Marie Chantal contre Dr. Kha

AKA: Blue Panther
Country: France, Spain, Italy, Morocco
Director: Claude Chabrol
Starring: Marie Laforêt, Francisco Rabal, Roger Hanin, Serge Reggiani, Charles Denner, Akim Tamiroff
Music: Michel Colombier, Gregorio García Segura, Pierre Jansen

French film director, Claude Chabrol is credited with starting the “nouvelle vague” French film movement (or the French New Wave as it commonly called). Prior to his first film, in 1957, Chabrol co-wrote ‘Hitchcock’ with Éric Rohmer. The next year, Chabrol made his feature directorial debut with Le Beau Serge (1958), a Hitchcock-influenced thriller. Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958) is often cited as the first New Wave feature. This was followed by Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in 1959 and Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless) in 1960.

The thing that is important here though, is how Chabrol (and other New Wave directors) worshiped Hitchcock, because, despite Bondmania sweeping the world, Marie Chantal contre Dr. Kha is an affectionate reworking of The Man Who Knew Too Much — predominantly the 1956 version with James Stewart and Doris Day — although if you suggested that the scenes in the Swiss Alps owe more than a little to the original 1934 version with Peter Lorre, I would not argue with you. Or in this case the film may be called The Woman Who Knew Too Much, (but Mario Bava already used that title) and that woman is Marie Chantal.

The film opens on a train and many people are having a meal in the dining carriage. One such man is Dumont, who is an uncouth slob with glasses and a comb over. After his meal he down a good glass of brandy and lurches back to his compartment. His compartment is a four-berth room, and inside are three other travellers. Two of these men are young and they are practicing card tricks as a way to relieve the boredom of the long train trip. The other passenger on the bunk below Dumont’s is Bruno Kerrien (Roger Hanin – you may remember Hanin as the star of Chabrol’s two Le Tigre films). The two card players get bored with their card game and leave to get coffee. This leaves Dumont and Kerrien alone, but Dumont has already passed out. Kerrien silently gets out of his bunk, produces an icepick and stabs Dumont in the heart. Then he retrieves a blue panther pendant from around the dead man’s neck.

Kerrien then leaves the compartment and heads to the dining car. There he is seated at the same table as Marie Chantal (Marie Laforêt) and her cousin, Hubert de Ronsac (Pierre-Francois Moro). It seems that all three of them are travelling to the same destination which is Verbois in Switzerland and staying at the ‘Hotel des Neiges’. After the meal Hubert excuses himself because he is tired, leaving Marie in the company of Kerrien. At this point he asks a favour of her, but says he cannot explain why. He has a piece of jewellery — a blue panther with ruby eyes — which he wants her to take and hide upon her person. He will ask for it back in a day or so, once they are in Verbois. He then says that it is a matter of life and death. Marie reluctantly agrees to take the piece.

Once is Verbois the cast of characters is added to and fleshed out. First Marie meets Paco Castillo (Francisco Rabal), the square-jawed hero of the piece. He claims to be a reporter investigating an international spy ring. Then there is Mister Johnson (Charles Denner), who is the attache to the US Embassy in Morocco. In fact though, Johnson actually works for Dr. Kha (Akim Tamiroff). Dr. Kha is a super-villain of the highest order and has operative’s everywhere. Then there is a father and son team of Russian agents. This is given a twist in that the son, Gregor, who appears to be only twelve years old, is the brains of the duo, and the father, Ivanov, is the brawn.

Later Kerrien arranges to meet Marie at a nightclub so he can reclaim the panther. But prior to this, as Kerrien is on a chairlift, he is killed by a blow dart fired out of a ski-pole. Kerrien falls to the snow below. Marie just happens to be the first on the scene, and with his dying words, he says to only give the panther to Ali Kadour – and beware of Dr. Kha.

Ali Kadour happens to live in Agadir in Morocco, so that where Maire and Hubert head next, but followed by the entire cadre of spy characters who are all secretly after the blue panther.At the top I suggested this film is similar to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Kn
ew Too Much
, and the initial setup is very similar. In Hitchcock’s film, the characters meet on a bus rather than a train. And in both film’s the heroes (or in this case heroine) are given some secret information by a dying spy.

Marie Chantal Vs Dr. Kha is a very enjoyable film, but perhaps a tad to long with the final plot twist and thread coming so late in the story its importance is negated. This happens to be the titular showdown between Marie Chantal and Dr. Kha. But the other characters have been quite entertaining in their offbeat way up to this point, so even if the final confrontation doesn’t live up the billing and knock your socks off, you wont come away disappointed.

