CAPSULE: THE UNKNOWN MAN OF SHANDIGOR (1967)

L’inconnu de Shandigor

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DIRECTED BY: Jean-Louis Roy

FEATURING: Daniel Emilfork, Marie-France Boyer, Marcel Imhoff,

PLOT: After Swiss scientist Herbert Von Krantz develops a method for nullifying nuclear explosions, various world powers plot to steal his secret.

Still from The Unknown Man of Shandigor (1967)

COMMENTS: I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that this film is quite an oddity. It features Daniel Emilfork, the eccentric performer who portrayed the memorable villain Krank in The City of Lost Children, and perhaps the strangest character actor to come from France. The film looks like Godard‘s take on film noir channeled through a smirking Cold War nihilism. There’s death by “carbonic foam from Siberia”, which unfolds in a boogie-woogie-blasted rave-cave. Russian and American agents feud in the natural history section of a grand museum replete with stone busts and huge prehistoric skeletons. And the movie features one of the oddest ’60s set-pieces I’ve ever seen: a gang of shorn-headed goons prepare the corpse of their chief spy while their boss croons “Bye-bye, Mr. Spy” over a cabaret-ragtime tune he plays on a pipe organ in the embalming room.

The bad news is the narrative is ill-executed, making The Unknown Man of Shandigor a heaving stew of intermingling lumps that, on inspection, feels empty. Herbert von Krantz (the unceasingly overblown Daniel Emilfork) has invented a method of negating the effects of nuclear explosions, haughtily declaring that future wars will now unfold “however I want them to.” As so often occurs when a genius tilts the balance of power, greater forces come out of the woodwork to “rectify” things. Enter four different spy troupes, each introduced by an incongruous subtitle. The Russians want professor von Krantz’s “Canceler” device as a gift for the proletariat: what better way to reward the working masses than with the gift of military dominance? They have set up shop in a chateau teaming with gilt and mirrors, and focus their efforts on abducting the professor’s albino assistant. The Americans, led by ex-Wehrmacht scientist “Bobby Gun”, hang out in a nearby bowling alley while they undertake a similar plot to steal the formula.

The other two agencies are beefier in their weirdness: a shadowy outfit of bald-headed, spectacle-wearing operatives led by the aforementioned organist; and coming out of left field (or, more precisely, East Asian field) in the final act, the “Black Sun Orient,” who seem to be commanded by some manner of artificial intelligence. This all sounds very exciting on paper, and while the strangeness is served up by ladleful, the effect somehow is no more than occasional wide-eyed smiling to interrupt a coursing streak of tedium. I should not have felt bored much of the time, but this film felt half again as long as it actually was. The inconsistency of tone—messianically grand at times, slinking at others; unnervingly bizarre for stretches, ho-hum-drum elsewise—prevents this from attaining either standard greatness or so-bad-it’s-greatness. Though The Unknown Man of Shandigor largely fails as a movie, it is still worth a look for its succulent morsels of peculiarity. Just bear in mind there’s a lot of bitter broth in the bowl.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

A wild mix of Euro-spy trappings, French New Wave-styled visual flourishes and quirky, black comedy… The Unknown Man Of Shandigor is really a bit of a pop art masterpiece.” -Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

Where to watch The Unknown Man of Shandigor

4 thoughts on “CAPSULE: THE UNKNOWN MAN OF SHANDIGOR (1967)”

    1. It was an odd movie that has put me in the odd position of not being able to discuss its various elements without sounding like I’m recommending it. Further reflection after writing this lead me to thinking that my main criticism with it is that it feels like it’s missing pieces throughout, ones not omitted on purpose.

      As I admit, I feel it is worth seeing; I just wish I could have written rave-ly about it.

  1. One thing I can rave about is the cinematography. Almost every shot is amazing, and the sharp, contrasting black-and-white visuals are a feast for the eyes. Worth watching just for that. But yeah, the story doesn’t come together, lacking a consistent tone.

    1. The cinematography was an absolute joy to behold.

      I should investigate who the camera operator was, because they provided an unalloyed boon to the experience.

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