‘Sometimes changing some characteristics of a person is enough to deflect the suspicions of an overly curious eye.’
The niece of a foreign ambassador is persuaded to take a necklace through customs on her diplomatic passport. Afterwards, she finds out that it contained microfilm, and she is blackmailed into taking part in a plot to kidnap a scientist…
Serious-minded French-Italian black and white spy games from director Roger Vernay. This week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’ is Roger Hanin, although his adventures in espionage are a long way removed from the glitzy world of 007.
Diplomat’s daughter Eva Dolbry (Christiane Minazzoli) is living the high life in Paris. Sports cars, parties and eligible bachelors; playboy Serge Alerio (Antonio Passalia) and ‘man from the ministry’ Mirmont (Hanin). Her father, the Ambassador (Donald O’Brien), favours his colleague, of course, but Minazzoli finds the bespectacled Hanin to be a bit of a bore. She would much rather make time with the dashing Passalia. It’s also a thrill when he asks her to take a necklace through customs as a gift to an old friend who lives in Warsaw. Unfortunately, after she delivers the bauble to a nightclub singer, he tells her that she’s smuggled some secret microfilm.
Surprise, surprise, Passalia is an enemy agent and, having evidence on tape of Minazzoli handing over the necklace, blackmail is the order of the day. Sensibly, she confesses everything to security chief René Dary, who puts his best man on the case. In another huge surprise, this turns out to be Hanin, who turns into a top spy once he takes his glasses off. Passalia and his associates want Minazzoli’s help kidnapping family friend Professeur Wilkowski (Lucien Nat), whose latest secret formula looks to be a global game changer. So, she gets to play double agent with Hanin as her handler.
If audiences were expecting some spy antics in the vein of Sean Connery’s early outings as Ian Fleming’s secret agent, they likely left the theatre after this experience extremely disappointed. Vernay’s film drifts far closer to John Le Carré territory, with a dour, almost documentary feel. Action is limited to occasional gunplay, car chases and fisticuffs. The most notable combat takes place in the hull of a ship when Hanin is taking part in a search for the kidnapped scientist. Inexplicably, the vessel is then allowed to disembark, even though Hanin’s colleagues know exactly where he was, and he hasn’t returned!
The production’s lack of scale and ambition is the real problem here. It brings nothing to mind so much as television shows of the same period, although there’s no evidence that this was anything other than a big screen effort. However, this does mean that they are few points of interest. Minazzoli heroically wrangles a pair of false lashes that probably gave her eyelids a hernia and does her best to inject some life into the moribund proceedings. Aside from that, the scenes where vehicles are forced off the road are competently staged, and Vernay likes to put the backs of people’s heads in the corner of the frame to create some depth to his shots.
Whether this was an attempt to deliver a more grounded espionage drama is unknown, but it is possible. The presence of the kidnapped scientist and his invention of a synthetic substitute for oil are little more than incidental plot devices. They lead only to a standard hostage exchange and a hurried, anti-climactic shootout. The villains are a colourless bunch, too, without a gadget or secret base between them. Purists may prefer this more realistic approach to the more extravagant flourishes of a Bond-like adventure. However, such an approach needs a compelling story with some surprising twists and turns, and Vernay’s film has none of that.
This was almost the last example of a film based on a novel by French writer and occasional film director Maurice Dekobra. His work was regularly adapted for the screen from the late 1920s to the mid-1950s. Italian distributors added ‘Le Tigre’ to the film’s title on release, presumably to cash in on the spy character Hanin played in two other (much better) films of the time. The same trick was tried again a few years later when the multi-national production ‘Spy Pit/Da Berlino l’apocalisse’ (1967) was retitled ‘Le tigre sort sans sa mère’ for French audiences.
Hanin was born in 1925 in Algeria, which was still a French colony at the time. After abortive attempts to study law and chemistry, he debuted on the Parisian stage and made his debut before the cameras in 1951. Minor supporting roles followed over the next few years, including a couple of films starring Jean Gabin, including the unusual crime film ‘Gas-oil’ (1955). A more significant part in Jean-Luc Godard’s critically-acclaimed ‘Breathless/À bout de souffle’ (1960) raised his profile, and leading roles followed almost immediately. He starred in several other Eurospy features in the 1960s, aside from his appearances as ‘Le Tigre’, and he remained regularly employed until a few years before his death in 2015. However, he is probably best remembered for his 17-year run as the Police Commissioner in the small screen crime drama ‘Navarro.’ He was buried in Algeria by special presidential permission.
A dreary, rather lifeless experience.