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The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe collection
casts: Pierre Richard, Jean Rochefort, Bernard Blier, Mireille Darc, and Jean Carmet

director: Yves Robert

174 minutes (PG) 1972/4
widescreen ratio 16:9
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Previously released on VHS, this collection comprises two films: The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe (aka: Le Grand Blond avec Une Chaussure Noire, 1972) and its sequel The Return of the Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe (aka: Le Retour du Grand Blond avec Une Chaussure Noire, 1974). The comedic story of a normal man sucked into a world of espionage and intrigue, the films not only show fantastic comic instincts but a quite unexpectedly hard political edge. Still widely considered timeless classics in their native France, these films are more than worthy of a place in your DVD collections.

The first film begins with an interrogation scene reminiscent of Marathon Man (1976), or the brainwashing sequence from A Clockwork Orange (1971), as a French spy who was caught smuggling forty kilograms of heroin into America is strapped to a lie detector. He points the blame at the head of his security service Colonel Toulouse (a fantastically sinister Jean Rochefort) but in truth the deal was set up by his assistant the careerist Colonel Milan (Bernard Blier, who appears perfectly set upon). In order to destroy his rival, Toulouse tells his associate to pick a man at random and embrace him. The idea being that Milan will assume him to be a spy and will throw all of his resources at trying to work out what he is up to.

The man chosen is bumbling violinist Francois Perrin (the legendary Pierre Richard) who continues to lead his normal life whilst spied upon, the key to Toulouse's plan being that if you assume someone is a spy then mundane details of their life will immediately confirm that initial assumption. As Milan gets more and more desperate, Perrin's friend Maurice starts to catch glimpses of the infrastructure devoted to watching his friend. At first he overhears his wife's voice coming from the inside of a flower truck full of surveillance gear and then he starts to see bodies. Knowing full well that his friend is no spy, Maurice assumes that he is cracking up and Perrin and his newly acquired girlfriend, the beautiful spy Christine, flee to Brazil.

The second film starts with a recap of the first film before launching us straight into the action. It is a few months later and following the death of Colonel Milan an ambitious captain in the secret services has discovered how Toulouse used a civilian in an intelligence exercise. Using ministerial backing he confronts Toulouse, who then sets about trying to convince everyone that Perrin is in fact a super spy. In order to make the bumbling violinist look like a secret agent they give him a makeover and then run him through some choreographed action sequences. However, in order to clean up all loose ends, Toulouse decides to kill Perrin forcing him to decide whether or not he wants to co-operate with the captain.

The thing about this collection that took me completely by surprise was its tone. Despite being a comedy, the film is not only played largely straight, it is actually directed in such a way as to make it look like one of those great minimalist French police noir thrillers. Rochefort and Blier are particularly well cast in this respect as both have unimpeachable reputations as dramatic character actors. Indeed, from the opening interrogation scene, the tone is sombre and serious. In fact, the film actually makes a very salient point not only about the degree of power held by the security services but also their reliance upon group-think. Indeed, the first film suggests that once the security services assume that you're their enemy then no amount of normal behaviour will ever convince them otherwise.

This argument seems eerily insightful given the role played by group-think in the run up to the war in Iraq and anyone who caught Adam Curtis' The Power Of Nightmares (2004) documentary will remember that in an American terrorism trial, a man's innocent-looking holiday video footage of Disney World was used as proof that he was a terrorist. So just as the American security services took a family film to be evidence of someone being a terrorist, so the fictional colonel Milan takes Perrin's normal life as evidence that he is a deadly and highly skilled intelligence operative.

While the tone lightens towards the end of the first film and the second film relies far more heavily upon Richard's amazing talent for slapstick comedy, the series remains incredibly stylish throughout. In fact, the first film's art direction is astonishingly good with both Perrin and Toulouse's apartments being done out as incredibly examples of late 1960s/ early 1970s' interior design. The art direction also extends to the costumes with love interest Christine appearing in a dress that is jet black from throat to ground but completely open at the back (allegedly Richard's surprise at the cut of the dress was genuine as she had not worn it during rehearsals).

However, for all the style and the political edge they might possess, these films are also incredibly funny. In the first film, most of the humour comes from Perrin's friend Maurice but it also features a fantastic fight between Perrin and a set of bagpipes. Indeed, Pierre Richard is, along with the likes of Louis de Funes and Christian Clavier, one of the greats of French film comedy. A lanky but graceful man he has an amazing knack for physical comedy as well as a sense of timing that is second to none. I challenge anyone to watch his nervous and awkward seduction by Christine without laughing.

Indeed, it is undeniably one of the tragedies of world culture that the French sense of humour has come to be equated with the films of Jerry Lewis. In fact, all the way back to the Second World War, French cinema has an incredibly strong record of producing comedies with style and edge. The reason why they are less well known than French dramas is simply because international film awards tend to look down upon comedies and, as a result, few art house cinemas will ever release a French comedy. Instead, French comedies tend to be remade, in fact the first Tall Blond Man... film was remade as The Man With One Red Shoe (1985) starring Tom Hanks, and the idea of a normal person sucked into a world of espionage has also underpinned films such as Bill Murray's The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997) and Richard Grieco's Teen Agent (1991).

This collection not only contains two truly great comedies it also contains two films made with a style and a level of political engagement that is rare in most dramas. The Tall Man With One Black Shoe collection is substantially better than the kind of comedies you get at the cinema these days and is entirely worthy of your hard-earned money. The only reason why I'm not giving it ten out of ten is because of the complete lack of DVD extras.
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