This pitch-black comedy of Cold War intrigue takes place in a small provincial sanitarium, where a bewildered doctor is plunged into an atmosphere of spiralling paranoia as his tiny clinic is invaded by an army of spies and counter-spies.
“This film is more dangerous than I ever realized,” Clouzot said. And how! Dr. Malic (Gérard Séty), overseer of a run-down psychiatric clinic with only two patients—an alcoholic and a mute neurotic, the latter played by Vera Clouzot—accepts the proposal of an American intelligence officer to hide a mysterious man (Curt Jürgens) in the hospital for a large sum. Malic soon finds the place crawling with spies and agents, including a pen-thieving kleptomaniac (Peter Ustinov), a misanthropic Shakespearean scholar (Sam Jaffe), and a louche group of ocarina players. The differences between friend and enemy, Soviet and American, good and evil all dissolve into ominous ambiguity in this world of abattoirs that smell of fresh blood, schools whose classrooms are “traps,” and asylums in which the inmates are the sanest ones. In an atmosphere of spiralling paranoia, where “passers-by are not passers-by” and no one can be trusted, “every door opens onto another cell,” as film historian Jacques Siclier has commented. The film’s absurdist-parodic tone and the Cold War setting anticipate many films of the next decade, including The Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove. “Another Clouzot masterpiece” (The Post). —TIFF
Acclaimed in particular for his thrillers, Clouzot was one of the genuine rivals to Alfred Hitchcock and, at his peak, seemed to anticipate the moves of the better-known English director. Born in 1907 in Niort, Clouzot intended upon a career in the French navy but was barred from that opportunity by poor eyesight and chronic ill health. He studied political science with the intention of joining the diplomatic service and he served on the staff of a Rightist political figure after graduation from college, but in the late ‘20s, Clouzot moved into writing, first as a journalist and, starting in the early ’30s, as a screenwriter and playwright. He co-authored numerous scripts between 1931 and 1933, in addition to making the short thriller La Terreur des Batignolles and serving as an assistant to several directors, including Anatole Litvak, E.A. Dupont, and Karl Hartl, on various projects. Clouzot’s initial start in films was interrupted in the mid-‘30s when his declining health forced him… read more