Despite my Duvivier advocacy, I hadn’t heard a thing about LE MYSTERE DE LA TOUR EIFFEL until it turned up as a download and I grabbed it. What a treat! Duvivier in playful mode, pastiching Feulliade and Lang in a serial-style caper involving impersonations, disguises, abductions, escapes, secret societies and Siamese twins? What could be better to get me in the mood for the MoMA retrospective (this movie isn’t screening in it — such are the riches in the Duvivier canon, a whole month isn’t enough time to programme them all).
Plot — apart from the Ku Klux Eiffel, a secret society operating out of a sinister castle and the Eiffel Tower — there’s this Siamese Twin dance act, not actual Siamese, or conjoined, or twins, or in fact related, but look-a-likes who dance side by side. When one of them comes into an inheritance (1957 million francs, a tidy sum) the other impersonates him and claims it. But his dastardly act does not go unpunished, as his windfall attracts the attention of the KKE, who start persecuting him, even in his sleep ~
The impostor hatches a devilish plan, hiring the true heir to impersonate him for eight days, assuming that in this time the Klan will kill him. To make their job easier, he warns the true heir that, while he is carrying out his masquerade, he may be subjected to practical jokes by a few friends. Now, like Bill Murray in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE, our hapless hero is primed to laugh in the face of danger, simply because he doesn’t recognise it. Also, he’s in the unusual position of impersonating a man impersonating himself. He’s posing as himself and he doesn’t even know it.
What follows is great fun, although there’s nothing to compete with the insane early sequence in which radio broadcasts of popular music from the Eiffel Tower are interrupted by coded signals from the KKE, an effect Duvivier attempts to represent in visual form, with frenetic cutting and strobing intertitles. The castle HQ, with gratuitous labyrinth, throne-room and futurist laboratory, is an impressive Evil Empire, and from there we rush pell-mell to the great tower itself, for a gobsmacking final running battle amid the girders, shot without benefit of special effects. Not for the nervous ~
The shuttling back and forth between Paris and the mountainous castle makes me think of THE DA VINCI CODE, another tale of secret societies, and this Cathar connection also brought to mind Theodore Roszak’s paranoid cine-fantasy novel Flicker. And when the same symbols from the KKE’s coded message started flashing up on the screen around the reel changes, it made me think of Roszak’s concept of the underfilm, subliminal messages woven into the warp and woof of the celluloid to sterilize mankind and bring about eschaton.
And it all somehow ties in, in my mind, with Duvivier’s death at the wheel of his car, 40 years after making this film.