May 27, 2015

DVD Review: Who’s Got the Black Box? aka The Road to Corinth (1967)

Yesterday I reviewed one Eurospy movie with a mysterious black box as its "MacGuffin" (Alfred Hitchcock's term for the desired artifact motivating the plot, whose specific nature is unimportant); today we have another. Why not? A mysterious black box: perhaps the quintessential MacGuffin by Hitchcock’s definition. It could be anything—and it won’t cost the production very much. The European title to Claude Chabrol’s 1967 Hitchcock homage, The Road to Corinth, has a nicer ring to it, but the U.S. title, Who's Got the Black Box?, proves particularly apt. This movie makes a joke of its MacGuffin and its overall meaninglessness. When a radiant Jean Seberg (Breathless), eager to coax her secret agent husband away on a vacation, tells him that “there are other things in life besides looking for little black boxes,” he replies sagely, “If it weren’t little black boxes, it would be big red ones. You knew that when you married me.” With this, he not only makes an amusing joke about the pursuits of movie spies, but fully acknowledges Hitchcock’s assertion that the Macguffin itself doesn’t matter as long as audiences believe it’s important to the characters. In that light, Who’s Got the Black Box? is really quite a perfect title, succinctly summarizing the primary character motivation in most spy movies of the era. However, it also portends a film that goes for broader jokes at the genre’s expense. Even the back of Pathfinder's DVD case bills Who's Got the Black Box? as a “spy parody,” but the parody aspects are very subtle. In the tradition of the French New Wave, Chabrol more winkingly acknowledges (and freely uses) the genre’s clichés rather than outright spoofing them. Most of the film’s humor is generated organically by the characters and their predicaments, in keeping with Hitch’s frothier fare like To Catch a Thief. That said, the laughs are fairly abundant and quite genuine.

It’s a good sign when something billed as a spy parody manages to elicit a few such genuine laughs before the credits, and this one does. First, from a magician who’s detained at the Greek border when a mysterious electronic black box is found in his car full of rabbits and doves. During his interrogation, the magician manages not only to untie himself (after a lazy guard refuses to do so, snarkily intoning “You’re a magician. Why don’t you do it yourself?”), but to produce first a cigarette (“It’s against regulations,” he’d been sharply reprimanded when he tried requesting one of his inquisitor), and then a cigar out of thin air… when he’s not even wearing a shirt! Before he bites the inevitable cyanide capsule in the cigar, the magician-spy reveals that there are fifteen other such black boxes already in Greece jamming up NATO radar systems and toppling missiles. The second laugh comes from Chabrol’s take on the Eurospy tradition wherein, for budgetary reasons, the boss’s office must have a curtain comprising at least one wall. Chabrol goes one better: yes, there’s a curtain, but another wall is made up entirely of a giant American flag! The CIA honcho who sits in front of it, Sharps (Michel Bouquet), is portrayed as an idiot, and blatantly called as much by his staff.

Our typical Eurospy hero appears to be Bob Ford (Christian Marquand), a CIA agent with a beautiful wife, Shanny (Jean Seberg), a devoted partner, Dex (Maurice Ronet) and the aforementioned idiot boss, Sharps. For some reason Shanny seems prone to performing sexy leg stretches in their hotel room while he’s having discussions with Dex and Sharps, which proves distracting to all concerned. Perhaps enticed by those stretching legs, Sharps sends Ford away from Athens on an assignment more so that the superior can pursue his agent’s wife than so that the agent can find the black boxes. And let it be noted, Seberg is very, very attractive—especially in the bikini that she taunts Sharps with during a little striptease by a swimming pool. But that’s still no excuse for Sharps to behave so utterly boorishly. (That type of behavior is supposed to be left to the Eurospies in the field, not their bosses!) Between pestering his employee’s wife and vetoing any reasonable suggestion his agents make, you’d swear that Sharps must be a double agent out to intentionally sabotage the investigation. But the movie doesn’t even really dangle that possibility as a red herring. He’s just a jerk.

Ford, however, is no slouch, and his mission (with the aid of some binoculars that look like ordinary sunglasses) quickly yields some vital information about the black boxes from an informant who works at a marblery. (That’s right, I said a "marblery." It’s a unique enough setting for a spy operation!) It also yields one of the film’s most memorable shots: an extremely wide view of stairs leading down to the waterfront as villainous henchmen pursue Ford and his informant. (It’s visually interesting here, but Seijun Suzuki did it much better thirty-some years later in his underrated Branded to Kill follow-up Pistol Opera.) Ford returns with his findings to Athens, but unfortunately he’s picked up a tail along the way: a fastidious henchman who wears a white suit, white gloves, white shoes with red spats and a white boater hat with a red ribbon.

