« Coffee Break | Main | Angel Baby »

June 22, 2009

The Claude Chabrol blogathon: The Road to Corinth

route to corinth 1.jpg

La Route de Corinthe/Who's Got the Black Box?
Claude Chabrol - 1967
Pathfinder Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Road to Corinth is a perfect illustration of what Andrew Sarris meant when he described Chabrol as keeping his hand in the filmmaking process even when his heart wasn't in it. The last film made before renewed commercial and critical with Les Biches, it is easy to understand why Chabrol would think this is his worst film. This is not to say unwatchable or devoid of any rewards. If Claude Chabrol's goal was to be the French Alfred Hitchock, than The Road to Corinth is Topaz, filmed two years earlier and with fewer pretenses.

The black boxes are little electronic gizmos that are suppose to cause failure in N.A.T.O.'s radar system. The boxes are Chabrol's MacGuffin. Chabrol is less interested in cold war politics than he is in presenting Jean Seberg as his blonde damsel in distress, picking up where her murdered spy husband left off. Chabrol may have been glancing at Jean-Luc Godard by not only using the star of Breathless, but introducing his N.A.T.O. spies with a wall sized photo of Lyndon Johnson and a giant U.S. flag. If nothing else, these outsized props serve as notice to not take The Road to Corinth seriously.

route to corinth 2.jpg

What probably was of interest to Chabrol was the constant shifting of relationships. Seberg's goal is to vindicate her husband while everyone else wants to get in her way for their own reasons. Both characters and places are not always who, or what, they appear to be. The film begins with the appearance of a magician named Socrates, who is revealed under torture to be a spy. Michel Bouquet operates a small snack shop as a cover for his spy operation, while the chief villain has a lair inside the family crypt. Chabrol plays with sexual ambiguity presenting a male chambermaid, a portly hitman whose voice and soft features a feminine, and a dandyish hitman with an affinity for flowers and straw hats. The interest in duality within one person is also indicated when a piece of sculpture, the head of the goddess Artemis, is split in half, truly a girl cut in two.

Chabrol finds ways to be visually inventive with such scenes as the dandy spy climbing down a rope, filmed breaking into the movie frame, or Jean Seberg suspended in midair while hoisted from a crane. There is some humor involving spies disguised as Greek Orthodox priests, complete with sunglasses. Coming as it did, when the James Bond inspired spy cycle was tapering down, The Road to Corinth can't really be described as a spoof, but Chabrol is attempting to have some fun with both the genre and the Greek locations.

While thinking about the film, I had wondered it Hitchcock had ever considered Jean Seberg. Probably the combination would not have worked on a personal level, and Seberg was considered iffy at best in terms of Hollywood box office potential. It is also possible that Chabrol cast Seberg because she had a name that had some meaning beyond France, and if he couldn't make a movie with Grace Kelly, he could at least work with Otto Preminger's discovery. If you want to see Jean Seberg's best acting performance, see Lillith. In The Road to Corinth, it's enough that Jean Seberg is blonde and beautiful, and that every man in the film falls in lover with her. Even if one jettisons questions of Claude Chabrol's style and authorship, Jean Seberg's presence alone is enough to justify a view of this souffle of a movie.

For much, much more on Chabrol, visit Flickhead.

route to corinth 3.jpg

Posted by peter at June 22, 2009 12:20 AM


Nice review, Peter. I thought Chabrol believed his worst film to be The Twist, which he claims to have made during an inebriated blackout. I can't really see Seberg with Hitchcock -- she lacked the chilly demeanor often credited to Hitch's women. As for the film itself, it may be the cheapest thing Chabrol ever did. Are there any sets, or is the entire thing (save for the hotel room) filmed outdoors, on the fly?

I believe it was Ric Minello who pointed out Chabrol's use of food in a film as a measure of his interest. While so many of his pictures are detailed by fine dining or provincial specialties, the characters in Black Box chow down on sandwiches and beer.

Posted by: Flickhead at June 22, 2009 04:24 PM

I wasn't aware this was on DVD, and your review makes me more inclined to check it out.

Off topic question: I noticed a few years back in your entry "Two by Michael Powell" that you mentioned having seen Preston Sturges's The French They are a Funny Race. Is there any way to see the film? I know its reputation is pretty low, but I'm still curious.

Posted by: IA at June 23, 2009 05:32 PM

Hi IA: I saw The French they are a Funny Race over forty years ago on latenight, broadcast television. My parents also had the original book that the film was based on. This was well before I had any idea of who Preston Sturges was.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at June 23, 2009 06:29 PM