WHO’S GOT THE BLACK BOX? (Route de Corinthe, La)

(director: Claude Chabrol; screenwriters: Daniel Boulanger/Claude Brule; cinematographer: Jean Rabier; editors: Monique Fardoulis/Jacques Gaillard; cast: Michel Bouquet (Sharps), Claude Chabrol (Alcibiades), Jean Seberg (Shanny Ford), Paulo Justi (Josio),Christian Marquand (Robert Ford), Saro Urzì (Kalhides), Anthony Pass (The killer), Maurice Ronet (Dex); Runtime: 90; CCFC; 1968-France/Italy/Greece/West Germany)

“This is a goofy spy comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a goofy spy comedy filled with comical asides to Greek tragedy, it is the kind of film where you would expect to see supporting character actors such as Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in starring roles.

Anthony Pass is playing a very pasty-looking killer role, a Peter Lorre type of role, dressed in a white suit, with a straw hat that has a red ribbon around it, and is always with a rose in his lapel. Pass takes great enthusiasm in being a villain. Yet he is particularly menacing, even as he jumps for joy on certain occasions and raises an effeminate eyebrow. He is especially perverse as he waits in a hotel room ready to kill the heroine.

Saro Urzì as Mr. Kalhides, is the crime boss and owner of the marble foundry where all the espionage takes place. Kalhides is piggishly vulgar, willing to halt his execution of Shanny Ford (Jean) for the possibility of a little romance. He is eating a leg of lamb while wiping his mouth with the palm of his hand. As the one giving the orders, the reputed big boss, he is a slightly less obese version of Sydney Greenstreet, playing the type of role once reserved for the mirthful fatman.

Claude Chabrol plays Alcibiades, a character who could be in a look alike contest with other Fidel Castro contestants and be considered the favorite to win. He starts the pot boiling with his hot tip to Robert Ford (Marquand), if Ford will give him $1,000 he will tell him where to locate the black boxes. Ford is an Agent working on cracking the case of where the black boxes that have been smuggled into the country are, as they are capable of dismantling radar systems and destroying missiles. Don’t ask too much more about the plot, it is not particularly pertinent to the story. Some of this film was snipped off at the cutting room, making the story even more confused than it should be. But an unclear story and the poor dubbing quality of most of the non-English speaking actors, does not really hamper the pleasing absurdity presented onscreen.

The bizarre opening and it is bizarre and ticklishly funny, has a magician billed as “Socrates the world’s greatest magician” being stopped at the border as he tries to smuggle into Greece a black box. He gets caught by the border guards who proceed to beat him in order to get information. He therefore chooses to die from his own hand, taking a cyanide pill; but, not before he goes into a Shakespearean soliloquy that tells his captors that it is too late there are already 15 black boxes in the country.

Chabrol has gone to absurd extremes in his depiction of the characters involved in this screwball comic/mystery that has the Agents working for the Greek government, at least I think that is who they are working for. The one in charge of them is a lazy, sleazy, and mediocre bureaucrat, named Sharp (Bouquet), aptly named because he is a dimwit. Sharp is clueless about what is going on as he confronts the two Agents working for him, the imaginative but usually wrong-headed Robert and the more steady Dex (Ronet). Dex, like Sharp, has his eye on Robert’s appealing wife, Shanny (Seberg). The only difference between them, is that he doesn’t get his face slapped like Sharp does. Jean Seberg, the much maligned actress, is just terrific in this breezy role, showing a certain amount of vulnerability and courage and sex appeal and an eye for comic timing. She takes over for Robert when he is killed just before he was going to tell her the info he has about the black boxes and they were to celebrate the news with champagne and love-making.

The road to Corinthe, the European title for the film, is the road to the marble foundry owned by Kalhides. It is the place where there is this great mix of intrigue and murder and comedy as the black boxes are discovered hidden in the statues’ heads; and, as Kalhides says: “if you think I’m not imaginative enough to put them someplace else you are wrong, because some of them I have put in the base of the statue.”

The danger Shanny finds herself in is more comical than dangerous, even though those around her are getting bumped off as easy as it is to melt ice cream in the hot sun. As the villains go after her, there is one surprise after another. She gets a ride from a simple-minded truck driver (Justi) who swinishly eats sardines and then tells her that he could use a little romance as she pumps him for info about his boss, the ever-present Kalhides.

Dex saves the day, finding it in his heart to go against his boss. Dex decides to risk losing his job by reluctantly helping Shanny fight the keepers of the black box despite orders not to. It is a wonderful B-movie, that rips deliciously into the spy film genre and comes away with a bundle of laughs despite its awkwardness and a most ridiculous ending. I think Chabrol hit it best when in the epigraph he states “I do not ask you to believe it, but I suggest that you dream about it.” Well, maybe, you don’t want to dream about it; but, if you daydream about it during the time of day when you are a little bored or upset over something or other, the absurdity of this film should bring a smile to you.

Who's Got the Black Box? Poster