The second film directed by France’s Bertrand Blier was this eccentric black and white noir thriller from 1967. A definite anomaly in the filmography of Monsieur Blier, IF I WERE A SPY (SI J’ETAIS UN ESPION) was a commercial flop, and remains largely—but undeservedly!—forgotten.
The setting is Paris, where Dr. Lefevre, a widowed physician, turns up at the apartment of one Mr. Girard for reasons we don’t know. Receiving no answer, he leaves but is immediately called back, as a woman has collapsed on the stairwell outside Girard’s flat. Lefevre helps the woman regain consciousness, after which she claims she was likewise attempting to summon Girard.
A locksmith is called in to force open Lefevre’s door, revealing an empty apartment with an open window. The woman, who identifies herself as Gueneviere, reveals that she knew Girard, but under the name Guerin—who it turns out is one of Lefevre’s patients.
Lefevre is called to the apartment of Matras, a government agent looking for information about Guerin. Matras, it seems, believes Guerin is dangerous and needs Lefevre’s help to institutionalize him. Matras attempts to blackmail Lefevre into revealing Guerin’s whereabouts by threatening his daughter Sylvia, a doctor herself.
Matras also looks into Lefevre’s past, and uncovers a lot of suspicious foreign trips. During a lengthy interrogation he deduces that Lefevre is a foreign spy, and notes that Guerin was in Poland during the same time as Lefevre. The latter concedes that the two met in a bar in Warsaw–where, he claims, Guerin admitted to suffering from crippling anxiety.
Following more intrigue Lefevre learns his daughter was involved in a car accident. She’s okay, but both father and daughter are understandably rattled, as the harassment by Matras only intensifies…
Viewers familiar with the society-bashing, erotically-tinged comedies for which Bertrand Blier is known (such as GOING PLACES, TAKE OUT YOUR HANDKERCHIEFS and TOO BEAUTIFUL FOR YOU) for will be surprised by IF I WERE A SPY, which is far removed in tone, style and subject matter from his later work.
It’s suffused with an extremely well sustained sense of anxiety that showcases a skilled and confident filmmaking sensibility (one that could conceivably have gone on to create more powerful suspense thrillers). Equally striking is the narrative, which begins as a standard-issue noir potboiler and morphs into a psychological thriller whose protagonist turns out to be far more mysterious and multi-faceted than he initially appeared.
The young Blier also includes some interesting directorial touches befitting the experimental new wave aesthetics popular in France at the time, such as the many documentary depictions of late-1960s Paris interspaced with the action, often with plot details delivered in voice-over. The natural lighting adds to the verite feel, yet never compromises the shadowy film noir stylization so crucial to the film’s overall effect. The performances are also quite impressive, led by the veteran French actor—and Bertrand’s father—Bernard Blier, who makes for a complex and compelling lead.
IF I WERE A SPY (SI J’ETAIS UN ESPION)
Compagnie Francaise de Distribution Cinematographie
Director: Bertrand Blier
Screenplay: Philippe Adrien, Bertrand Blier, Jacques Cousseau, Jean-Pierre Simonot, Antoine Tudal
Cinematography: Jean-Louis Picavet
Editing: Kenout Peltier
Cast: Bernard Blier, Bruno Cremer, Patricia Scott, Claude Pieplu, Pierre Le Rumeur, Jacques Sempey, Francis Lax, Jacques Rispal, Madeleine Geoffrey, Renee Barell, Jean-Francois Remi, Pierre Parel, Gabriel Gascon, Suzanne Flon