Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says you've got to like director Claude Chabrol. After all, he was a film critic once.
"There are other things in life besides looking for black boxes."—Shanny
Socrates, billed in lettering on the side of his own car as "World's Greatest Magician," probably wishes he'd made this one disappear rather than appear. The customs officers have just found the "magic box" he uses to make aerial radar systems disappear (by jamming them), and he's in for some rather rough questioning. Socrates claims he has brought in 15 of the boxes himself, and he says he has confederates. The authorities want to know more, but Socrates won't tell. "You'll have to find them yourselves. I'm leaving," he says, exiting with a cyanide capsule. Exit Socrates, enter the MacGuffin.
U.S. agent Sharps (Michel Bouquet, Christmas Carol, Les Miserables)—we can tell he's American, even though he's French, because there's a big Stars and Stripes flag behind his desk as a backdrop—doubts Socrates's story, but field agent Robert Ford (Christian Marquand, The Other Side of Midnight) believes Socrates, and he thinks he knows where they are. Ford tells his wife Shanny (Jean Seberg, Airport, The Mouse that Roared) that he'll share his theory with her over a bottle of champagne. Unfortunately, while she's off getting the champagne, he's getting iced. Shanny returns to give Ford a peck on the cheek, only to find him dead. She gets a conk on the head from the killer—a dandy in a straw hat with a rose boutonnier—who leaves the gun in her hand. When she awakes, she's a prime suspect in Ford's murder. Shanny decides to track down the black boxes herself, with her admirer Dex (Maurice Ronet, Bloodline)—Ford's ex-partner—dogging her footsteps.
Thus begins Who's Got the Black Box?, better known as La Route de Corinthe, Claude Chabrol's sexy tongue-in-cheek spy story. Sound like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller? It should. Chabrol (Les Bonnes Femmes), a French film critic and Hitch fan, wrote the book—or at least a book—on the famed director in 1957, a year before he helmed his own first film, Le Beau Serge. According to Richard Armstrong, writing for Senses of Cinema, you'll find irony and cynicism throughout the French New Wave director's work. As with Hitchcock, mysteries, crime, and guilt are common Chabrol themes.
The main asset here is a sensual performance by Jean Seberg, looking like a blonde, mod counterpart to Amelie's Audrey Tautou, as the widow who wants to avenge her husband's murder. Seberg's Shanny is a tantalizing tease even before she's in the hunt for the black boxes. Early on, as she strips down to her bikini at poolside in front of Sharps, she's coyly asking, "What's going on in your head?" Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with Shanny, but that's another story. Later on, she seems a bit too polished when she plays prostitute to con a rich sucker out of a grand so she can use it to pay an informant. She starts out as a lithe, acrobatic sensual figure in the background, gaining the attention of her husband's colleagues; later on, we realize that their attention is a little more serious when she's a suspect and a pawn in their hunt for the black boxes. In a further bit of Chabrol irony, the woman who was more concerned with champagne than with MacGuffins is leading the search. Shanny's sneaky escapes (with a mischievous smile—again, Amelie-like) from more-or-less-friendly pursuer Dex provide most of the humor in this spy spoof.
As Dex, Maurice Ronet makes a cool spy, letting us know as he ices an assassin that he knew the guy was there all along; he was just waiting for the right moment. I guess you noticed that, like Christian Marquand and Michel Bouquet, Ronet's French, not American. While French New Wave directors did strive for realism, it didn't always extend to the casting (except for Iowa native Seberg, who speaks only French here).
Chabrol's New Wave camera work tends to distance us from the characters, showing us the wider picture before zeroing in on them. This often builds tension, letting us know there's an assassin or a possible threat in the vicinity, while giving the overall film the Technicolor travelogue feel common to movies of the 1960s. The transfer does a good job with the bright colors that permeate most of the film, although a couple of scenes in shadows are difficult to read. Couldn't find details on the sound, but it made the frequent hum of machinery into the tension builder it was meant to be, and brought alive the likeable, typical 1960s score punctuated with Greek musical elements.
While the pace is a bit on the leisurely side and the laughs aren't as fast as the breathless box blurb would have you believe, my main complaint is that the fight scenes don't feel right. The choreography looks too much like choreography, and the lack of sounds with the action also makes it seem more faked than cinematic usual.
I found La Route de Corinthe a gentle introduction to both Chabrol and Seberg that whetted my appetite for more. It's a lightweight, interesting flick that could become a cult favorite on DVD. Pay attention to the ending for a neat gag that'll leave you chuckling.
Sadly, the world lost Seberg in 1979 to a drug overdose; the activist actress had been depressed since losing a baby to a miscarriage during a battle of wills with the FBI, Wikipedia notes.
Not guilty. Perhaps some extras could have put this minor spy spoof into context, but I just sat back and enjoyed the 1960s-style fun. Any more MacGuffins to drop into the cheese fondue?
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