November 15, 2008

LE MAGNIFIQUE (1973) super spy spoof... with splatter!

(1973, France/Italy)

I was and am a fan of the pulp novels of Doc Savage - Kenneth Robeson's 200-novel odyssey. I was and am a fan of the films of George Pal - having been awed and amazed by The Time Machine (1960), War of the Worlds (1953) and When Worlds Collide (1950) on TV in the 1970s. So when Doc Savage - The Man of Bronze was released, produced by Pal, I had to see it! (I'm talking London, in 1975.)

Astutely tuned in to the tongue-in-cheek nature of this whiter-than-white hero movie, the British distributor paired the film with this French spoof of James Bond movies. I’d seen the star, Jean-Paul Belmondo in thrillers on TV (like The Burglars) and knew that he was an actor who performed many of his own stunts, from library books on the history of stuntwork. It was because of Belmondo’s range as a both a dramatic actor and a comedian, a glamorous star and a stuntman, that made him huge in France and even some of his movies were even dubbed for international release.

Le Magnifique, ambitiously retitled How To Destroy the Reputation of the Greatest Secret Agent, is a real treat - there's nothing else like it. Besides spoofing the smugness of the Bond image (the guy's so vain he carries a comb in his swimsuit), the gadgets, the casual violence, the way he woos women… it’s also one of those films that shows the fictional creation at the mercy of its author - as we cut from super-smooth Bob Saint-Clair enjoying the sun (and Jacqueline Bisset), to the struggling writer Francois in his tiny Paris apartment, trapped only by pouring rain. His alter-ego can shoot four men out of a tree with a single bullet, while he can’t even get his electricity fixed. But as a hapless author, at least he can write the people he hates into his story, and then despatch them however he likes.

Like Billy Liar (1963), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and Tarsem Singh's The Fall (2006), we watch the fantasist and the fantasy. The characters’ stories start to run a close parallel as we discover that the heroine of his latest book is also his upstairs neighbour. But will she be as impressed with a middle-aged hack in a cardigan...

The story is a delight, the many scenes of Bond spoofs are spectacular, funny and astonishingly bloody, as director Philippe de Broca also targets Sam Peckinpah’s exaggerated slow-motion death scenes. These were obviously heavily cut in the cinema, to suit a children’s double-bill, but the DVD has everything intact, including a head shot that pre-dates Scanners… The excessively bloody take on the Odessa Steps scene from Battleship Potemkin has to be seen to be believed…

The comedy sub-plot of the author vs his boss is quite broad, as is the depiction of 'pulp novels versus literature' subplot, from a time when even paperbacks were frowned upon. But it's very different from the movie spoofs which happily cashed in with their version of Bond (like the Derek Flint and Matt Helm films) rather than this very savage lampoon on spies and movie violence.

There’s even a gag that reappeared in Top Secret (1984), of someone crushed in a car into a metal cube, but still alive. Top Secret takes it further (a spoof spoofing a spoof?) but Le Magnifique has a car-crusher built into the back of a lorry! Impressive, if such a vehicle really existed.

Lobby card image from the Cinedelica website

Belmondo is superb, looking the part of a super-sexy super-spy, as well as the author struggling with his deadlines and smoker's cough. I’d love to see more of his thrillers and comedies – of course, he’s still acting today. As is Jacqueline Bisset, who was soon to be mega-famous as eye candy in danger in The Deep. She'd already been in the notable Airport, Truffaut's Day For Night and Bullitt.

An international cast in a French/Italian co-production ineviatbly means that there's no version of this film where one of the major characters isn’t dubbed! Much like the spaghetti westerns. Belmondo talks French, Bisset English and Vittorio Caprioli (as his bullying boss) is Italian. The French DVD, from Studio Canal, has a choice of English or French audio, and though I’m not a fan of dubbing, the English dub is still very funny, Bisset’s voice is her own, and the actor voicing Belmondo is a treat.

Inevitably, Doc Savage couldn't really match the antics of Bob Saint-Clair, but it was certainly a top-value double-bill.

I’d still like to see the film in French, but only the out-of-print American DVD from Image Entertainment, had subtitles for the French audio version. If you just want the English dub, all of the current European DVD releases appear to include it.

Respect also for Claude Bolling's witty soundtrack, which was released on CD in Italy a few years ago.

For a taster, the French trailer is currently on YouTube...

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