Marie Chantal contre Dr. Kha

Code Name: Tiger

Original Title: Le Tigre aime la chair fraiche
AKA: The Tiger Likes Fresh Blood, The Tiger Likes Fresh Meat
Country: France / Italy
Director: Claude Chabrol
Starring: Roger Hanin, Daniela Bianchi, Maria Mauban, Roger Dumas, Antonio Passalia, Roger Rudel, Carlo Nell
Music: Pierre Jansen

Most reports on the various English language versions of this film that are currently available on the grey market are that they are severely truncated (The Tiger Likes Fresh Meat seems to be missing twenty minutes, and Code Name: Tiger is missing about twelve minutes). This heavy handed editing has apparently rendered the story almost incomprehensible. With that in mind, I have gone to the original French version, Le Tigre aime la chair fraiche, for this review. Considering my inability to speak French, this probably served to render the film just as incomprehensible as the poor English versions, but I was confident that the international language of spy films would shine through.

The film opens in a Middle Eastern country in a darkened cinema, and some diplomats are watching footage of a Mirage jet re-fuelling in midair. As they watch the film, a man with a knife enters the screening room and sneaks up behind one of the men watching the presentation. As the assailant plunges the knife into the back of his target, the film ends and the lights go on. The killer is out in the open and exposed. He makes a run for it with a squad of policemen on his trail.

Surprisingly, the killer runs rings around the local constabulary and makes it to a safe house. Here he is met by an albino in a natty white suit and Panama hat. From the safe house they drive through the country to an amazing location – it’s this fortified white stucco mansion that’s surrounded by palm trees – but what makes it surreal, is that the area has flooded, so half a metre of water covers everything. They walk into the mansion, which is fully furnish (with opulent furniture at that), with water up to their knees. They wade through unperturbed into the office of the unseen boos man. Both men are given a stack of bills as payment, and then the albino stabs his partner. We next see the dead man floating face down through the palm trees. It’s a bizarre but stylish opening sequence.

The minion was killed because he had in fact botched the assassination attempt in the cinema. Sure he killed someone, but not the man he was supposed to. His intended target was a Turkish diplomat called Baskine. The man the assailant actually killed was a French secret agent, and a friend of Louis Rapiere – known in espionage circles as ‘The Tiger’. And that brings us to our hero for the show. We meet The Tiger (Roger Hanin) at a training camp in France. He is in the middle of conducting a judo class when he is interrupted by a General. He informs The Tiger of his colleagues death. He also re-assigns The Tiger to take over the assignment. It is feared that there will be more attempts on Baskine’s life.

Next we join The Tiger at Orly Airport with a team of operatives, including the accident prone Duvet (Roger Dumas). For ‘accident prone’ – read ‘comic relief’. The Tiger and his men are on hand to protect Baskine as he arrives in France. Also loitering around the airport is the albino and a team of killers, including a malicious midget and a bad boy scout, all intent on turning Baskine into raspberry jam. With this many thugs at the airport, it will come as no surprise that an attempt is made on Baskine’s life, but it is foiled by The Tiger.

The Tiger’s heroic actions have brought him to the attention of Mrs. Baskine (Maria Mauban), the diplomat’s wife, and more importantly, Melhica Baskine (Daniella Bianchi), the diplomat’s daughter. Both women are grateful for his intervention at the airport, and as a reward for his heroics, he finds himself chauffeuring around the ladies as they go on a shopping spree in Paris.

Code Name: Tiger starts out as a promising enough spy thriller but soon bogs down. Maybe my lack of French is to blame, but I think even to a Parisian native, the dreary pacing would take it’s toll. But any spy film that features Daniella Bianchi cannot be all bad, even if she is wasted as window dressing. In this film she has little more to do than make goo-goo eyes at The Tiger, and then get kidnapped by the villains.

One of the films saving graces is the music by Pierre Jansen. Although used sparingly, it makes the few action scenes seem more exciting than they actually are. It is certainly better than his score for the Chabrol helmed Who’s Got The Black Box.

I think that Code Name: Tiger may well be a fair to decent Eurospy picture, but as it stands at the moment, for English speakers – with poor, edited and dubbed versions it’s hard to know for sure. This wasn’t the end for The Tiger, though. He would return in an official sequel, Our Agent Tiger (Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite), and star Roger Hanin would appear in other spy films that were marketed as ‘Tiger’ films in other countries.

