Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on February 22, 2017
For reasons known only to the movie gods, Hollywood embarked on a decades-long love affair with the idea of grabbing the rights to successful French-language comedies and remaking them for American audiences, most often with all the quirkiness and local flavor completely sanded away in the process. There were enough hits peppered in this wave to make it profitable for a while; heck, Touchstone almost had a cottage industry with it thanks to 3 Men and a Baby (1987) and its sequel, based more or less on Coline Serreau’s Three Men and a Cradle (1985) but with a ridiculous crime subplot thrown in, and to a much lesser extent, My Father the Hero (1994), a retooling of Gérard Lauzier’s Mon père, ce héros (1991). Then we have the odd case of Yves Robert’s The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (Le grand blond avec une chaussure noir) (1972), a wildly successful star vehicle for French comic actor Pierre Richard that turned into The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), an early showcase for Tom Hanks just after his star-making turns in Splash and Bachelor Party in 1984. The American version actually isn’t too bad on its own terms, but it really can’t hold a shaky violin bow compared to the original.
The idea of a man mistakenly ID’d as a spy had already become the stuff of baroque self-parody by this point thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), but this variation is a particularly clever one devised by screenwriter Francis Veber, who would become the king of French comedy remakes thanks to La Cage aux Folles (1978) / The Birdcage (1996), La chevre (1981) / Pure Luck (1991), The Dinner Game (1998) / Dinner for Schmucks (2010), and Le jouet (1976) / The Toy (1982), not to mention his writing and directing of both versions of Three Fugitives (1986 and 1989). Hollywood even tried to give him a shot at doing an original project with the gay-themed mismatched buddy cop movie Partners (1982), but that didn’t quite go as planned.
Here we get an amusing riff on the Hitchcock formula that also taps into that feeling you get as a little kid playing spy games with your friends. The gist is that a hapless, Stravinsky-loving violinist named François Perrin (Pierre Richard) gets caught up without his knowledge in a war between two upper level espionage officials (Bernard Blier and Jean Rochefort) vying for a senior position with the agency. François’s weird, at first inexplicable habit of wearing different colored shoes (one black, one brown) makes him a natural target to turn into a decoy, with his clueless reactions to the covert mayhem around him resulting in one comic mishap after another. It’s all light as a feather, of course, but the execution is so breezy and endearing you’d have to be a serious grouch not to be caught up in the hijinks.
One of the real pleasures of this film for music buffs is the highly unexpected but pitch-perfect score by the great Vladimir Cosma, whose name appears on a wave of films by this film’s writer and director. Though perfectly adroit in all genres, he really excelled at farcical comedy and knew how to generate just the right kind of earworm to keep the movie in your head for days after leaving the theater. In America he’s probably best known for his hip, percussive music that wove in and out of the opera selections in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), but his prodigious, Morricone-level output (over two hundred feature films!) is a real treasure chest. It’s worth noting that one of his biggest hits in the 1970s was his soundtrack to another big international French crossover favorite one year later, The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (1973), the closest thing to a U.S. calling card for the brilliant Louis de Funès. What makes his score for The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe stand out is its inventive variety of textures, working in bouncy Eastern European strings and an infectious pan flute motif performed by none other than Gheorghe Zamfir, a.k.a. “the king of the pan flute,” who would become an infomercial standby for years and performed the eerie main theme for Peter Weir’s haunting Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Besides, how can you possibly resist a soundtrack with a track called “Mozart Massacre?”
A massive hit in both France and the United States, this film turned into a major calling card for Yves Robert, who soon scored another hit with the sexier Pardon Mon Affaire (1976) and its sequel one year later, which was naturally Americanized as The Woman in Red (1984) with Gene Wilder. A busy actor as well in his own right, Robert would go on to score big on the American art house circuit with the lovely My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle (both 1990), both of which also featured intoxicating Cosma scores.
Blond, frizzy-haired star Pierre Richard is considered one of the great comedic treasures of French cinema, but for some reason he never really hopped over to Hollywood despite the popularity of this film and its frothy sequel, The Return of the Tall Blond Man (Le retour du grand blond) (1974). Blessed with wildly expressive eyes and one of the biggest smiles to ever stretch across a movie screen, he’s the kind of guy you can’t help rooting for (and he still enjoys a very busy career in French cinema). His first big breakthrough film was a supporting role in another wonderful little comedy by Robert, Very Happy Alexander (Alexandre le bienheureux) (1968), which you can track down as a very low-priced, all-region French Blu-ray with English subtitles if you’re interested (along with some of his later films, most of which have yet to get decent American releases). Fortunately you can see his high water mark as well as the giddy La moutarde me monte au nez (1974) (a funny French expression about mustard getting on your nose, inelegantly translated for Yanks as I’m Losing My Temper) right here streaming on Filmstruck as part of the Starring Pierre Richard theme through June 9, 2017.
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