[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
Who needs a spoof of Bondian spy flicks in 1976? (For that matter, who needed one in 1973 when this film was made?) For a reel or so, that’s all that Le Magnifique seems to be up to. The reel isn’t hard to endure: Le Magnifique—or rather, one-man fighting machine Bob St. Clare—is personified by Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose wit, egocentricity, and slaloming physicality are not only entertaining but also as endearing as ever. And Philippe de Broca is officially in charge, and hitting his marks frequently enough that we recall how often and how deftly he took our breath away in L’Homme de Rio and other, only slightly lesser Sixties comedies which mixed action and/or enchantment with their slapstick and drollery. In one magical instance, a backward-zooming camera pans a troupe of white-jacketed porters bearing a dozen articles of white luggage at full trot across a Mexican tarmac, to scarlet spy lady Jacqueline Bisset sitting in a sportscar and Belmondo, in dashing tropical spy haberdashery, describing a slowmotion vault into the shot and into the passenger seat of the car—the shot proceeding fluidly and funnily out of the foregoing action, accreting elements and building from chuckle to belly laugh, and then winking away before it can flatten out into complacent savoring of a comic coup. But too many comic moments aren’t magical, and seem embarrassingly anachronistic. Again, who needs a spy spoof now? As de Broca piles joke atop joke on the theme of how callously and carelessly his hero deals out death (during a passionate kiss his hollow tooth containing his emergency cyanide capsule is sucked out by the heroine and spat into a hotel swimming pool instantly awash with the corpses of other guests), it begins to look as if Le Magnifique might be yet another well-meaning but dreary protest about the decreasing value of human life in the contemporary, CIA-pervaded world.
Just about then, de Broca tips us to the larger narrative framework: Belmondo is really François Merlin, trash novelist extraordinaire, sublimating his rages and frustrated desires by writing adventures like the one we’re watching, translating intractable workmen and his heartless publisher into villainous targets of opportunity and the English college-girl upstairs into Tatiana, willing accomplice and love object. As a consumer reporter I am compelled to acknowledge that the first-night audience at the Harvard Exit took to this conceit enthusiastically and guffawed their way through most of the remainder of the film as de Broca cut back and forth between fantasy and reality, St. Clare and Merlin, Our Man in Acapulco and the schlep on the deuxième étage with cigarette ashes on his bathrobe and coffee stains on his manuscript. Having recently revisited the inexhaustibly suggestive Le Crime de M. Lange of Renoir-Prévert (not to mention Hearts of the West by Howard Zieff and our own Rob Thompson), I couldn’t help finding de Broca’s gambit enjoyably facile but essentially superficial. For a time, having declared his strategy, de Broca contents himself with running through some mild variations on the work-in-progress (the archvillain proposes one hideous demise after another to St. Clare, who cheerfully points out the illogic of the method—cut to Merlin ripping the page from the typewriter and rolling in a fresh one) and playing trivial special-effects games that don’t really develop the narrative-levels-upon-levels idea, only restate it (an odd splotch spreads over the center of the image and proves to be one of those coffee stains in the making; English girl picks up a manuscript page and we see through it—without cutting away from her—to the hyperchromatic imagery of St. Clare’s adventures).
Eventually de Broca gets into the more serious possibilities of his conceit (without ceasing to operate on a comic level) as Merlin seeks to regain his personal viability by turning his fictional counterpart into the klutz he himself has been. At other stages of the game the essence of manliness and the reliability of feminine loyalty come up for analysis and fictive rethinking, Unfortunately, the progression of Merlin’s, Christine’s (Bisset’s), and de Broca’s own psychic experimentations is too arbitrary to develop much forcefulness. Worse, the director’s sense of the aptness of caricature, and when to guy his material, when to honor it, has become very haphazard. Le Magnifique remains merely cartoonish, pleasant except for the uneasiness that settles over some logically necessary but awkwardly realized variations when the darkest possibilities peek through the bright colors (e.g. a series of gang rapes visited on the spy lady / college girl). And it is precisely in this area that de Broca’s integrity and poise as a serious comic artist was triumphantly ascertained and measured in L’Homme de Rio—in the comically grotesque but quite sinister death of the museum guard, for instance, or the thunderous making-good of the ancient Indian curse which turned out to be both hilarious and disturbing when revealed as a side effect of the march of progress and civilization.
Screenplay and direction: Philippe de Broca. Cinematography: René Mathelin. Editing: Henri Lanoë. Music: Claude Bolling. Production: Oscar Dancigers, Alexandre Mnouchkine.
The players: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jacqueline Bisset, Vittorio Caprioli.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson