French director Henri-Georges Clouzot made less than a dozen films in his life, but nevertheless gained a reputation as a maker of expertly wrought works and as a master of suspense to rival Hitchcock. Following on from the huge success of thriller Les Diaboliques, starring the magnificent butch/femme double act of Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot, and the equally successful The Wages Of Fear, Les Espions is, by Clouzot's own admission, something of a departure from his previously commercial territory.
Essentially a spy thriller, it follows Dr Malic (Séty), the hapless director of a dilapidated suburban psychiatric clinic, as he becomes embroiled in the shenanigans of a particularly complicated spy ring. He's approached by mysterious Col Howard (Carpenter) of the US Institute of Psychological Warfare to harbour spy Alex (Jürgens) in exchange for a million francs. No sooner has he agreed than all the people that work for him, and around him, are replaced by strangers (including a camp Peter Ustinov), who may or may not be spies. His no-name town suddenly becomes a hive of dubious activity and he tries to unravel the mystery of who Alex is, who he works for, and if he can trust him, or any of the people that surround him.
This is a slow-burning movie that hinges on a convoluted plot uncovering the absurd world of espionage, counter espionage, bluff and double bluff. Initial lengthy scenes in the drab clinic, somewhat reminiscent of the claustrophobic interior scenes in Les Diaboliques, verge on the farcical as a string of potential enemy spies pitch up and the doctor gets increasingly paranoid. As the plot clears and we begin to get a sense of what's going on, Clouzot succeeds in building a greater sense of tension and racks up a certain amount of his trademark suspense.
There are some interesting metaphysical meditations on what it's like to be a spy, morally detached, unloved - the rather uncharismatic Alex delivers a few good lines on how disenfranchised and wretched they generally are. Ironically, Jürgens is most famous for his turn in The Spy Who Loved Me, starring with an altogether different spy - Mr James Bond.