Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on July 19, 2012
In this month’s installment of Spy Games I decided to focus my attention on Robert Hossein’s French thriller DOUBLE AGENTS (aka La nuit des espions; 1959). Countless espionage films have scrutinized the dangerous world of the illusive double agent. These masters of disguise who successfully manipulate government organizations are one of the spy genre’s most effective plot devices. But Hossein’s film explores the dilemma of the double agent in a truly unique fashion.
This unusual low-budget film tells the taut and involving story of two WW2 spies who are ordered to meet at a secluded cabin in the French countryside and exchange some important documents. One of the spies is a beautiful blond (played by Marina Vlady) with a bad case of nerves. She trembles when she hears unfamiliar sounds like distant thunder and creaking floorboards. She also speaks fluent German and sings German songs. The other is a tall dark and handsome man (played by Robert Hossein) wearing a Nazi uniform. His sad eyes and sensitive disposition seem at odds with his wartime activities. When the two first meet they mutually assume they’re both German spies but soon afterward the man claims to be a British double agent in disguise. The woman follows his lead and admits to being a British double agent as well but neither of them has any real proof of where their allegiances lie. Only they know if they’re loyal to Britain or Germany. DOUBLE AGENTS spends almost all of its 80-minute running time focused on these two desperate and solitary individuals as they attempt to confirm one another’s identity in the claustrophobic confines of the isolated cabin. The two spies will wine and dine each other, dance, make passionate love, viciously fight and finally discover their true identities. But all is fair in love and war and exposing the truth comes with a high price.
DOUBLE AGENTS was Robert Hossein’s fourth film and the third based on an original story or play by author Frédéric Dard. Hossein met Dard while the two men were employed by the infamous Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol in Paris. Together they worked on numerous plays together including a successful adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dard’s original play The Bastards are Going to Hell, which was used as the basis for Hossein’s first film. This point is usually glossed over in the brief biographies I’ve read about Hossein but I think it’s integral to understanding his work. The films he made often play with genre conventions and the main action or drama takes place in one room. They feature only two or three main characters and conclude with a shocking twist, which was the signature of the Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol. These qualities gave Hossein’s early movies a theatrical ambiance but they occasionally seem confined by their stagy settings and constrained budget.
Although DOUBLE AGENTS follows a similar formula and is somewhat stifled by its limited scope and theatrical trappings, Hossein makes it work by maintaining a tense atmosphere throughout the film. This is a surprisingly suspenseful little movie that plays out like an extended episode of the Twilight Zone and ends with a not too subtle declaration against war and its dire consequences. It’s also a great example of an early cold war thriller and smartly examines the effects of government-induced paranoia, which would become a popular subject of many filmmakers throughout the ‘60s.
Observant horror fans might find the Grand Guignol setting and plot twists (individuals trapped in a secluded cabin in the woods, unexpected visitors, strange noises that startle the inhabitants, etc.) in DOUBLE AGENTS familiar. But Robert Hossein’s film works its own kind of magic because the romance that quickly blossoms between the film’s two stars seems so fresh, genuine and true. Hossein and his costar Marina Vlady were husband and wife at the time that the film was made but their relationship and creative collaboration, which had developed over the course of making four movies together, was coming to an end. Their marriage has been described as complicated, passionate and tumultuous and all of those emotions are on screen. Unfortunately DOUBLE AGENTS would be their final film as husband and wife but in some ways their personal loss was the audience’s gain. Watching the film now it’s impossible to separate the actor’s personal drama from the drama unfolding on screen. Emotions run high, tempers flair and their romance seems to rise organically from some deep well that only they have access to.
Besides the exceptional performances of both Robert Hossein and Marina Vlady, the film benefits from Hossein’s careful direction. Although he was working with extremely limited means, DOUBLE AGENTS makes great use of black and white photography. Shadows take on sinister shapes and seem to transform the tiny cabin into a sinister prison that offers no escape for its occupants. And as I mentioned before, Hossein was able to successfully sustain a mood of dread and despair throughout, which became a signature of his best work. DOUBLE AGENTS also benefits from a soundtrack composed by Hossein’s father, André Hossein (credited as André Gosselain). The two men collaborated on many films together and their work was always considered and cohesive. DOUBLE AGENTS is first and foremost a genuine family affair with husband, wife and father-in-law managing to work closely together and creating one of the most atypical espionage films I’ve seen. So it’s a shame that the only current print of the film that’s easily accessible to American audiences is available from Sinister Cinema under the title NIGHT ENCOUNTER. I love Sinister Cinema and thanks to them I’ve discovered many rarely seen films and hidden gems. But the print quality of DOUBLE AGENTS is abysmal. It’s scratchy and faded but it also occasionally jumps and skips so it’s easy to assume you’re missing crucial scenes or important dialogue. It’s also presented without subtitles and although the dubbing isn’t particularly bad I suspect that some of the film’s finer points have been lost in translation.
Today Robert Hossein is probably best remembered for his acting roles in numerous crime films such as Jules Dassin’s RIFIFI (1955). He was also a popular romantic lead in France where he appeared opposite many big name starlets including Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Michele Mercier. At age 85 Hossein continues to act and direct but many of the films he’s made are unavailable and hard to track down. Only a handful of them have ever been released on video and DVD. And although popular genre directors like Sergio Leone and Jean Rollin have sited his influence on their own work, Hossein’s name is still relatively unknown among cinema buffs. This is partially due to his focus on making genre films (westerns, crime pictures and thrillers) and his early dismissal by the Cahiers du Cinema crowd who didn’t appreciate Hossein’s Grand Guignol aspirations and found his stagy productions rather restricted and somewhat contrived. I think Robert Hossein’s films are worth reconsidering and hopefully some smart company like Criterion or Kino will collect his work, restore it and release it so it’s more accessible. In the meantime you can find DOUBLE AGENTS aka NIGHT ENCOUNTER for sale at Sinister Cinema’s website or you can stream it directly at Amazon.com.
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