Friday, February 26, 2016

OSS 117 se dechaine (1963)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The American spy Roos (Jacques Harden) is killed while on a diving expedition set to find the place where the Russians are hiding their swanky new experimental atom submarine detector. This gadget would make US atom subs nearly useless, leading to dire danger for world peace because the Americans could incinerate the world's population only ten times over instead of twenty or something.

Renotte (Henry-Jacques Huet), the diving instructor Roos was working with (no, I don't know why he used random civilians in his work), convinces the French police that his charge's death was an accident, but the OSS is of a different opinion in the matter and sends its best man to finish the job Roos couldn't.

Said best man has been cursed with the dubious name of Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Kerwin Mathews), and quickly gets to work, mostly by making himself a pest to Renotte and trying to talk himself into Renotte's girlfriend's Brigitta's (Nadia Sanders) panties.

Fortunately for the viewer, a handful of Russian agents are making it their mission to complicate matters for everyone involved. It might even be possible that Brigitta is one of them too, without even the shady Renotte's knowledge.

Of course, what kind of secret movie agent would Hubert be if he wasn't able to kiss a Russian spy over to his side.

This, some helpful French spies, and a handily placed self-destruct button should be enough to make the world a safe place by keeping the potential number of victims in a war as high as possible.

Before Ian Fleming created his much loved super spy James Bond, French writer Jean Bruce had already penned an astonishing amount of spy thrillers about OSS 117, an American agent from New Orleans whose French roots were probably helpful when trying to sell him as a hero in France. As far as I (ignorant of French as I am) understand it, they must have been quite pulpy. There had already been a single attempt to adapt the series for the cinema in the 50s, but its lack of sequels doesn't exactly speak to its success.

Of course, in 1962 everything changed for the spy film with the appearance of the first Bond movie, showing everyone with an interest in money a new, unexplored genre to exploit.

It didn't take us Europeans long to jump on the spy bandwagon, and what better way to keep away from pesky law suits about intellectual property was there than to try and start another series of OSS 117 films?
OSS 117 Se Dechaine is the first of these new, improved OSS 117 outings. As these things go, the film is more a proto Eurospy effort with a heavy thriller influence than already a full grown example of the Eurospy genre. It has some of the hallmarks of later films, like the theoretically smart yet rather bland hero who doesn't really do much besides womanizing and punching people gallantly in the face, rampant sexism that should be much too ridiculous to offend anyone, and a happy disregard for the realities of violence and death I always find charming.

What the movie misses is the full-grown insanity of later efforts in the sub-genre - there are no evil lairs of note (I don't think a normal mansion and a boring cave count), the villains are just relatively normal people, and their plans make a certain amount of sense, at least as long as you are able to run with the sort of logic the Cold War thrived on. Don't get me wrong, the plot is still silly enough to drive any arbiter of good taste to fits and the last half hour of the film or so even takes some good steps on the road to complete loss of reality, it's just that the film still seems to have illusions about being a film about dramatized espionage instead of a conglomerate of crazy ideas and scantily clad women.

Another expected element the film is lacking completely is the exoticism many a later Eurospy film used to cover up its lack of a budget and provide the film team with a nice vacation, as well as the viewer with some attractive filler material. Here, there's only black and white Corsica and Nice to look at, and not too many of the touristy parts of them for that matter.

It all feels a little low-key for what I have learned to expect from the genre. However, director Andre Hunebelle (who'd helm two further OSS 117 adventures and had before made quite a few swashbuckling adventure movies) is an obvious professional and makes the most out of what he has to work with. The action sequences aren't exactly spectacular or realized on the level of someone like Enzo Castellari, but are entertaining enough, the acting is fairly solid, and the soundtrack nicely swinging, very French jazz.

The whole film is also well photographed and should have enough of interest in it to keep people watching who have no historical interest in early Eurospy films.

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