The Unknown Man of Shandigor (Jean-Louis Roy, 1967)

Drafthouse Films LogoAn eccentric scientist invents an Annulator, a device capable of neutralizing any atomic weapon, but when he goes into seclusion with the device, his albino lab assistant, his beautiful daughter, and his pet sea monster, secret agents from around the globe set upon clandestine plans to obtain the Annulator by whatever means are required.  Spies from the USA, the Soviet Union, and various secret organizations shoot, stab, torture, and seduce their ways closer and closer to the weapon in hopes of tipping the global Cold War in their favour.  Jean-Louis Roy’s rarely seen Swiss classic is a spy spoof full of B-movie gimmicks and New Wave aesthetics, cast with a disparate array of stars including cult film icons Howard Vernon (The Awful Dr. Orlof) and Daniel Emilfork (The City of Lost Children) and French pop music superstar Serge Gainsbourg.  Available for the first time for home viewing, this forgotten film is a hidden gem ready at long last to reveal the secrets of The Unknown Man of Shandigor.

Special Features:

  • Interview with Jean-Louis Roy
  • Gargoyle Charm – Daniel Emilfork, Against Appearances, a 60-minute documentary on Emilfork made for French television and including recollections by Roy
  • 20-page booklet featuring photos and documents from Roy’s private collection

Annulator Edition – Package Includes:

  • The Unknown Man of Shandigor on Blu-ray or Standard DVD
  • DRM-free Digital Download of the film in 1080p, 720p, and mobile/tablet formats
  • Instant Download of the Original Score by Alphonse Roy and Serge Gainsbourg’s unreleased “Bye Bye Mister Spy”
  • 27″ x 40″ one sheet poster designed by Mondo Artist Rich Kelly

Somewhere between Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Get Smart (1965-1970) is Jean-Louis Roy’s The Unknown Man of Shandigor (1967), a sixties spy spoof full of Cold War caricatures and New Wave unconventionality.  Propelling this little known film is an atomic MacGuffin, the Annulator, a device capable of disabling any nuclear device.  Its inventor, Von Krantz (played by Daniel Emilfork, best known for playing another mad scientist – Krank in Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s The City of Lost Children (1995)), has little regard for the state of the world and happily retreats into the seclusion of his estate with his beautiful daughter Sylvaine (Marie-France Boyer), his albino assistant Yvan (Marcel Imhoff), and the sea monster that resides beneath the surface of his outdoor pool.  Global powers are naturally unaccepting of Von Krantz unwillingness to choose a side and various groups set upon obtaining the Annulator’s plans by any means.  Leading a team Yanks, identifiable for their omnipresent sunglasses, is Bobby Gun (Howard Vernon, creating a direct connection to Godard’s sci-fi classic), a former German Gestapo agent now in the employ of the Americans.  On the side of the trench-coated, fedora-wearing Soviets is the monocled, quick-tempered Schoskatovich (Jacques Dufilho). The wildcards in the mix are the aptly named Baldies, a collection of hairless mercenaries with a musically inclined leader played by none other than French pop music icon Serge Gainsbourg.

Von Krantz and Yvan transfer the Annulator plans to film and hide them within a collection of home movies of a vacation in exotic Shandigor.  Sylvaine is fond of watching these films so that she can pine over her romance with the handsome Manuel (Ben Carruthers), but when she accidentally discovers the Annulator’s plans and raises the ire of her father, she escapes her imprisonment and falls into the hands of the Baldies, who in turn let her escape to Shandigor in hopes that it will lead them closer to the device.  She reunites with Manuel in Shandigor (conspicuously resembling Antonio Gaudi‘s Barcelona) and rekindles her romance.  Manuel is shown speaking to the surveilling Baldie, who is then returned to his colleagues locked in a trunk and deceased.  The death of the Baldie agent inspires perhaps the oddest scene in The Unknown Man of Shandigor, an embalming sequence conducted to a performance of “Bye Bye Mister Spy” by Gainsbourg, a song Darran Anderson ably describes as “Martian lounge music.”

The death of the Baldie agent seems to conclude their efforts, but the Yanks and Russians become locked in a battle over Yvan, who hides the roll of film containing the Annulator plans in a post office box.  Yvan eventually sides with Bobby Gun and the Americans, but reveals the location of the film to Schoskatovich after being exposed to the foamy danger of “Siberian carbonic moss.”  Saddened by the absence of both Sylvaine and Yvan (and clearly becoming increasingly unhinged), Von Krantz throws himself into his monster’s pool and is gobbled up.  Meanwhile, a mysterious Asian frogman comes ashore, enters a waiting Jaguar, and follows Yvan to a payphone to overhear him inform Bobby Gun that he once again possesses the film due to a mistake by the post office and is waiting for him in a small cabin to turn it over.  Gun is occupied making love to his lady and informs Yvan he will be late, giving the Asian agent time to show off his mysterious ring, consult with a “Brain Monitor,” and obtain directions from his superiors, yet another secret agency called Black Shining Sun.  Donning a “kamikaze suit” made of “nitro-fibre” and a “viscous polymozic coating,” the BSS agent kills Yvan and obtains the film, only to be pursued by rival agents and then explode into bits after a gunshot by a Soviet agent sets off his suit.  With the Annulator plans destroyed with the Black Shining Sun agent, the Yanks, Russians, and Baldies all leave and Sylvaine returns to bury her father.  The Unknown Man of Shandigor concludes with a reunion between Sylvaine and Manuel and the shocking revelation that Manuel wears a Black Shining Sun ring and drives the same black Jaguar as Asian frogman – Twist!