The character may be American (supposedly), but the film is French, as reflected by Ford’s priorities. Rather than immediately rushing his vital intelligence to Sharps (who would probably disregard it anyway), he first stops by his hotel to make love to his beautiful wife. When she goes to refill the champagne, the white-suited assassin slips into the hotel bedroom. Shanny returns to find her husband dead on the bed. Okay, I guess Bob Ford wasn't the hero of this film after all! Shanny now takes center stage, but unfortunately the first thing that happens to her is she gets knocked out by the assassin, who duly plants his gun in her hand to frame her for her husband’s murder. Sharps is no help, either, for some reason telling the police that the couple weren’t getting along and that Shanny is prone to violence. (I guess this is because she wouldn’t sleep with him? I’m not sure; his motivations are unclear... or perhaps just unmotivated.)

Luckily, the informant Bob Ford met with before he died has the audacity to visit Shanny’s prison cell, disguised as an Orthodox priest… in order to demand the $1,000 Bob had promised him from his jailed widow! But that gives her the lead she needs to follow up and solve her husband’s murder. Sharps changes his mind and gets her out of the slammer, but only to put her onto the first plane back to the States. He has no interest in following up her fresh lead, condescendingly telling her at one point, “You have been courageous, but naïve as a child.” Naturally, Shanny slips away at her first opportunity, evading both Sharps and Dex, who he’s assigned to keep an eye on her. This becomes the pattern for the rest of the film: Shanny gets away, does some investigating, and then gets found again by agents who don’t believe her progress and want to ship her off to America. It gets a little old, but there are some nice moments along the way, like a murder in a cemetery perpetrated by three bogus Orthodox priests with knives that plays out like the climax of "Julius Caesar." There’s also that classic Hitchcock staple (ala North By Northwest, among others) where she finally convinces Sharps to call the police and the army to search the marblery, but the bad guys, having been tipped off, have cleared it of any evidence of wrongdoing so the good guys look foolish.

At one point, the fastidious henchman in the boater hat parks himself for a long time in Shanny’s hotel room, aiming his gun at the door as he reads a magazine called “Women.” Chabrol generates some good suspense from this set-up as numerous people (including Shanny, Dex and a hapless bellboy) almost open that door to certain death at different times.

A late blooming romance with Dex seems to come too soon after Shanny’s beloved husband’s death, but this is froth so we’ll let it slip. Less forgivable, unfortunately, is a final change of hero in the third act. If the first act was Bob’s and the second act Shanny’s, the third act belongs to Dex, and he’s disappointingly the least compelling hero of the bunch. (And far less easy on the eyes than Seberg.) He does get to navigate a Scooby Doo-style tomb filled with secret passages and even a painting with the eyeholes punched out for someone to peer though, though, so there’s enough happening to generate interest even while Shanny’s kidnapped.

Even kidnapped and tied up, Shanny still proves the most compelling character. When the villain (usually seen eating meals… even if he’s in the middle of a ruined temple, where’s he’s got a whole suckling pig spread out!) chains her up for sacrifice like Andromeda of Greek mythology in a rock-filled mine cart ready to be pushed over a cliff into the sparkling Aegean, the intrepid Shanny still doesn’t lose her nerve. She cuts off his big Talking Villain speech, saying, “No talking. Please, finish it.” This defiance in the face of death reminded me of Diana Rigg in The Avengers (particularly “A Surfeit of H20—“You diabolical mastermind, you!”). Luckily, Dex is fast approaching by helicopter (affording us some beautiful, scenic aerial shots of the picturesque Greek coastline) like Theseus on a latterday Pegasus.

Who’s Got the Black Box? drags a bit because of its somewhat awkward three-hero structure (and it’s got a somewhat disorienting and at times oddly atonal score that’s serviceable, but certainly not among the genre’s best), but overall it plays out as a pretty and passably entertaining imitation of frothy Hitchcock elevated by an engaging lead performance from Jean Seberg. It’s certainly not Chabrol’s best go at the Eurospy genre (that would be Marie-Chantal vs. Dr. Kha), but it’s still a beautifully shot film with beautiful locations and a beautiful leading lady. It’s also available on Region 1 DVD, which gives it the edge over the hard-to-find Marie-Chantal. Pathfinder’s anamorphic DVD seems slightly misframed (evidenced in the opening credits), but otherwise manages to convey all that beauty quite well. The English subtitles are kind of weirdly done, though; they seem like fansubs, translating every word literally (rather than poetically providing the gist of the dialogue, the way most subs do) and therefore often disappearing during rapid conversations before the viewer even has a chance to read them. That’s a shame, because you definitely want to be enjoying the beautiful Greek scenery and the beautiful Ms. Seberg rather than constantly reading quickly evaporating subtitles! Still, I’m glad the DVD exists. Fans of glossy Hitchcock imitations like The Prize or Arabesque (I’m not going to put this in the same league as Charade!) will probably find Who's Got the Black Box? worth a viewing.


dfordoom said...

Definitely one to add to my shopping list!

Johny Malone said...

Seberg is beautiful in this movie.

Tanner said...

She certainly is!