May 12, 2010

DVD Review: OSS 117 se déchaîne (1963)

DVD Review: OSS 117 se déchaîne (1963)

The first proper entry in the OSS 117 film cycle, OSS 117 se déchaîne, is also one of the best. Made in 1963, it’s one of the earliest European attempts to jump on the Bondwagon, and director Andre Hunebelle manages to nail the action/spy formula even before Saltzman and Broccoli themselves got it down pat the following year with Goldfinger! Of course, Hunebelle had a bit of a head start, in that (despite the film series’ blatant debt to the Bond movies) he was drawing from a series of books by the prolific author Jean Bruce featuring CIA agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (his grandfather was French) which actually predated Ian Fleming’s Bond novels.

Belying its budget and its continental origins, OSS 117 se déchaîne is in black-and-white, and that’s the only aspect that really ties it to the more stolid school of pre-Bond spy movies. In look and attitude, it’s right up to speed. Hunebelle and cinematographer Raymond Pierre Lemoigne make the most of their monochrome palette by spreading it across a luscious widescreen canvas full of dynamic shots of action and exotic locations. Kerwin Matthews, having traded his swashbuckling Sinbad garb for spywear, makes a surprisingly credible secret agent and comes much closer to Sean Connery’s charm and charisma than many of his Eurospy colleagues. Buxom brunette Irina Demick and (especially!) blond Nadia Sanders contribute all the sex appeal one could hope for from a Sixties spy flick worth its salt in a film that embraces the frank new sexual attitudes of its era and even goes a step beyond Bond by not only trading on sex, but actually talking about it, too–and not just in double entendres designed to soar above the kiddies’ heads. When OSS 117 meets the lovely Brigitta (Sanders), who shares a boat with a man he wants to question, he gets right down to brass tacks:

Hubert: Are you his mistress?
Brigitta: A little.
Hubert: That’s a funny one. How can you be someone’s mistress a little?
Brigitta: I sleep with him, but I’m not in love.

Pretty risque stuff for 1963! That’s the kind of passage (and crackling dialogue, no less) one might expect from a Fleming novel, but which hadn’t yet turned up in such transparent form in the Bond films. By comparison, Tatiana Romonova’s conversations with Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love (made the same year) seems almost chaste, most explicit in what it doesn't mention:

Klebb: You have had three lovers.
Tatiana: What is the purpose of such an intimate question?
Klebb: You are not here to ask questions! You forget to whom you are speaking.
Tatiana (smiling): I was in love...
Klebb: And if you were not in love?
Tatiana: I suppose that would depend... on the man.

It wasn’t just sex in which OSS 117 managed to get the drop on 007. The French series also beat Bond in taking screen spies beneath the seas. Although Fleming had forever forged the connection between spies and scuba diving in his second novel, Live and Let Die (and solidified that identification with the epic underwater confrontation in his 1961 novel Thunderball, concocted in conjunction with screenwriters Jack Wittingham and Kevin McClory), Bond himself wouldn’t don his first onscreen wetsuit until Goldfinger (capped by a stuffed seagull), or indulge in any sort of underwater action on the scale of OSS 117 se déchaîne until 1965's Thunderball, when the scale would far exceed anything shown here.

The basic plot of OSS 117 se déchaîne (and the reason for the diving) hinges on submarine warfare, and the MacGuffin is a new sub detector device that can be installed at strategic coastal locations beneath the water.

The film opens with documentary footage of modern navies, and fills us in on the importance of the American nuclear submarine fleet as a crucial deterrent for another world war. Then we cut to Bonifacio, a truly beautiful Corsican village perched precariously atop a cliff overlooking the coast–the perfect location, apparently, for such a sub detector! We’re treated to some lovely scenics of this gorgeous setting, and then witness as spies pursue each other through its cobbled, Old World streets. One of these spies, a CIA man named Roos, goes scuba diving the next day with an instructor named Renotte and Renotte’s mistress, Brigitta. While diving in an underwater cavern, Renotte witnesses Roos being shot, but, fearing for his own life, reports it to the police as a diving accident. This explanation doesn’t sit well with the CIA (who are for some reason based in New York), and the boss calls in his best agent: OSS 117. His mission is to find out what happened to Roos, who must have been onto the location of the enemy’s sub detector.

Like all Eurospies, Hubert flirts shamelessly with every woman he meets, starting with his boss’s secretary in New York and continuing with a rental car attendant at the airport in Corsica. Luckily, Matthews has the charm to pull this off, even when he forcibly grabs the poor girl from the rental agency and kisses her against her will, Kommissar X-style. She resists at first, but of course she comes around to liking it.

Hubert starts by questioning the reluctant Renotte, and wastes no time in appropriating his mistress. He wants to find out where it was that Renotte took Roos the day he was murdered, but plenty of other people want to stop him. The body count stacks up very quickly when OSS 117 is on the case. Like subsequent entries in this series, the fights (in an apartment, in another apartment belonging to the same guy, in a cobbled back alley, in an underwater cave, on a boat) are all quite good (if sped up), and Matthews has the chops to sell them. In a rare twist that I liked, the local police intervene and arrest our hero for the murder of one of the bodies in his wake (not one that he actually killed, but close enough). The strange part is, it’s not even a setup on the part of the bad guys, like it usually is; it’s just the police doing their job. Luckily, Hubert has contacts with French intelligence who can get him off the hook.

