[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
An undercurrent of black humor flows just beneath the comic surface of Yves Robert’s genuinely and—for the most part—unpretentiously funny movie, but it never quite manages to rise above the laughter, not even when the spy game gets out of hand and people are lying around with bullet holes in their heads. Even though there are killings—five of them, in fact, all toward the end of the story—we are left not so much with a feeling of death as of encroaching madness. Maurice, the protagonist’s friend and colleague who sees and hears everything but understands nothing of what is really going on, feels he is simply going insane; for him, that’s the easiest way to explain the disappearance of some of the dead bodies from François’s apartment. The slow-motion treatment of the shootout scene itself, in which the opposing government agents handily exterminate one another, underscores the dreamlike quality of their deaths; moments later, the surviving thug shoots one of his superiors, then remembers himself and returns the man’s gun to him, whereupon victim promptly shoots his assassin—a clearly absurd transaction it is difficult to take very seriously. Throughout this movie, Robert plays intriguing little games, both with his characters and with us. The whole spy vs. spy premise around which the plot revolves is, initially at least, just an enlarged practical joke: Louis, the head man whose position is being undermined by an ambitious Lieutenant (rather in the fashion of corporation VPs civilly cutting one another’s throats) simply wants to teach the usurper Milan a lesson, not to bring about his death. The “lesson” involves setting up a booby trap with François Perrin (Pierre Richard), an unassuming concert violinist, the piece of cheese. Milan, Louis observes correctly, will build his own cage in the course of snatching the bait. Until the very end, Perrin remains unaware that he is at the focal point of Milan’s eavesdropping cameras—he’s supposed to be a master operator—and this becomes, on the surface anyway, the basis for the main thrust of Robert’s humor.
But there is a peripheral thread of artifice which runs alongside the comedy and provides a serious reference for the more blatantly slapstick moments. The sleight-of-hand card-trick image of the title sequence (the titles are flashed via playing cards) therefore seems an appropriate metaphor for the illusion/reality game which follows. Perrache, Louis’s righthand man, ends up resembling an omnipresent but invisible Puck who pulls the strings of the plot and smiles with melancholy amusement at what fools these mortals can be. And there is a certain playful elusiveness in the pastoral flute music which comes, more often than not, during the presumably crucial moments. While suspense-genre conventions are certainly being satirized here, The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, to its credit, never quite lapses into the potential quicksand of self-parody—although it comes close when Louis, with one foot outside the movie, remarks that it should end like a Western, with a shootout (effectively, it does). On the whole, Robert manages to keep his humor direct, and often physical. Pierre Richard is very good at slapstick, perhaps the most visually direct form of humor, but I tend to remember some of the more subdued moments more vividly: Milan’s little baldheaded flunky opening a seemingly infinite series of Russian matyushka dolls in François’s apartment; Louis, as he talks to Perrache on the balcony, gazing down on an expiring jogger who has nothing whatsoever to do with the story; the intense quiver on Perrache’s face as he sits in the airport waiting-room trying to pick out “his man.” The movie is full of small, delightful details, and that’s what makes it fun to watch. Finally, I think it’s all much funnier than Robert says it is; the tacked-on excerpt from the Penal Code affirming every person’s right to his or her privacy might have been more appropriate at the end of The Conversation, although I tend to think that such overtly moralistic gestures are out of place in almost any piece of art.
THE TALL BLOND MAN WITH ONE BLACK SHOE (Le Grand Blond avec une chausseur noire)
Direction: Yves Robert. Screenplay: Robert, Francis Veber. Cinematography: René Mathelin. Music: Vladimir Cosma.
The Players: Pierre Richard, Jean Rochefort, Bernard Blier, Mireille Darc, Colette Castel, Robert Castel.
Copyright © 1974 Rick Hermann