Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Spy Who Flubbed Me: LE MAGNIFIQUE (1973)

Jean-Paul Belmondo has made a lot of movies, of which many, or most, have been huge box office hits in Europe. They have also been very popular in Asia and have influenced many Hong Kong films, including the early works of Jackie Chan. While Chan never completely plagiarized Belmondo's work that I know of, many of his early action set-pieces and lack of stunt double are more than a little similar.

Admittedly I’ve seen only a handful of Belmondo's films. The ones that I have seen, such as COP OR HOOD (1979) and THE PROFESSIONAL (1981), have been entertaining but, as far as I could see, nothing to set the world on fire. Certainly nothing to warrant the world-wide fame and celebrity status that Belmondo would no doubt himself be proud to bask in… Until now.

(Mild spoilers forthcoming) The movie opens with an incredibly bizarre, stylized scene of a US secret agent in Acapulco being whisked away in a phone booth by a helicopter, only to be dumped into the ocean where divers attach a shark cage to the phone booth allowing the agent to be attacked by said shark with blood billowing through the water. If that sequence doesn't blow your mind and hook you in, this is just not your kind of movie. Of course there is only one thing for the agency to do now! Get top agent Bob Saint-Clair (Belmondo) on the job! Super-suave, sharp-dressed and with teeth so white they almost sparkle, Saint-Clair is so flamboyant that Simon Templar would feel like a wall-flower next to him. They said he was an "agent". They didn't say anything about "secret".

Saint-Clair, bent for revenge (in an extremely Colgate ad kind of way) is hot on the heels of Karpov (Vittorio Caprioli), a megalomaniacal arch-villain with an army of black leather clad troopers who is looking to take over the world with his organization of evil. Actually, Saint-Clair spends less time chasing after Karpov than he does chasing after the ravishing Tatiana (Jacqueline Bisset), and who can blame him? Karpov is actually the one doing the chasing, desperately trying to liquidate Saint-Clair by any means necessary. Those means usually are sending hordes of his foot-soldiers after Saint-Clair only to be casually shot down by the super-agent in mid-tryst. And this is only the beginning of the film!

This completely over-the-top, occasionally surreal spoof of James Bond films works amazingly well. It is hugely imaginative, incredibly bloody (in a cartoon way) and often hilarious. Better still, (big spoiler) it has another layer. We discover that Bob Saint-Clair is actually a work of fiction, a character written in a series of novels by the scruffy, chain-smoking writer Fran├žois Merlin (Belmondo, again). Merlin uses the people he sees in everyday life as characters in his novels including his sleazy, egotistical boss (Caprioli) and the lovely, book-worm college student (Bisset) down the hall.

In all of the Belmondo films that I have seen, he typically plays a hard-boiled cop with a flair for the dramatic. In COP OR HOOD (1979), he shows a bit of comic flair, but it is completely misplaced in an otherwise serious action outing. Here he is allowed to unleash his rather baroque comic talents with everything from clever wit to the campy pratfalls that the French love so much. Belmondo has professed his enthusiasm for the work of Steve McQueen, even occasionally referencing it in his films, such as the '67 Mustang chase sequence in THE OUTSIDER (1983), which was reportedly done as a tribute to McQueen who had succumbed to cancer three years earlier. Perhaps this is why Bisset, who starred opposite McQueen in BULLIT (1968), was cast. Regardless of the reason, she is perfect fit, playing the introverted nebbish and the ravishing Bond girl archetype with aplomb and is an equal partner in making this film work.

Directed by Philippe de Broca, this is considered to be a Belmondo classic and it’s easy to see why. The movie moves at a brisk pace and doesn’t come to a screeching halt, as you would expect, when the filmmakers delve into Merlin’s life of bleak drudgery. The use of atmosphere to contrast the two “lives” is perfectly executed with bright-colors and sunlight for Saint-Clair’s world and drab grays and rain for Merlin’s. Surprisingly, celebrated screenwriter Francis Veber (who has written more films that have been remade in the US than probably anyone else in history) had his name removed from the credits after Broca and Caprioli did some rewrites. Perhaps he wasn't pleased with the level of excessive violence, such as a scene in which Saint-Clair literally shoots out a man's brains, which neatly fall in a plate on a bistro table. It may not have been exactly what Veber wanted it to be, but it is a great movie that completely changed my American perception of Belmondo movies. I hope Veber can find solace in that.

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