May 18, 2010

DVD Review: OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo aka Atout coeur à Tokyo pour OSS 117 (1966)

DVD Review: OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo aka Atout coeur à Tokyo pour OSS 117 (1966)

If any movie in the series gives OSS 117 se déchaîne a run for its money as the gold standard, it’s OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo. It’s almost on a Bondian plane of existence, in fact–even prefiguring many distinctive elements of the more famous series. This one doesn’t wait for the action to kick in. We’re thrust right into the middle of it, with OSS 117 (once again embodied by the very capable Frederick Stafford) in the midst of a car chase firing at his pursuers with a machine gun. He skids to a halt in a deserty area, shoots some holes in a convenient stack of oil drums, and then hurls his lit cigarette lighter at the barrels, creating a wall of fire between him and the chase cars. The first car slams on the brakes, but the second plows into it anyway, sending them both into the inferno. A helicopter touches down and OSS 117 jumps in. This might not pass muster as a James Bond pre-credits sequence (this was, after all, the same year 007 flew a jetpack), but it’s a slam-bang opening for a Eurospy movie, proving once again that the OSS 117 films are at the top of the heap in terms of budget and production values.

The titles–and Michael Magne’s distinctive theme music–kick in as the helicopter flies away, and then we’re back in the familiar briefing room where a new boss (I don’t think it’s ever the same one for secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, although his many-faced superior is always named Mr. Smith) explains that “a few months ago the State Department was contacted by a mysterious organization.” Apparently this organization (later conveniently referred to as “the Organization”) has created “a new missile which can be neither detected or destroyed.”

“Oh, it’s the usual blackmail,” theorizes OSS 117, correctly. It turns out that the usual CIA man has just been killed, too (as tends to begin these movies), but we picked up the story after the fact, following Hubert’s escape after failing to make contact with the dead man. The agent was onto this Organization. Without his report to go on, the authorities are back at square one. We are treated to some of the regular documentary briefing footage–supposedly a US base being destroyed by the undetectable missile–but not for nearly as long as usual. Hubert watches it with some military brass who are perplexed as to how a missile could hit their base so quickly if fired from a plane so far away, as signified by the tiny dot in the sky on the screen. Hubert offers his own theory: “Excuse me, gentlemen. But if it really was an F-107, but a very small F-107, he could be close to the base and still very small in the photo.”

“Hmm,” grumbles a general. “And a very small idea from a secret agent.” The military man spits out those last two words, hinting at some interagency rivalry.

“I think it’s better to have a small idea of a situation,” retorts this secret agent, “than no idea at all.” Take that! All the general’s got in return is a disgruntled “hmph.”

Hubert’s theory is born out by a report from our man in Tokyo which mentions the possibility of miniature fighters. There’s no time for any flirting in Washington this time, as OSS 117 is packed off on the very next flight for Tokyo.

The local station provides him with a native assistant named Saki and a single lead to go on: a married cryptographer named Eva Wilson (the stunning Marina Vlady) who was being blackmailed about an indiscretion to provide information on the American base that was subsequently destroyed. Hubert proposes at once that he pose as her husband, freshly arrived in the country (we’re told the real Mr. Wilson is in Washington), hoping that the blackmailers will either approach Eva again or else approach him with the damning evidence. This gives Hubert a chance to “arrive” once more at the airport (something he likes doing), and be very publicly greeted by his loving wife. Being Hubert–and being a Eurospy–he makes the most of the deception, forcing a lingering kiss on Mrs. Wilson–and then kissing her again whenever the opportunity presents itself!

“You’re taking the role of husband very seriously,” she points out. “Is it considered indiscrete to ask how far you intend carrying the role?”

“Well, when my country’s interests are at stake,” he deadpans, “I stop at nothing.” She laughs, suggesting that she might even be amenable to what he has in mind. Yet, later, when she’s wearing what she calls “a Rube Goldberg outfit” with a wire he’s run from a mic in a broach on her breast (he went out of his way to physically pinpoint the exact position) to a one-way transmitter on the clasp of her bra, she seizes the opportunity to speak her mind. “This is the perfect moment for me to say something, when you can’t answer. Of all the men I ever knew you are the most conceited and while I take all the risks, the gallant colonel sits in his car.” Eva is the only woman in the series who really stands up to Hubert’s gropey chauvinism (or tries to, anyway), and one can’t help but like her for it.

