AKA: Blue Panther
Country: France, Spain, Italy, Morocco
Director: Claude Chabrol
Starring: Marie Laforêt, Francisco Rabal, Roger Hanin, Serge Reggiani, Charles Denner, Akim Tamiroff
Music: Michel Colombier, Gregorio García Segura, Pierre Jansen
French film director, Claude Chabrol is credited with starting the “nouvelle vague” French film movement (or the French New Wave as it commonly called). Prior to his first film, in 1957, Chabrol co-wrote ‘Hitchcock’ with Éric Rohmer. The next year, Chabrol made his feature directorial debut with Le Beau Serge (1958), a Hitchcock-influenced thriller. Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958) is often cited as the first New Wave feature. This was followed by Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in 1959 and Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless) in 1960.
The thing that is important here though, is how Chabrol (and other New Wave directors) worshiped Hitchcock, because, despite Bondmania sweeping the world, Marie Chantal contre Dr. Kha is an affectionate reworking of The Man Who Knew Too Much — predominantly the 1956 version with James Stewart and Doris Day — although if you suggested that the scenes in the Swiss Alps owe more than a little to the original 1934 version with Peter Lorre, I would not argue with you. Or in this case the film may be called The Woman Who Knew Too Much, (but Mario Bava already used that title) and that woman is Marie Chantal.
The film opens on a train and many people are having a meal in the dining carriage. One such man is Dumont, who is an uncouth slob with glasses and a comb over. After his meal he down a good glass of brandy and lurches back to his compartment. His compartment is a four-berth room, and inside are three other travellers. Two of these men are young and they are practicing card tricks as a way to relieve the boredom of the long train trip. The other passenger on the bunk below Dumont’s is Bruno Kerrien (Roger Hanin – you may remember Hanin as the star of Chabrol’s two Le Tigre films). The two card players get bored with their card game and leave to get coffee. This leaves Dumont and Kerrien alone, but Dumont has already passed out. Kerrien silently gets out of his bunk, produces an icepick and stabs Dumont in the heart. Then he retrieves a blue panther pendant from around the dead man’s neck.
Kerrien then leaves the compartment and heads to the dining car. There he is seated at the same table as Marie Chantal (Marie Laforêt) and her cousin, Hubert de Ronsac (Pierre-Francois Moro). It seems that all three of them are travelling to the same destination which is Verbois in Switzerland and staying at the ‘Hotel des Neiges’. After the meal Hubert excuses himself because he is tired, leaving Marie in the company of Kerrien. At this point he asks a favour of her, but says he cannot explain why. He has a piece of jewellery — a blue panther with ruby eyes — which he wants her to take and hide upon her person. He will ask for it back in a day or so, once they are in Verbois. He then says that it is a matter of life and death. Marie reluctantly agrees to take the piece.
Once is Verbois the cast of characters is added to and fleshed out. First Marie meets Paco Castillo (Francisco Rabal), the square-jawed hero of the piece. He claims to be a reporter investigating an international spy ring. Then there is Mister Johnson (Charles Denner), who is the attache to the US Embassy in Morocco. In fact though, Johnson actually works for Dr. Kha (Akim Tamiroff). Dr. Kha is a super-villain of the highest order and has operative’s everywhere. Then there is a father and son team of Russian agents. This is given a twist in that the son, Gregor, who appears to be only twelve years old, is the brains of the duo, and the father, Ivanov, is the brawn.
Later Kerrien arranges to meet Marie at a nightclub so he can reclaim the panther. But prior to this, as Kerrien is on a chairlift, he is killed by a blow dart fired out of a ski-pole. Kerrien falls to the snow below. Marie just happens to be the first on the scene, and with his dying words, he says to only give the panther to Ali Kadour – and beware of Dr. Kha.
Ali Kadour happens to live in Agadir in Morocco, so that where Maire and Hubert head next, but followed by the entire cadre of spy characters who are all secretly after the blue panther.At the top I suggested this film is similar to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the initial setup is very similar. In Hitchcock’s film, the characters meet on a bus rather than a train. And in both film’s the heroes (or in this case heroine) are given some secret information by a dying spy.
Marie Chantal Vs Dr. Kha is a very enjoyable film, but perhaps a tad to long with the final plot twist and thread coming so late in the story its importance is negated. This happens to be the titular showdown between Marie Chantal and Dr. Kha. But the other characters have been quite entertaining in their offbeat way up to this point, so even if the final confrontation doesn’t live up the billing and knock your socks off, you wont come away disappointed.