So who or what is OSS 117, exactly? There's surprisingly little information about the character available in English. His Wikipedia entry is a bit longer than it was before the revival films came out, but still very brief. The official OSS 117 website is a good resource, particularly for individual book titles and cover images, but it's in French. (Google translator can help with that.) Matt Blake and David Deal's excelent Eurospy Guide probably contains the most information yet published in English about the OSS 117 films, but those are just short entries in a book devoted to the Eurospy genre at large. By far the best source of information I've yet found on OSS 117 is the fantastic, fully illustrated color booklet included with the French DVD box set Coffret Intégrale OSS 117 from Gaumont, OSS 117: Les Dossiers Secrets (OSS 117: The Secret Files). It's written by Philippe Lombard, who happens to run the excellent COBRAS blog Quantum of Bond as well. Much of the information I will share here, both now and in the days ahead, comes from this book. The problem(s), of course, for American readers, is that the book is 1) in French and 2) available only with an expensive set of French DVDs that won't even play on standard US players, and don't have English subtitles. Therefore, I think it's safe to conclude that very few Americans are privy to its contents, and OSS 117 remains a bit of a mystery to most people in this country. It seemed prudent to offer a brief introduction to the character before I launch into a full week devoted to his films.
OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio that the books are not parodies like those films, but straightforward espionage adventures, and that the hero is very much heroic (even if he is guilty of some of the of-their-era prejudices sent up in the new films). The original OSS 117 movies also played it straight–at least in as much as any Sixties spy films played things straight.
In 1960, director Michel Clement adapted another OSS 117 novel, Documents à Vendre, into the film Le Bal des Espions (Dance of Spies, aka Danger in the Middle East). The catch was, he didn't have the rights to use OSS 117 himself, as (according to Lombard) those rights were still controlled by Sacha. Therefore, he changed the lead character's name to Bryan Cannon, a moniker he borrowed from another Bruce character in the novel Romance de la Mort. Danger: Diabolik's Inspector Ginko, Michel Piccoli, played the role. Danger in the Middle East is another very rare film, apparently lost today. Again, the trailer survives.
OSS 117 se déchaîne (OSS 117 Strikes Back, originally titled simply OSS 117), adapted from Bruce's novel OSS 117 prend le maquis. Despite the fact that it was apparently Marais who initially suggested the series to Hunebelle, the director saw greater box office potential in an American star and cast Kerwin Mathews, star of such fantasy epics as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jack the Giant Killer as Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath. It was a year after Dr. No hit cinemas, and even if OSS 117 predates James Bond, there is no question that Hunebelle's series owes a huge debt to the Bond movies. That said, it was certainly one of the foremost of the continental Bond imitators that made up the Eurospy genre, and also one of the first out of the gate, since most didn't appear until after the worldwide success of Goldfinger. Despite the fact that it was filmed in black and white, Hunebelle managed to imbue OSS 117 se déchaîne with all the fast-paced excitement associated with 007, and there is no mistaking the film for one of the stodgier pre-Bond espionage movies that owed more to the traditions of film noir. It was a hit–and the start of a franchise.
Pas de Roses pour OSS 117 (aka OSS 117: Murder For Sale). Hunebelle is the credited director on that film, but Lombard asserts that it was actually the work of Jean-Pierre Desagnat, who had served as assistant director on Atout coeur à Tokyo pour O.S.S. 117. Hunebelle's name remained (and still remains) on the credits at the insistance of the studio.
OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d'espions (OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies) kept the spy in a period setting (1958) and recast Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath as a bumbling French secret agent, playomg up the xenophobic and sexist aspects of the character (and other Sixties spy characters) to great comic effect. Jean Dujardin played the role, and quickly made it his own. The movie was a hit and spawned a sequel, 2009's OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus (OSS 117: Lost in Rio) which was also a hit in France, and opened last week in the United States. Both new movies are available on DVD in France. Cairo Nest of Spies is available the world over, and the sequel is available in England, Canada and Australia. Music Box Films, the U.S. theatrical distributors, will release it on DVD in America, presumably sometime in the fall.
French box set from Gaumont (including that great booklet) and also individually. Grey market copies (in shoddier quality) of the English language versions turn up on Ebay all the time. Highlights from Michel Magne's musical scores from each of the first four films were originally issued on vinyl and compiled (along with a new remix of the main theme) on an excellent CD on the Universal label in 2004. Ludovic Bource's excellent score for OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies is available on import CD, and his even better follow-up score for OSS 117: Lost in Rio is available (cheaply!) exclusively as an MP3 download version.
OSS 117 also starred in a pair of long-running French comic book series from 1966-1982; I don't believe that any of them have ever appeared in English. The character has been adapted for stage and radio as well.
*Mathews was not done with the Eurospy genre, however. He went on to star in the entertaining Killer Likes Candy and in The Viscount, which was also based on a book by Jean Bruce.
Read my review of OSS 117 se déchaîne here.
Read my review of Banco à Bangkok pour OSS 117 (aka Panic in Bangkok aka Shadow of Evil) here.
Read my review of Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117 (Fury in Brazil, aka OSS 117: Mission For a Killer) here.
Read my review of Atout coeur à Tokyo pour O.S.S. 117 (aka OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo) here.
Read my review of Pas de Roses pour OSS 117 (aka OSS 117: Murder For Sale) here.
Read my review OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d'espions (OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies) here.
Read my review of OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus (OSS 117: Rio Doesn't Answer, aka OSS 117: Lost in Rio) here.