — notice whenever I refer to ‘The Guide’, I always describe it as the ‘indispensable’ Eurospy Guide — and that’s because if you are spy film fan, you cannot do without this book. I remember when this book came out five years ago (that long ago, huh!). I used to scrounge around trying to find movies from just one or two grey market dealers. I didn’t really know how much was out there. I knew that there were spy films that I wanted to see, but I didn’t know their names — after all these films go by so many titles. As for series, it was almost impossible to link up films. For example, above I mentioned FX-18 Superspy — in some markets it was released as Agent 077 Summergame. I thought it was a part of the 077 series, where in reality it is a Coplan film. Even IMDb wasn’t much help back then — if you were lucky you could find a title, but there was no cast and crew information. But then the Eurospy Guide appeared, and suddenly everything changed. Films had names. Series could be traced, and even better, the flow on effect is now these films are slowly being released. Companies like Dorado, Fin de Siecle, Dark Sky, and Retromedia started releasing some of these films. And also fan projects are being put together by eager Eurospy fans, keen to fill in the blanks — which is fantastic (and I my thanks sincerely goes out to those who put in the hours to redub, or subtitle some of these films. Your work is appreciated).
The fact that I can watch a version of Coplan Saves his Skin, where as at the time of writing David and Matt (the author’s of The Eurospy Guide) couldn’t, says a lot about how things have changed. But onwards.
Often when I look at Eurospy films you will read the term ‘James Bond ripoff’. And on the whole that is true, particularly of the Italian films. But the French films often owed a great debt to Alfred Hitchcock. The French New Wave loved Hitchcock, and you’ve got to remember that after North By Northwest, they wanted Alfred Hitchcock to direct the first Bond film, Thunderball (for those who are unsure about what I am referring to, should check out Robert Sellers excellent book, The Battle For Bond). Anyway, Hitchcock’s shadow fell over quite a few Eurospy productions, and these films had a slightly more psychological edge to them, rather than the slam-bam action of those films which relied solely on the Bond template. Coplan Saves his Skin is heavily influenced by Vertigo (but without the dizzying heights).
The film opens in Istanbul on the streets. A fat, hairy beast of a man, while eating melon, watches a group of street performers go through their routines. There is a man lying on a bed of nails, a fire eater, and even a dancing bear. At that moment, world renowned scientist, Otto Eisner walks by, accompanied by his assistant Mara (Margaret Lee). The hairy beast begins to follow them, sneaks up and stabs Eisner. Then he runs off. Rather foolishly, Mara chooses to follow him. This doesn’t last too long because the hairy beast signals to another guy, and he begins to chase Mara. I don’t know why the hairy beast didn’t just stab Mara too, but what the heck, let’s just go with it!
This new minion chases Mara all over Istanbul, which is a great opportunity to show off some great location photography (got to get that ferry in there somewhere). Eventually she loses her tail and makes her way to some kind of public house. Waiting there for her is Francis Coplan (Claudio Brook). He has travelled half way across the world to be there. The back story is that three years prior, in Acapulco, Mara and Coplan used to be lovers. Then one day she disappeared without a word, leaving him heart broken. Now all these years later, she contacts him. She needs his help because he works for the CIA. He obviously still holds a torch for her, because he turned up. He presents her with a red rose.
Not one to waste time, Mara explains that an organisation called the ‘Consortium of Brains’ are trying to kill her. Apparently the ‘Consortium’ aren’t evil men — they work for the betterment of mankind — but still, they want her dead. It never is really explained why.
Later as Coplan and Mara walk in a garden, they are attacked by a group of thugs dressed in black. One of them is the hairy beast and he goes after Mara, while the others beat up on Coplan. Mara tries to fight back and slings candle wax into the beasts face – he goes berserk (ends up facially scarred) and appears to repeatedly stab her. Appears? Well his bulk hides the action, and it’s hard to tell what he has in his hand. It appears to be a knife, but who knows?
Coplan slowly regains consciousness on a pebble beach. He is pretty smashed up, and has a serious knife wound on his left arm. He is found by a girl named Yasmine who arranges help. Once Coplan is healed, Lieutenant Sakki of the Emniyet (Turkish Secret Police) wants him to leave the country. Of course Coplan doesn’t and begins a search for Mara (and/or her killers).
Most Eurospy films feature the same old cliches. They often start with a brilliant scientist killed or kidnapped. Then the beautiful daughter or assistant becomes tangled up in the investigation with the dashing secret agent. As this film begins, all those cliches are present which tend to indicate that this is going to be another formulaic Eurospy flick (and hey, I’m happy with that!) But then in the middle, this film becomes a little bit eery as Coplan’s search for Mara becomes more obsessive and the film subtly shifts towards being a psychological drama. And while I do love the corny Eurospy tropes, I thought that Coplan Saves his Skin was striving to be a bit more than that. The cliches are here, but there also something fresh and atmospheric (albeit lifted from Vertigo). Coplan Saves his Skin is one of the more affecting Eurospy films. People who are after empty action thrills may find the going a little slow in the middle, but ultimately for those willing to invest their time will find this film to be a rewarding experience.
Claudio Brook is not your standard square-jawed hero. He is not as handsome and debonair as a Connery, a John Gavin or even a Richard Whyler. And physically, he isn’t as packed as a Ken Clark, Louis Davilla or Brad Harris. Brook is an ‘everyman’, and with the psychological approach this film takes, that’s a big plus when it comes to selling the human, obsessive side of the story. And obsessive Francis Coplan is. Even when all the twists have played out (which I wont reveal here), Coplan doesn’t accept it. His mind is singular in it’s desire. If Coplan had been a smarmy, self confident playboy (like Tony Kendall in the Kommissar X films), then all the believability in the character would have gone out the window.
Klaus Kinski give an oddball performance as Theler, who is a sculptor that knows something about Mara’s disappearance. Kinski spends his time surrounded by naked women and nude sculpture. He appears to wander around in a sarong and holds the odd seance. His role (and performance) aren’t pivotal to the story, but it’s always great to see him in this type of flick — and for once he isn’t playing a psycho hitman, which is refreshing.
Hans Meyer, plays Hugo the villain of the piece. He strokes a black cat (I never said this film totally eschews the Bondian stereotypes), and has a leather side plate on the left side of his face to hide horrible facial scarring. He also has a pretty impressive lair, which is a castle located in the Devil’s Valley. Now while Hugo is evil, he is also one of those villains who carries out his scheme in the belief it is for the betterment of all mankind. So he is evil, without being totally evil. The true villainy comes from his number one henchwoman, Carole, you wields a whip. Now she is just plain nuts with a delicious cruel streak. At the climax she is in charge of a manhunt to track Coplan down — it is essentially a variation on the ‘most dangerous game’. The sequence is a bit drawn out — and there is a rather poor sequence with a large spider, but the sensational location footage really makes up for any shortcomings. The ending has a very different feel to most films of it’s type.
I am making this film sound like a masterpiece. it is not, but it is substantially more intelligent than most of the films of it’s ilk, while at the same time presenting all the requisite tropes of the genre.