May 17, 2010

DVD Review: OSS 117: Mission For a Killer aka Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117 (1965)

DVD Review: OSS 117: Mission For a Killer aka Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117 (1965)

Following the worldwide mega-success of Goldfinger, there’s no question that 1965 was the Year of the Spy. The floodgates opened, and the Eurospy boom began in earnest. But the OSS 117 series had a healthy head start on all these other Bond imitators, and with two films already under his belt, director Andre Hunebelle managed to craft the quintessential OSS 117 movie while the other series were still finding their feet. I wouldn’t argue that Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117 is the best entry in the series (although it’s definitely up there), nor would I argue that Goldfinger is the best Bond film. But there’s really no denying that Goldfinger is the quintessential Bond film, and that’s what Furia à Bahia is to OSS 117 for the same reasons. It gets the formula just right. It’s the perfect Eurospy cocktail of equal parts humor and intrigue, action and exotic locations, beautiful women, dastardly villains and charming, unflappable hero. As such, it’s a hell of a fun movie. Taking place primarily in Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon basin, it’s also the most direct antecedent for the newest OSS 117 film, OSS 117: Lost in Rio.

Ian Fleming’s James Bond was a creature of the Jet Age. Rapid globetrotting simply wasn’t possible before the advent of the jet airliner, and Fleming–himself an avid traveler–took full advantage of it. His novels and the subsequent films based on them often had multiple exotic locations. In Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, for example, Bond travels from London to New York to Las Vegas to Africa in a very short span of time. In the film Goldfinger, he racks up even more frequent flyer miles: Mexico to Miami to London to Switzerland to Kentucky. Some of the best Eurospy movies recognized this formula, and latched onto it in their own limited budget range. (Luckily, there are quite a few exotic destinations within a relatively small radius of Rome!) But the previous two OSS 117 films each stuck with one location (other than the ostensible New York or Washington briefings): the French Riviera and Thailand, respectively. With Furia à Bahia, Hunebelle opened up the scope. Not much, but just enough to really establish Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath as a globetrotter. He did it very simply, too: while the bulk of the film takes place in South America, it opens in as different a location and climate as you could imagine, on an Alpine ski slope. It’s a great spy setting to set the tone of the film, even if Hubert’s only there long enough to get briefed. (Well, he still finds some time for the ladies as well.) After that, it’s off to Brazil because–you guessed it–another CIA agent has gone missing. (This one’s not quite dead yet, though, for a change–but only survives long enough to justify a hospital fight scene.) Even in Brazil, however, Hunebelle makes the most of the diverse locations available, contrasting the exotic cityscape of Rio with the lush, untamed jungle further inland. Michel Hazanavicius uses the exact same formula for OSS 117: Lost in Rio: he begins in a ski lodge before moving on to Rio and then the jungle.

Kerwin Mathews apparently had something of a falling out with Hunebelle after Panic in Bangkok (according to Philippe Lombard’s OSS 117 Dossier), and this coupled with an increase in his salary demands led the director to seek a replacement. Although Eurospy regulars like Ken Clark and Richard Harrison were considered, he ended up casting an unknown–an unknown who wasn’t even a professional actor. Austrian-born Frederick Stafford was a successful hotelier when Hunebelle discovered him, but you would never know it from his easygoing yet commanding screen presence, full of natural charm. It’s no wonder that Alfred Hitchcock eventually ended up pilfering him from the series; the man’s got star written all over him and that’s how his career should have gone. (Instead, his post-OSS film work was marked by flops–including Hitch’s Topaz–before the actor’s tragic and untimely death in a plane crash.)

The airport arrival scene is a staple of the OSS 117 series, and this time Hubert decides to use an obliging female fellow traveler–and her children!–to make himself appear like a family man when he arrives in Rio. Unfortunately, the elaborate ruse is all for nought, because apparently his cover’s already been blown before he got there. And in case it hasn’t, his supposed local contact (a feisty brunette) has him loudly paged. She then drives him directly into a trap, but presumably he was expecting that (at least a little) since he always gets driven into a trap upon being picked up from the airport. (Thank you, Dr. No.) This particular trap involves a forklift and a car and a fight on the docks in which Hubert demonstrates an unexpected profiency with bolas–the first of many exemplary fight scenes in the film. Stafford acquits himself quite admirably each time, and the truly devilish smile he flashes as he turns the tables on the bad guys, leaving them stranded in a car lifted high up on the forklift, is priceless.

Other fights include the fantastic aforementioned hospital room fracas, another close-quarters smash-up on a crashing airplane and–best of all–one in an office against a guy with an acetylene torch! In the course of that fight, Hubert manages to use the torch-wielding goon’s confederate as a human shield, causing him to get set on fire–on two occasions! By the end, the whole room’s on fire.

As well as action, there are beautiful women aplenty. This time, instead of the usual blonde/brunette combo, there are two brunettes and a blonde for Hubert to use his "girl of my dreams" hair color pickup line on! Both brunettes claim to be the same person, so neither one seems all that trustworthy. The blonde, Anna-Maria (Fantomas’ Mylène Demongeot), therefore becomes Hubert’s main squeeze by process of elimination. Demongeot proves not only to be extraordinarily beautiful (I think I have a new Eurospy crush!), but also a fine actress, and she makes Anna-Maria (not a spy, but an innocent mixed up in the whole affair) one of the most memorable OSS 117 women.

