There is deception throughout The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe. Sometimes, it’s deliberate; sometimes, it’s not. From the sleight of hand card trickery that plays out under its opening credits to its hilariously enacted case of intentionally-mistaken identity, the film is an increasing volley of duplicity and modified perception. But it’s more than just what happens in the film. This 1972 spy movie send-up is itself a cleverly crafted ruse, a straight-faced farce that incorporates most everything one associates the cinematic sub-genre and slyly points out the subtle silliness inherent in its recurrent conventions. Characters and the viewer will often see something and assume it to mean something—one is accustomed to always looking for clues and revealing “tells” in a movie like this—only to have those theories upended by something else entirely. Staple tools of the espionage trade are repeatedly employed, but most carry with them unintended, though still reasonable, consequences. And as for the titular hero, he proves to be competent purely by chance. Within this kind of self-consciously teasing arrangement, with all the spy standards in tune, The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe builds step-by-step on comically rendered misunderstandings and fish-out-of-water conditions.
Queuing everything up is Louis Toulouse (Jean Rochefort), chief of France’s Counter-Espionage department. He is made aware of a heroin smuggler arrested in New York City. The apprehended suspect says he was on a mission by Toulouse’s organization, but Toulouse has never heard of him. Behind the dirty dealing is actually Bernard Milan (Bernard Blier), Toulouse’s wicked second-in-command, who is planning to usurp his boss’s authority by making him look inept. Sensing the sham, Toulouse, in turn, sends his assistant, Perrache (Paul Le Person), to Orly airport. Suspecting Milan and knowing he has listened in on their conversation, Toulouse instructs Perrache to meet a supposedly skilled covert operator who will get to the bottom of Milan’s infractions. In reality, Perrache will be picking out a man at random, greeting him and presenting him as a master spy. If all goes as planned, the ruse will rouse Milan’s suspicions and reveal his devious motivations.
As for the hapless face in the crowd, unwittingly accepted for this mission, that is concert violinist François Perrin (Pierre Richard), a tall blond man with—you guessed it—one black shoe (the other is brown). Why would Perrache pick him of all people? It would seem, judging by Perrache’s point of view as it hones in on Perrin’s feet, that the decision was at least partially based on his mismatched footwear. And why does Perrin have one black shoe and one brown shoe? It was simply a joke played on the musician by some friends. But for those who don’t know that—like Milan—the discrepancy proves to be one of several instances in the film where a peculiar trait or behavior is given far more significance than it deserves. Forget that Perrin initially appears in surveillance photos bumbling around, oblivious, picking a loose filling from his teeth. Surely, he’s up to something. Why else would Perrache give him such attention?
Director Yves Robert, who would also direct a sequel to The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe in 1974 (a Tom Hanks-starring remake was released in 1985), co-wrote the screenplay with Francis Veber. Together, they have a good deal of fun with the narrative and visual hallmarks of a spy film, the droll tête-à-tête between two knowing (though in many ways still unknowing) professionals, and the gadgetry essential to a functioning agent, like hidden microphones and tiny cameras. Robert and cinematographer René Mathelin often assume a prying position, with snooping zooms and inquisitive close-ups, and one action after another is given undue relevance, each typically happenstantial event understood to have some sort of presumed importance—look, Perrin changed his shoes! It’s like a non-stop showcase for Hitchcockian MacGuffins; everyone is sent into a tizzy looking for something, assigning value in what usually emerge to be trivial details. This sleuthing in vain is given a visual equivalent as one investigator breaks down the layers of Perrin’s Russian doll: No, nothing there. But wait, there’s another. No, nothing there. But wait….
From this, getting only part of the picture becomes part of the joke. A secret microphone installed near Perrin’s toilet proves to be too loud, so that when the flush comes through in a tailing van, a neighboring driver hears the crude swish incongruously coming from the vehicle next to him (Hitchcock would have liked that, too). With so much chicanery and cagey maneuvering, most characters are subject to some peculiarity at one point or another, which they proceed to take in stride. As often as not, they dismiss the oddness with a comical sweep. Perrin finds shaving cream in his toothpaste tube—no matter. Chalk it up to a misunderstanding. Even the final deadly shootout launches on the basis of a misperceived cue. What keeps the ploy moving along is that Perrin, as it turns out, has an inadvertent effectiveness, rousing suspicion by accidentally, and amusingly, thwarting his confounded pursuers. Though a thoroughly befuddled wrong man (Hitchcock again!), whose well-being is apparently of little concern for Toulouse and Perrache, Perrin ends up taking the trackers for a ride. “He know his stuff,” declares one.
There are all sorts of comedic prompts in The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe: slapstick physicality, sight gags, and awkward sexual interplay (Perrin manages to get the hair of a female companion stuck in his zipper, and not in the way one might imagine). There are also lengthier sequences of essentially wordless set-piece humor; a distracted concert, for example, where the characters’ inappropriate expressions and movements create a riotously unintended composition. The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, winner of the Silver Bear at the 1973 Berlin Film Festival, is an all-around pleasant film, from its tonal lightness to Vladimir Cosma’s bouncy score and Richard’s fine, endearing performance. Yet at the end of the film, a declaration from the French penal code reads, “Every person is entitled to the respect of his/her private life.” The printed quote ironically suggests the potential for poignant consideration about authoritative abuse, individual autonomy, and the police state. Perhaps amidst the madness Robert and Veber are posing serious sociopolitical questions here? Perhaps one shouldn’t have laughed so easily at the potentially dangerous situations Perrin finds himself in? Perhaps. But where would the fun be in that?