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The madcap doomsday intrigue of “The Unknown Man Of Shandigor”

Jean-Louis Roy’s rarely seen ’60s sci-fi spy oddity screens in a new 4K restoration at UW Cinematheque on December 10.

Header Image: Yvan (Michael Imhoff) faces away from a large machine with a telescope viewer and looks as Dr. Herbert Von Krantz (Daniel Emilfork), who is seated in a wheelchair with his hand outstretched. Various shelves, scientific equipment and pipes are visible in the background.

It may have taken 18 years, but in the opening seconds of The Unknown Man Of Shandigor (1967), Dr. Herbert Von Krantz (Daniel Emilfork) offers a national rebuttal to Harry Lime (of The Third Man)’s accusation that Switzerland has invented nothing of note in 500 years besides the cuckoo clock:  with the reveal of the “canceler,” a fantastical invention that nullifies nuclear weapons, which the film represents very literally with inverted footage of mushroom clouds. The 90-minute feature, screening in a new 4K restoration at UW Cinematheque on Friday, December 10, at 7 p.m., comes courtesy of Deaf Crocodile Films, a newly formed company that resurrects an obscurity that has been little seen since a European festival run in 1967.

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Director Jean-Louis Roy eschews any pretense of realism in favor a comic-book logic that resembles a moody cousin of Danger: Diabolik (1968),or ’60s Bond movies by way of 1969’s Putney Swope (with a somewhat nonsensical reference to “Room 007″—the basement suite?) and a dash of Mr. Freedom (1968).

After the canceler is announced, the press crowds around Von Krantz as he expresses his admiration for Dracula, gets wheeled into a hearse-like car, and drives away. Once word about the canceler gets out, spies immediately begin seeking it out on behalf of France (a gang of black-turtlenecked bald men who exist on a gradient between Michel Foucault and Uncle Fester, led by none other than pop superstar Serge Gainsbourg), Russia, America, and the dark horse spy agency, The Black Sun-Orient organization.

They all vie to possess something that Von Krantz claims only he can understand, the product of his mind and his chosen closed environment, a heavily fortified villa. All the world governments seek something to use, but what he offers isn’t really something tangible, but rather a negation of an invention that changed human behavior irrevocably, and therefore a negation of the Cold War mindset in which most people of the world were unwilling participants. After the nuclear genie is put back in the bottle, the world will be able to relax and admire something as simple as a cuckoo clock.

Chapter headings announce the story’s trajectory like a magazine cover getting us excited for the next issue. We’re treated to gruesome and amusing deaths, a funereal pop song courtesy of Monsieur Gainsbourg (“Bye Bye Mister Spy“), a fixation on sunglasses that yields some quality gags, and even the titular mythical vacation spot of Shandigor populated exclusively by the buildings of Antonio Gaudi.

The film slyly subverts expectations of genre in that the evil scientist is the main character, and the spies are perfunctory and interchangeable. Eventually, those in Von Krantz’s orbit, including his albino assistant Yvan (Michael Imhoff) and his beautiful daughter Sylvania, who may be just as naive as she appears (Marie-Francis Boyer), are contacted by the competing agencies to try to clandestinely shuffle off the canceler. Von Krantz is ultimately the magnetic star which the other characters revolve around, taking full advantage of Daniel Emilfork’s lanky figure and mad-scientist contempt for lesser beings that would later be used to similar effect in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City Of Lost Children (1995).

The plot here is clothesline-thin in order to hang some of the more interesting screen elements upon it, like vivid black and white photography, the tone that seesaws between a pop sensibility and shocking violence, and some musings on the philosophy of creation. The threat of nuclear destruction doesn’t seem as pressing now that we can be reasonably certain how the world will end. The current moment could use a more effective canceler, perhaps.

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