May 11, 2010

OSS 117: An Introduction

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.

So back to the initial question: who is OSS 117?  OSS 117 is the code name for Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, an American secret agent of French descent (from Louisiana) created by French author Jean Bruce.  Bruce wrote an astounding 91 novels about his spy hero between 1949 (pre-dating Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel) and his untimely death in 1963.  After that, his widow, Josette Bruce, penned an aditional 143 novels about Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, and after her their children, Francois Bruce and Martine Bruce, wrote 24 more titles in what had become the family business.  The last novel was published in 1992.  At some point, a few of the books were indeed translated into English, although I've had no luck in tracking any of them down.  It should be noted for the benefit of anyone only familiar with the recent 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. 

As with the books, OSS 117 actually beat James Bond to cinema screens as well, with OSS 117 n'est pas mort (OSS 117 Is Not Dead) in 1957. Jean Sacha, already a veteran of Eddie Constantine capers, directed Ivan Desny in the lead role.  (Desny would go on to act in quite a few Eurospy films, including The Beckett Affair, Secret of the Sphinx, Daniella By Night and Spy Pit.)  The film is a rarity today, unavailable on DVD anywhere in the world (to the best of my knowledge).  While I'm not aware of any English language versions in circulation, it seems that it was, in fact, released in English, as indicated by an American trailer found on one of those spy trailer compilation discs. 

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 MortDanger: 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.

By 1963, director André Hunebelle (who would go on to direct Jean Marais in the Sixties Fantomas series) had acquired the rights to the character, and he launched what's considered the official, cannonical OSS 117 series with 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. 

Hunebelle followed up OSS 117 se déchaîne with Banco à Bangkok pour OSS 117 (aka Panic in Bangkok aka Shadow of Evil) the following year (also starring Mathews), upping the budget and shooting in color.  According to Lombard, the success of the first two films had caused Mathews' asking price to rise, and after a falling out with the star the director was happy to replace him with unknown Frederick Stafford.*  Stafford starred in 1965's Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117 (Fury in Brazil, aka OSS 117: Mission For a Killer) and 1966's Atout coeur à Tokyo pour O.S.S. 117 (aka OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo), which Hunebelle produced but did not direct and on which James Bond director Terence Young is credited as a co-writer) before being plucked by Alfred Hitchcock to star in his 1969 spy movie Topaz.  American John Gavin, therefore (who was later signed to play James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever before Sean Connery was lured back at the last moment with a huge salary) took on the role for the last official entry in Hunebelle's series, 1968's 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. 

The year before Pas de Roses pour OSS 117, producer Pierre Kalfon and director Bernard Toublanc-Michel followed the pattern established by Le Bal des Espions and adapted another Jean Bruce OSS 117 novel into a rogue film—minus the hero! Sean Flynn (son of Errol) played the reimagined lead in Cinq Gars pour Singapour (Five Ashore in Singapour), which was filmed in two versions for the French and American markets.  (Neither is currently available on DVD.)  Following the box office failure of Pas de Roses pour OSS 117, Kalfon was able to secure the character rights for his next attempt, 1969's OSS 117 prend des vacances (OSS 117 Takes a Vacation). However, despite working from a script co-written by Josette Bruce, Kalfon decided to approach the film as a parody, making OSS 117 prend des vacances the first comedic take on Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath.  (I haven't seen this film, but the authors of The Eurospy Guide assert that it's actually a weird mixture of comedy and seriousness, and a complete mess.) Luc Merenda starred in the title role. This, too, failed at the box office, effectively ending OSS 117's big screen career for the next three decades.  There is no DVD commercially available. 

In 1971, the character was adapted to TV in a pilot (again co-scripted by Josette Bruce) called OSS 117 tue le taon (OSS 117 Kills the Gadfly) starring Alan Scott.  It didn't go to series, and according to Lombard it has never been rebroadcast.  Lombard writes in Les Dossiers Secrets that another series was mooted by Saban International in 1995, following Pierce Brosnan's successful debut as James Bond.  Jason Connery was set to play de la Bath, but the series never materialized.  Instead, OSS 117 remained dormant until 2006, when the character was revived in another (much more successful) parody format.  Michel Hazanavicius's 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 FranceCairo 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. 

All of the original canonical films are available in beautiful widescreen transfers in the 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.

Hopefully that gives a nice compact overview of the history of Jean Bruce's hero across many media and many decades.  I will be examining many of the films—new and old—in much greater detail over the coming week, so be sure to check back!

*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.

6 comments:

daniel said...

Sorry, meant to post this here regarding the original OSS 117 novels. 15 of the OSS 117 novels were published in English in the UK by Corgi. I was able to pick them up relatively cheaply from the site www.abebooks.com. I recommend them highly, they are for the most part far more grounded than the Bond or Matt Helm books, dealing with simple things like indentifying moles or establishing transmitters behind the Iron Curtain.

David said...

Wow, great overview -- It actually taught me quite a bit - it almost sounds like it is worth getting the French box set for Philipe's book alone.

I'm looking forward to your reviews.

Delmo said...

After a cool friend made me a dub of the John Gavin OSS 117 film I found the French box set on Amazon and came thisclose to ordering it until I realized that they weren't dubbed or sub-titled. Gaumont did themselves a disservice by not including either on the set. Ah, the arrogant French.

Tanner said...

Thanks for the tip, Daniel! I'll definitely try ABE. I very much want to read some of these. I'm glad to hear you recommend them!

David, yeah, I think the Gaumont set IS worth buying for the book alone (well, not to mention the movies with lots of great special features) if you read French. Really, it's a GREAT resource that I've actually read through a couple of times since buying, and I've only scraped the tip of the iceberg in terms of all that it covers in this post. So, yes, worth it... IF you happen to read French. For those who don't, it's still got lots of pretty pictures, but the set overall would just be frustrating.

Which brings me to your point, Delmo. Yeah, it's quite annoying to us English speakers that so many of these European releases omit any English language options. I think in a lot of cases it's really a rights issue: sometimes the rights holder won't grant the DVD company in question the license for an English version because they still hold out hopes for a some sort of lucrative US contract with a big distributor that they will sadly never get for such niche titles, and they don't want to cut into that imaginary market by encouraging imports. That said, in this case I think you might be right about the arrogance factor, as surely Gaumont IS the rights-holder for these films...

Perhaps we can hold out at least a SHRED of hope for eventual American releases of OSS 117 simply because the new movies raise the character's profile. It still seems highly unlikely, but I'd say Hubert's at least got a better chance than, say, Coplan because of that. And if a US company DOES ever get those rights, I hope they port over all of Gaumont's wonderful transfers and features--and shell out to translate Philippe's book!

Seamaster73 said...

There are fan-subbed versions on a well-known cult movie bittorrent tracker...

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, thanks