An Orchid for the Tiger/Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite (1965)

’20 sharks each day are going to Hamburg zoo…’

A top secret agent is assigned to supervise the retrieval of 20 million dollars worth of gold from the wreck of an old French galleon. However, when the operation is complete, armed skin divers storm the ship and steal the treasure…

The second appearance of Roger Hanin as special agent Louis Rapière, codename Le Tigre. This week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’ is tangling with mysterious criminal mastermind The Orchid, again under the supervision of director Claude Chabrol.

The French military submarine service has come up with a surprising find whilst on manoeuvres; an ancient galleon loaded with gold. Hanin gets the job of overseeing its retrieval by a navy ship and its subsequent transportation back to Paris. The recovery part of the mission goes well, but the shipment is hijacked, the entire crew machine-gunned, and the ship blown up. Hanin and his sidekick Duvet (Roger Dumas) barely escape with their lives.

Following the gold takes them to the isolated republic of Cayenne, where revolution is brewing. Incompetent local contact Col. Pontarlier (José María Caffarel) welcomes the uprising as a chance for him to get out of the ‘boring’ country. Hanin, however, is more interested in the presence of international spies from all over the world. It seems that all the espionage agents of the world are concerned about The Orchid, who is providing the necessary military hardware in exchange for the gold. The arms deal was brokered by zoo owner Jacques Vermorel (Michel Bouquet) and wealthy businessman Ricardo Sanchez (Carlos Casaravilla). The Orchid plans to install the latter as leader of the country post insurrection, but his principal agent in the region is the sexy but ruthless Pamela Mitchum (Margaret Lee).

This French, Spanish and Italian co-production from director Chabrol begins in much the same way as many a Eurospy feature of the period, including ‘The Tiger Likes Fresh Blood/Le Tigre aime la chair fraîche’ (1964), the first film in the short-lived series. It’s somewhat light in tone, thanks to returning stars Hanin and Dumas, but it still looks like the audience is in for the usual mix of fisticuffs, car chases and occasional gunplay. However, this turns out to be something a little different.

The setup is cheerfully vague, with Jean Curtelin’s script quite happy to put two secret agents in charge of what you’d reasonably assume should be a naval operation. Still, it places our heroes in the centre of the action, and the attack on the ship is well-staged and quite violent. Hanin and Dumas wash up on the island shores of Cayenne in just time to eavesdrop on the meeting between Bouquet, Casaravilla and the revolutionaries. When our heroes reach civilisation, they link up with lazy and rather stupid local man Caffarel and find that the place is crawling with the spy world’s best and brightest, who like nothing better than to hang out together at a friendly cocktail party.

By the time someone attempts to kill Hanin with a lasso as he drives by in an open car, one ridiculous development has led to another, and the film has revealed its true colours; it is supposed to be silly. Starting out straight and allowing the comedy in a little at a time is an unusual approach, but it pays dividends here. The cast was obviously in on the joke and never acknowledge just how idiotic things become, with Lee dressed in an animal skin for the climax, which sees Hanin indulge in some unusual cage fighting at the zoo. Brilliantly, the idiotic white supremacist villains hang around to watch and are still sitting there when the authorities arrive to round them up.

This mixture of action and laughter is not easy to pull off successfully, and things may get too farcical for some tastes. After all, most spy spoofs lay their cards on the table face up from the start and are usually not very subtle about it. Instead, Chabrol’s film confounds early expectations by lightening the tone as it develops, although he’s wise enough to keep the action coming at such a pace that the change isn’t jarring or too obvious. The fights are also surprisingly brutal and convincing, thanks to some razor-sharp editing.

Hanin originated both the story and the ‘Le Tigre’ character after a disagreement over rights issues brought his brief cinematic tenure as secret agent ‘Le Gorille’ to an end. Lee was an English actress who came to the Italian film industry via marriage and was a fixture in the Eurospy arena in the 1960s. The couple demonstrates good screen chemistry, and she’s pretty obviously having a ball as the black-hearted femme fatale. In a much later interview, she named this film one of her two favourites.

Chabrol went on to become a celebrated director of French’ New Wave’ cinema, but, at this point, he was making commercial films after a string of more artistic projects had flopped at the box office. ‘Les Biches’ (1968) was another commercial dud but enjoyed critical acclaim and was the first in the string of films that made his reputation. In later years, he described the two ‘Le Tigre’ films as follows: ‘They were drivel, so OK, let’s get into it up to our necks.’ An auteur filmmaker would probably choose to distance himself from earlier commercial work, however, if it was distaste for the material that prompted his approach here, then that can be viewed as a happy accident. Perhaps understandably, no official films followed in the ‘Le Tigre’ series, although two later films with Hanin were retitled with the character’s name, most notably ‘Spy Pit/Da Berlino l’apocalisse/Le tigre sort sans sa mère (1967)’ which also starred Lee.

Enjoyable, silly Eurospy spoof that makes for an entertaining experience.

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