The Unknown Man of Shandigor swings easily from pastiche to parody (and beyond to far kookier realms).  Seeing Schoskatovich torture Yvan with stroboscopic lights and pop music would seem almost prescient but for the Russian maniacally throwing switches like Professor Fate.  A demonstration in the art of disguise by a Baldie is also firmly entrenched in the comically absurd, as the agent quickly shifts in and out of a series of poor to astounding aliases, with the better ones clearly involving actors of entirely different races.  Yet the most outlandish of the film’s sequences are the soap opera-like romantic montages of Manuel and Sylvaine that overflow with sweeping music, long embraces, heartfelt gazes, and over-the-top movie-love.  It is in these moments where The Unknown Man of Shandigor steps farthest outside both the usual super spy adventure films that demand our suspension of disbelief and the constructed absurdity of Roy’s film.  The sections of idealized love, shot on pristine beaches, empty parks, and amongst the crumpled white sheets of a slept-in bed, exist in strong counterpoint to Von Krantz’s political rants and the cacophony of gunfire leveled by American agents, creating an air of abandon about the film that leaves it always feeling fresh, whimsical, unexpected.  Roy acknowledges that his international cast had difficult availabilities to manage, leading to a fractured shooting schedules and contributing to the film’s abruptly shifting narrative and its fluctuating tone.  Thankfully, The Unknown Man of Shandigor‘s embrace of the ridiculous celebrates these peculiarities and becomes better for them.

The film’s closet kin remains Godard’s Alphaville, and not just for the presence of Howard Vernon.  Alphaville is notable for finding its future setting amongst the modernist construction and freeways of contemporary Paris.  While The Unknown Man of Shandigor exists in a super-science present, it too avoids space age sets for the lived in worlds of today.  Like Alphaville, Roy’s film is compelling partly because we observe an imagined world within the sights and sounds of an overly familiar present day.  The Unknown Man of Shandigor is full of lived in textures, from the physical plant piping around Von Krantz’s labratory to the knobs, dials, and switches in the Brain Monitor room, from the alien world of Gaudi’s stone architecture to the industrial plant scaffolding of refinery locations to Parisian homes and museums in the styles of neoclassicism.  The dissonance between the film’s outlandish plot, its B-movie production, and its heavy reliance on lived-in spaces and on-location shooting makes The Unknown Man of Shandigor an unusual and captivating experience that fascinates in a way that leaves the viewer consistently enraptured.

ShandigorWith its recent acquisition of the period crime thriller La French (Cedric Jiminez), Drafthouse Films founder and CEO Tim League stated, “One of our goals is to get young audiences excited about foreign language film.”  The label has certainly been open to international movies, although its repertory titles have not expressed quite the same diversity.  We’ve certainly promoted various foreign language films for rerelease by the label and push a little farther still with this nearly unknown film that is older than any Drafthouse Film announced thus far.  The Unknown Man of Shandigor (Jean-Louis Roy, 1967) is full of cult film potential, with a cast of fascinating character actors, the unexpected presence of pop music icon Serge Gainsbourg, and a bonkers story somewhat out of keeping with New Wave values.  If any one characteristic defines Drafthouse’s selections it is that the label’s films resist easy classification and break new ground on what stories are told in cinema and how they are expressed.  Quirky and unconventional, this Cannes competitor easily fits within the Drafthouse catalogue, is ripe for rediscovery, and would provide a worthy point of access for the label to test the waters of pre-1970s cinema.  We’ve found precious little production materials for the film, but this image of Sylvaine standing in front of a control box in her father’s home, a network of connections spreading out around her, is a beautiful image with ’60s style that would serve the film and the label well.

Rich KellyCredits:  We must give credit to Trash Palace, a solid DVD-R seller we frequently patronize and through whom we became introduced to The Unknown Man of Shandigor.  Unfortunately, it looks like the title is no longer in their catalogue.  Hopefully it makes a return.  Jean Louis-Roy has been open to discuss the film, such as in this Q&A in 2013 at the Cinémathèque suisse or this interview for a Serge Gainsbourg fan-site.  Hopefully Roy would be as open for a Drafthouse release, perhaps even sharing his private materials for inclusion, including the film’s score prepared by his father.  To my understanding, “Bye Bye Mister Spy” has never had commercial release and Roy seems to allude in his interview to difficulties with the song that ended up leaving it unreleased.  Hopefully that could be resolved and the track could be included with the film as well.  The documentary on Daniel Emilfork does exist, although we haven’t seen it.  Emilfork is a fascinating individual and would make for a very interesting documentary subject – born in Chile of Jewish parents who fled Odessa and later moving to France due to his love of Proust and the unwelcoming climate in Chile for him as a homosexual man.  The thin line and exaggerated forms of Rich Kelly are perfect for The Unknown Man of Shandigor‘s collection of strange and unusual faces and would make for some great reversible packaging and poster art.

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