In his defense, however, OSS 117 is not just sitting in his car letting Eva take all the risks. It’s not in his nature. Instead, he’s following her at a good distance, observing over his shades (which double as his radio receiver). He follows her as far as he can, and then follows the blackmailer she was meeting with down the neon rabbit hole of Tokyo’s alien nightlife.

His dreamlike odyssey takes him into some sort of slow motion strip club (a better excuse than most Eurospies need to enter such a place) where he has a camera thrust into his hands upon entering. The women slowly peel off their clothes on stage, striking intermittent poses as anxious men gather round and eagerly snap pictures. But Hubert doesn’t get to linger too long in this bizarre setting, as his quarry moves on out the back door into a neon-lit alleyway. We’re treated to some stellar atmospheric direction which ratchets up the suspense while simultaneously conveying Hubert’s status as a stranger in a strange land he can’t fully understand. The new OSS 117 films would play this for laughs, but co-directors Michel Boisrand and Michel Wyn play it for genuine suspense as the lost spy wanders through a complex maze of forboding alleys. When he finally closes in on his quarry in a second story hallway with noirish lighting, he’s conked on the head and blacks out.

Hubert awakes to find himself staring up at the giggling faces of the strippers from the club staring down at him. But he doesn’t quip that he must be in Heaven as James Bond does when he opens his eyes to his first glimpse of Pussy Galore; despite the bevy of exotic beauties, Hubert is still disoriented. This is a strange world. Things are definitely more Lost in Translation than Orientsploitation (ala Kommissar X or even Panic in Bangkok) until Hubert ruins all this great atmosphere by blurting out exactly the kind of feeble-minded attempt at cross-cultural communication his modern-day Jean Dujardin counterpart might attempt. “Me bump head on ceiling. Me feeling very silly,” he says, trying to explain his confused condition and the nasty lump on his head. Oh well. Way to kill the mood, Hubert!

He’s no more endearing when he gets back to Eva’s place. She’s all alone and scared for her life because of the danger he put her in, and the shameless spy tries to take advantage of the situation with another pickup line. “You’ll see,” he says. “Everything’s going to be alright. And we’ve got all night to talk about it.”

“Has anybody ever slapped your face?” she asks. To that, he tells her she better apologize by kissing him. Still she refuses, so he pulls what might be the biggest dick-move of any Eurospy hero (even Joe Walker never stooped this low!) and threatens to walk out on her, leaving her in peril.

“Well okay, in that case...” he intones, heading for the door.

“Where are you going?” asks the panicked Eva.

“Hotel Hilton. Number 122. If anyone tries to kill you, don’t hesitate to call me.”

“Hubert!” She runs after him. He smiles. NOW he’s got her where he wants her!

“Change your mind?” he asks, nonchalantly. Now, presumably because she’s frightened (and admits as much!), she finally gives in and kisses him. “Guess you’ll just have to trust me,” he says smarmily.

“Anything but that,” she mutters as she succumbs to his dubious charm. (The fact of the matter is, Frederick Stafford–like Kerwin Mathews before him–actually has a genuine charisma, and his character shouldn’t have to stoop to such methods!)

In the morning, Hubert pays for his sins by waking to a nasty surprise–or so it seems. An enemy agent targets the sleeping spy in the sites of a sniper rifle aimed through the winking eye of a cartoon lingerie model on the side of a van. (Shades of From Russia With Love–Japanese style.) Thwack! It’s a tranquilizer dart–and a direct hit, right in the neck. However, when the hapless goon goes into the room to claim his sleeping victim, he finds that all the dart has done is puncture and deflate an OSS 117 blow-up doll the agent used as a decoy in his bed! It’s a very surreal moment.

Hubert manages to turn the tables on his surprised enemy, of course, and commandeers the bra truck, which he uses in an entertaining chase scene along some winding roads where he ends up turning his enemy’s dirty tricks against them. Putting the spy in a truck with a cartoon lingerie model is just one of the many creative, outre touches that set Terror in Tokyo apart from its predecessors.