So we’ve got exotic locations, exciting action and beautiful women. What else does a good Sixties spy movie require? Humor! And Furia à Bahia has just the right amount of that, as well. There’s a very funny scene where OSS 117 excuses himself and ducks into the bathroom, leaving one of those untrustworthy brunettes in his hotel room. He uses a handy, pre-labeled tape recording of himself in the bath, making splashing sounds and whistling. He then sneaks out a window onto the balcony and back into the room, getting the drop on the assassins he knew the traitorous brunette would let in! He then uses rope to tie up all three of them (lady and assassins), and leaves them flopped next to each other all trussed up on the bed. All the while, the tape of him whistling the movie’s theme (supposedly in the bath) provides the soundtrack. It’s a well-played, humorous sequence, and the bad guys’ efforts to escape their predicament provide further comic relief. Their bosses, however, are dead serious.

The main villain’s scheme involves the usual neo-Nazi (judging from the uniforms, anyway) base in the South American jungle from which will rise a new Reich (brilliantly sent up in OSS 117: Lost in Rio), but his means to this end are rather interesting. He’s enslaved the local indigenous Indian population to make a drug that can only be manufactured from unique plants in the Brazilian rain forest. (Shades of Hugo Drax!) He then uses this drug to brainwash innocent people into becoming suicidal assassins. He even uses it on poor Anna-Maria, but luckily Hubert catches on and realizes she’s not in possession of her faculties when she attacks him.

On their way to her ranch out near the jungle where the plant grows, Hubert and Anna-Maria are ambushed... naturally. Cool as a cucumber, OSS 117 just drives right through the wall of fire in his path. All of his tires catch fire (bringing to mind a certain Bob Dylan lyric which hadn't yet been written), and he drives it on through the jungle with flaming wheels before the whole thing burns up and he finally has to ditch it. It’s a great stunt. The private airplane that takes them the rest of the way into the jungle doesn’t fare any better, leading to that fight in its cramped, crashing fuselage.

Once at the base, Hubert and his friends are promptly captured, and they get to listen to the madman outline his plan for world domination in front of a really nifty light-up map of the South American continent. It’s one of many nice touches of art direction in the impressive compound. The finale finds Hubert rallying not only those imprisoned Indians, but also a whole squad of Brazilian Air Force paratrooopers who take on the soldiers of the 4th Reich in a lengthy machine gun battle. Yes, it’s all very large-scale, and the film displays high production values. Higher, in fact, than American Bond imitators, like Flint or Helm. This series certainly gives lie to the notion that all Eurospy films were shoestring productions. The OSS 117 movies clearly had big budgets, and they made the most of them. It’s a real shame these films aren’t better known in the U.S. today. They certainly deserve to be.

All the endless jungle action actually gets a little old, and the third act drags a bit.  It doesn't help that poor Frederick Stafford is forced to spend it in a rather unfortunate and patently unspylike (Roger Moore notwithstanding) khaki safari suit. Luckily, he's still got one big stunt left in him to liven things up again, and he performs a pretty cool (though quite obviously fake) dive out of a low-altitude airplane into the Amazon River in order to rescue Anna-Maria. This all takes place in a very impressive location, with multiple huge waterfalls pouring into the same churning rapids. Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117 is a very well-made, exciting film that makes the most of its ample budget and rewards audiences with heaping doses of action, humor and eye candy. As a bonus, it boasts a surprisingly touching and heartfelt relationship between the spy and his leading lady.  And it all looks (unsurprisingly) great on Gaumont’s Region 2 DVD, which once again features no English language elements. Other than that rather major shortcoming, though, it’s another impressive disc, chock-full of extras.

The pre-film newsreel program this time shows some very cool footage of the French Thunderball premiere (or is it Goldfinger?) with Sean Connery arriving in an Aston Martin and being escorted by gendarmes through swarms of screaming fans. It’s nothing short of Beatlesque, and gives a great sense of what Bondmania was like at its true height. (I feel like I may have seen this footage before, though, in a documentary on one of the Bond DVDs.) The reel also showcases some secret agent-related shorts about women being made over as Bond Girl-types and another truly weird Zodiac short–this time about Geminis. The point appears to be that Geminis are all ridiculous cartoon characters. Finally, there’s footage of a fashion show boasting some very surreal swimwear aptly named “Dalikinis.”

Other, more film-specific extras include a new, insightful interview (in French, of course) with Mylène Demongeot and a very cool black-and-white behind-the-scenes featurette from when the film was made, including on-set footage from the filming (mostly of the plane crash fight sequence) and an interview with Andre Hunabelle. The usual trailer and “mystery trailer” round out a very impressive disc. All of these Gaumont DVDs are fantastic, and I really wish that some enterprising American company would license them for Region 1 release here with English language options, as KSM has done in Germany (only with German language additions instead, naturally).

Read my introduction to OSS 117 here.
Read my review of OSS 117 se déchaîne here.
Read my review of OSS 117: Banco à Bangkok here.
Read my review of Atout coeur à Tokyo pour OSS 117 here.
Read my review of OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies here.
Read my review of OSS 117: Lost in Rio here.

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