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"Si j'étais un espion" (1967) or "If I Were a Spy" is a fine film noir in black and white that has probably flown beneath the noir radar. It deserves more attention. It's a very good picture, skillfully directed by Bernard Blier's son, Bertrand Blier. The film looks thoroughly noir by its use of closeups, cramped spaces, and darkness; but it's not the look of classic Hollywood noirs or a John Alton technique. The lighting is more muted and presents fewer high contrasts, yet it is highly effective.
The elder Blier plays a doctor who comes under suspicion by a shadowy government secret service organization because of his associations with a spy who has apparently become neurotic and a security risk. Most of the film is taken up with the virtual invasion of his life and that of his 25-year old daughter (Patricia Scott) by an agent played by Bruno Cremer. So here we have two major stars in French cinema, Blier and Cremer, pitted against one another in a psychological duel in which Cremer has the upper hand, taking over Blier's quarters and rummaging through his papers, photos, letters and files. The intrusive domestic power of the State's spies is spotlighted, with Scott being used as a means to force Blier to do their bidding and set a trap for the absent agent.
The story is narrowly-focused; the interior staging complements this by making us feel a closed-in aspect. In close-ups, Blier's powerlessness comes across, as does his fear. The threatened ruthlessness of the organization is pervasive. Cremer takes over, broaching Blier's privacy. The personal counts for nothing in their schemes and objectives. Their surveillance is total. But there is paranoia among the spies too. They want to keep control over any rogue and to control tightly the people they are using to attempt to capture him. Cremer wants Blier to be a silent puppet, and he fears that Blier's daughter will be curious and suspicious about her father's behavior and Cremer's presence. Women, he fears, ask many questions and cannot be as easily controlled.
This is a carefully-written script brought to life with skill. It has that noir feeling of uneasiness in which one's life can be turned upside down by external forces mobilized by incidents that one has ignored or thought harmless and natural.
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