By boat and single-engine airplane and car, we travel from Corsica to Nice and back again. When Renotte ends up... indisposed... Hubert is reliant on Brigitta to take him to the dive location. To explain his actions (and the wake of corpses that follows him around), he uses the old insurance investigator cover on her. Because how else could you explain the luxurious, danger-tainted life of a secret agent then by saying you work for an insurance company? I really can’t comprehend the Sixties infatuation with that rather mundane profession! The cover doesn’t really matter, though, because the audience learns before Hubert does that she’s actually a Russian agent (though not by choice; her family back in Stockholm are being threatened), so it comes as no surprise when she sets him up by taking him to dive at a location of the Russkies’ choosing, where enemy frogmen are lying in wait... with spearguns!

The underwater photography and underwater action are surprisingly good (especially a one-on-one knife fight), although without the color stock required to pull off Thunderball’s trick of orange suits versus black suits, it’s sometimes tough to tell who’s who, other than Brigitta, who’s in a sexy white wetsuit. (Of course, she’s also the only one with ample breasts and long legs, so that wasn’t really necessary...)

After all that, the climax itself is a tad anticlimactic. OSS 117 himself ends up removed from most of the action, off on a Chris-Craft canoodling with a girl (after a brief grappling hook fight) while his buddy back on shore picks off the bad guys one by one with a sniper rifle and a self-destruct mechanism takes care of their lair. Oh well. None of that is bad enough to seriously detract from one of the most entertaining and most competently crafted (other than a quick instance of a crew member popping up on camera!) Eurospy movies out there. To me, the most amazing feat of OSS 117 se déchaine is that Hunebelle managed to perfectly duplicate the James Bond formula before the Bond filmmakers themselves had even figured it out yet. For such an early entry in the post-Bond Eurospy sweepstakes, OSS 117 se déchaine fires on all cylinders.

As far as I know, this film was never released in an English-speaking market, so there was no dubbed version. It’s been released on DVD in France and is supposedly coming out soon in Germany. I watched the Gaumont French release, part of their wonderful five-film OSS 117 box set. As with all the movies in that collection, OSS 117 se déchaîne comes loaded with its fair share of extras (all in French, unfortunately without subtitles). Each movie features a “pre-show” viewing option, compiling little newsreel bits (mostly) relevant to spying. The “1963" edition offers one segment about spy gadgets, one about a ski resort, and another about a lingerie runway show.

There’s also a weird little short about a sign of the Zodiac included in each of these pre-shows; this one about Scorpio and features a spy-like song to accompany it. (Is it possible to sing about “Scorpio” in any way other than spy-like?) Besides that, there’s an interview with costar Yvan Chiffre, a twenty-minute documentary, “The Mysterious Creators of OSS 117,” on Jean Bruce and his children Martine and Francois (who carried on writing OSS 117 books after Jean’s death) including interviews with the latter two, and a four-minute period interview with Kerwin Matthews. I liked that one, because Matthews speaks French fluently, but with the slow delivery and accent of an American, making him much easier for this American to understand! He tells the interviewer that his is nothing like OSS 117; he’s far more peaceful and prefers a calm and quite life without a pistol. There are also two trailers: one for OSS 117 se déchaîne and one for a “mystery movie” in the same genre. I really like that mystery trailer feature on these discs; they’re always cool to watch and have opened my eyes to quite a few spy movies I didn’t know about... and sadly have no way of seeing. But at least I’ve seen the trailers! Other than the lack of English language options, the Gaumont DVD of OSS 117 se déchaîne is a fantastic disc.

Read my introduction to the character of OSS 117 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.


Delmo said...

Looks like a great film but, having sat through one foreign film without subtitles or dubbing already, I'd rather wait/hope for a subtitled version.

Steve L said...

How about this for a spy-sounding "Scorpio" song?

Tanner said...

That one's definitely my favorite Scorpio spy song, Steve! And one of the best ever Bond spoof songs, along with The Liquidator and Weird Al's theme from Spy Hard (the only good part of that movie).

Super Spy said...

I'm looking for an OSS 117 movie which has a bee doubling as a bug. It's opening sequence is where a man is killed - by a pellet blown from a cigarette. Any ideas of the movie title?

Anonymous said...

There is an English dub of this film ... I have this film in English on 16mm, I bought it for $10.00 from a camera dealer in Chester, Pennsylvania (long out of business)... It's title was simply "OSS-117", I took a chance on its title.. the print was released by Seven-Arts Films (before it was absorbed by Warner Brothers, I assume). Now I know why I can't find a copy in English on DVD. Anyone want to help me transfer it to DVD? - hccbiz at yahoo dor com

CD Duplication said...

Read the review of the OSS 117 film cycle, . It is very interesting to know about it

Adrian Smith said...

This is really interesting. I can confirm that it was released in the UK in 1964 by SF Film Distributors. I have a front-of-house still for it. I would be very surprised if the film had not been dubbed, as SF were not the types to bother with subtitles that often. And most eurospy films were dubbed in that period, so it seems likely.

Can you confirm for me whether this French DVD has English subtitles for the main feature? I noticed you said it doesn't for the extras, but I just need to see the film!