Code Name: Tiger

Who’s Got The Black Box (1967)

AKA: The Road To Corinthe
Director: Claude Chabrol
Starring: Jean Seberg, Maurice Ronet, Christian Marquand
Music: Pierre Jansen

Some films have a good personality. Like a close friend, they make you smile and you enjoy spending time with them. Who’s Got The Black Box is one of those films. It may have a thin story, and could be considered light on for action and laugh out loud jokes, but none-the-less it is one of those films that is easy to immerse yourself in, and enjoy. For those who have seen the Pathfinder Entertainment DVD cover, and have noticed the intense red packaging, which features a monochrome hero with one arm wrapped around Jean Seberg and the other holding a machine gun, don’t panic. The film is nowhere near that intense or violent. It is essentially a gentle paced spy comedy from French film-maker Claude Chabrol. Chabrol had previously ventured into spy territory with Le Tigre Aime La Chair Fraiche (The Tiger Likes Fresh Meat) and Le Tigre Se Parfume A La Dynamite (Our Agent Tiger), both featuring Roger Hanin as agent Louis Rapiere.

Black Box opens with the self proclaimed ‘World’s Greatest Magician,’ Socrates (Steve Eckart) attempting to cross the border into Greece. As his vehicle is inspected at customs, the officials find a small black box filled with electronic components.

The discovery is reported back through the chain of command. When the heads of OTAN hear about the device, they fly into a panic and demand to know what it does. (I am sure you have worked out, that OTAN is NATO backwards!)

The magician is forced to talk. That is, he is taken to a small room and pummelled to within an inch of his life by a burly man wearing sunglasses. Finally the magician breaks his silence. He confesses that he has already brought fifteen of the little black boxes into Greece. And that other couriers have brought in more.

And what does the black box do? Each black box interferes with radar and launch of OTAN missiles. Before the authorities can find out anything else, the magician swallows a cyanide capsule.

Sharps (Michel Bouquet), the local head of the CIA in the Mediterranean is an inept fool. He doesn’t believe that there are any more black boxes. But he does assign two agents to look into it. The first agent is Dex (Maurice Ronet) who is experienced and professional. The other agent is Robert Ford (Christian Marquand), who is a dreamer.

Sharps has another reason to send away Ford. Ford has a beautiful wife, Shanny (Jean Seberg), and while he is away on assignment, Sharps, hoping to instigate an affair, moves in on her.

Ford, whose ideas are never taken seriously, stumbles onto a lead and finds out who is behind the black boxes. Rather than return to headquarters, he returns home and celebrates his success with Shanny. As she leaves the room to get a bottle of Champagne, Robert is assassinated. She returns to the bedroom and finds him dead. In turn, she is hit from behind and rendered unconscious. The killer then puts the murder weapon, a gun, in her hand. He also gets her other hand and drags her fingernails down her murdered husbands chest, to indicate that there was a struggle.

The evidence is stacked heavily against Shanny and she is imprisoned. Naturally, the lecherous Sharps arranges for her to be released. Now free, she sets off to find out who killed Robert, and the truth about the black boxes. Along the way she teams up with Robert’s partner, Dex, who is unsure if he should trust Shanny. All the clichés are in place, for slick little spy thriller.

Jean Seberg is likeable in the role of Shanny, but doesn’t quite ooze the sex-appeal required for the role. In places, it is hard to believe that men, both good and bad, are throwing themselves at her. Then again, that may just be the nature of the ‘dirty old men’ in the film. They’d throw themselves at anything in a skirt.

The weaknesses of the film are a couple of uneven comedy sequences, which ruin the flow of the film, and the music in some places. The music generally is fairly unobtrusive, and considering the setting, it does feature some Greek styling. But it does get annoying when the music gets loud and fast. It is supposed to sound Greek and exotic, but instead sounds like music for a slapstick routine. Obviously it does not reflect the action taking place on the screen, and would probably be more suited to a Benny Hill skit.

The film, as I mentioned at the outset is very likeable, without being brilliant. The star of the film is the cinematography, which is very good and utilises the Mediterranean backdrop to great effect. It is a warm film; a friendly film. It is not going to change your life, and it is not going to end up on your list of favourite films of all time, but if you take the time to watch it, you are in for a pleasant ninety minutes.

This review is based on Pathfinder Home Entertainment USA DVD

Who’s Got The Black Box (1967)