Sidewalks Of Bangkok (Les trottoirs de Bangkok) is in most respects the least typical of all Jean Rollin’s films. The very idea of Rollin, the master of erotic surrealist horror, doing a spy thriller is bizarre enough. The result is even stranger, and yet it has an odd appeal.
Not only is it unlike any other Rollin movie, it’s also unlike any other spy thriller. Rollin throws away all the rules of the genre and simply follows his instincts, and decides to have some fun while he’s doing it. And that’s probably the key to enjoying this movie - you have to realise that he’s not really taking it very seriously. Which is not to say that it bears any resemblance to the familiar spy spoof genre - it’s much too nihilistic and while it can be taken as comedy of a sort it’s a very black kind of comedy.
Even most Rollin fans don’t like this one, and I think it’s because it takes quite a while to get into the spirit of this movie and to pick up on the many and varied influences. It has some similarities to Jess Franco’s off-the-wall comic book and pulp fiction-inspired movies such as The Girl from Rio and The Devil Came from Akasava, even to the extent of having a diabolical criminal mastermind. But surprisingly Rollin uses a rather stark visual approach - there’s none of his trademark dream-like ambience. It looks superficially like a typical spy thriller except that the content is deliberately over-the-top and has the kind of breathless overheated quality you find in some of the old Hollywood movie serials of the 30s and 40s.
The plot is centred around what Alfred Hitchcock used to describe as a McGuffin - an object that has no importance in itself and never needs to be explained but which everyone in the movie wants to get their hands on. It’s interesting that a director like Rollin who had never attempted this kind of thriller before has such a perfect understanding of how to make use of a McGuffin. Like Hitchcock he wastes no time at all on meaningless technobabble or convoluted explanations. In this case the McGuffin is a tube containing a secret biological weapon. Even the characters in the movie don’t know anything more about it other than the fact that it’s essential that they possess it and prevent their enemies from getting their hands on it.
A French spy named Rick got hold of the tube in Bangkok. Shortly thereafter he was murdered but before his death he passed it on to a Thai prostitute named Eva (played by an actress know only as Yoko) . Now the French intelligence services are trying to retrieve the tube. Unfortunately a gang run by a diabolical and perverse criminal mastermind named Rita (Brigitte Borghese) is also after it. Rita has despatched one of her top henchwomen to Bangkok, the beautiful, glamorous and deadly Claudine (Françoise Blanchard).
After an interlude of Bangkok sleaze the plot becomes a series of double-crosses and chases punctuated by an extraordinary number of killings.
The violence is very non-graphic but it’s strangely disturbing because it’s so terrifyingly casual. These are people for whom murder is a thing of no consequence whatsoever. This horrifying cold-bloodedness contrasts oddly with the crazy adventure romp feel of the plot (which even includes spies tied to the railway tracks in the path of an oncoming train in a very obvious nod to 1940s serials). The disjunction between the pulpy plot and the casual violence is the element that leads me to suspect that Rollin was aiming at a kind of existential black comedy. There are also some amusing moments provided by the spies’ faithful and super-intelligent dog Rudy.
There are a few typical Rollin touches. His movies almost always have twinned female characters - sometimes they’re lovers, sometimes sisters or actual twins, and sometimes they’re just linked by destiny. In this case the improbable but rather touching female pairing is between the naïve but likeable prostitute Eva and the ice-cold killer Claudine who discovers she’s not as ice-cold as she’d thought.
Apart from the glimpses of Bangkok fleshpots early on the sleaze element is provided mostly by Rita. She likes to relax by watching her prisoners being tortured while she pleasures herself. It’s a it gratuitous but then diabolical criminal masterminds are supposed to be wicked and depraved.
This is a very minor Rollin movie but if you accept it as an amusingly offbeat aberration in his career then it’s actually quite entertaining. Plus it has Françoise Blanchard. I’m not sure about her hairstyle in this one (it was the 80s) but she’s still fabulous.