Written by: John White on May 21st, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: France / Italy / Greece, 1967
Director: Claude Chabrol
Writers: Claude Brulé, Daniel Boulanger
Cast: Maurice Ronet, Jean Seberg, Michel Bouquet
DVD released: December 13th, 2005
Approximate running time: 90 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono French
DVD Release: Pathfinder
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $19.98
Synopsis: When a traveling magician is stopped by customs coming into France, a black box is found which he mysteriously says will destroy French missiles. Secret agent Ford is sent off to Greece to look into the matter by his useless boss, Sharps. Ford is murdered and his wife, Shanny, is found guilty of the crime. Sharps gets her freed but insists she leaves Greece and gets Agent Dex to guard her but Shanny decides to search out Ford’s killers in a quest that takes in the dodgy company Kahlides, trained assassins and the troublesome Sharps.
In 1958 Chabrol arguably made the first film of the New Wave, Le Beau Serge, but his star fell somewhat in the mid-sixties when he took a number of directing jobs which were far less artistic and more commercial. Critics who praised his early films were disgusted with this commercial direction, a disgust which lasted till the late 1980’s when Chabrol was finally given his due respect in France with a whole issue of Cahiers du Cinema devoted to him, after nearly 20 years of neglect. These commercial films started with the Tiger movies and moved on to this Spy thriller and La Ligne De Demarcation. After making these films Chabrol began his finest period of his career 1968-74.
Black Box is a whimsical spy tale. It begins with a magician caught by customs who proceeds to play tricks on his captors, who have no interest in the Rabbits and Doves he has hidden in his car’s trunk but are very intrigued by a black box of transistors he is carrying. Before they can beat the whole story out of him he magics a cyanide pill and kills himself. Enter Ford, Shanny and Dex as a kind of espionage ménage a trois. Ford and Dex are handled by the shady and untrustworthy Sharps who also has designs on Shanny and who uses Ford’s death as an opportunity to seduce Shanny. Shanny goes on a trek of clues which takes in the wonders of Greece and allows Chabrol a bit of fun in his set pieces.
My favorite moment in the films comes when Shanny has arranged to see a contact in a large Cemetery. The contact previously appeared in the guise of a Greek Orthodox priest and Shanny expects the same only to see a multitude of them in the Cemetery. When her contact turns up he is then chased by the priests, really spies in disguise, and murdered. The priests then wash their hands in the font of the Church! The priests return in the end of the film where a whole aeroplane is taken up by them with only Shanny and Dex as the other passengers.
The cast are all fine and Chabrol concentrates on the romance of the tale and the chases rather than any action – a good decision given the weakness of his action set pieces in the first Tiger film. Bouquet is especially good as the the charming but untrustworthy Sharps who takes the glory of Shanny’s efforts but frustrated them every step of the way. Black Box is fun, occasionally witty and enjoyable. It is notable that Chabrol has made a number of films outside France – this, Our Agent Tiger, Blood Relatives and Death Rites – but his usual eye for social life is lost in foreign climes and the product is usually compromised by the mix of his own crew with the imported crew. His foreign ventures don’t seem to match the quality of his domestic films.
Who’s Got the Black Box is diverting and enjoyable but just a bit of fluff really.
The Pathfinder disc is the only one available with English options. The transfer of a print with occasional marks and scratches is very soft indeed, even if the contrast and color balance do look about right. The anamorphic transfer seems to have been done by cropping the top and bottom of the screen. The removable English subtitles do the job well.
The extras are slight with biographies and a photo gallery but the biography on Chabrol is well written and insightful.
A poor presentation of a fun film, only essential for Chabrol completists or spy film lovers.