It does have its similarities, as well, though. Again, lots of good travelogue shots of Tokyo at night. If you like beautiful shots of far away cities at night, then the OSS 117 films are the series for you. Terror in Tokyo never gets bogged down in its travelogue aspects, though, as Panic in Bangkok did; instead the travelogue propels the narrative–much as it does in Ian Fleming’s Japan-set novel You Only Live Twice.

In the course of his investigation, Hubert enjoys some more of the unique experiences Tokyo has to offer. He checks out a hostess club with Eva, still trying to find the Japanese man who blackmailed her, and ends up paying four tickets to a hostess for conversation. Eva says she won’t be jealous of a hostess, but she clearly is, leading to some funny banter between her and Hubert before he manages to get her out of the way by sending her home. This leaves him free to leave with the hostess, who takes him to a hotel where other beautiful Japanese girls wash him (he enjoys a Japanese bath a year before 007!) and dress him in a kimono... only to pull a gun on him and thrust him into a room with a giant martial arts expert! (They film calls him a sumo wrestler, but that doesn’t really seem to be his technique.) This leads to a genuinely terrific fight scene, worthy of those that have come before it in this action-packed series. Once again, someone pulls the old 3 Stooges double-finger eye-poke move on Hubert, but this time he’s not fast enough to stop it. The fight ends with him managing to set the sumo wrestler on fire. Of course in any Japan-set spy movie, there will be a scene with people bursting through multiple paper walls, and Terror in Tokyo doesn’t disappoint in that respect. Hubert bursts out the paper walls of the hotel and escapes–still in his kimono!–on a handy motorcycle.

This is another great driving scene (not really a chase scene, but fun nonetheless), again with just the right mixture of live footage and rear projection, as he rides the bike down Tokyo’s steep urban hills... only to end up back in the clutches of the hostess who brought him to the hotel to begin with... who, it turns out, works for the Japanese Secret Service! (Her car is not as cool as Aki’s, though, in You Only Live Twice.) In the back seat is her superior, Kawashi, who doesn’t buy the John Wilson identity. “Your behavior since you arrived in my country leaves me to doubt if it’s as simple as all that.”

“Oh?” asks Hubert, innocently. “Such as?”

“We are inclined to think you are agent of CIA. We think you are OSS 117.”

“I’m too flattered to deny it.” Hubert certainly isn’t one to feign modesty! Kawashi suggests it would be much easier for both of them if they collaborated more directly. “Oh, absolutely,” agrees OSS 117, nursing a predictable ulterior motive. “I am always for close collaboration with charming geisha girls.”

Kawashi waves a tsk-tsking finger. “She is not a geisha! She is a sergeant!” I’d like to report that Hubert walks away chastised, but soon enough this beautiful sergeant is giving him a sensual massage. “Am I the first Japanese girl you’ve kissed?” she asks.

“No,” says Hubert, “but you’re the first sergeant.” Ho-ho! Honestly, it’s no wonder the makers of the new OSS 117 movies couldn’t help picking on old Hubert for his rampant casual chauvinism; he really is worse than James Bond.

Terror in Tokyo is a fantastic ride the whole way through, but in the final act it really kicks into high gear! It’s the third act of a Bond movie, packed with twists and betrayals and fantastic sets and even bigger feats of action than those that came before. When America actually acquiesces to the demands of The Organization and agrees to pay their ransom, OSS 117 (who never gives up, even when his government orders him to) goes rogue to thwart the villains on his own. And rogue leads to more action. There’s another great fight in a spacious Japanese mansion involving a samurai sword, and still another where OSS 117 leaves his hapless antagonist hanging from a phone cord.

The bad guys get away–with Eva–on board a fast cabin cruiser, and make contact with a larger boat whose hull opens up to gobble up their boat–just like a smaller version of the Liparus from The Spy Who Loved Me! (Eleven years before that film, though–and one before the rocket-gobbling capsules of You Only Live Twice.) Luckily, Hubert’s been tailing the cruiser from an airplane, from which he pulls of a very impressive low altitude jump into the water, then uses a speargun to climb aboard the mothership. It’s great stuff!

The futuristic sets on board the ship smack of Ken Adam–as do the Dr. No-like radiation suits the technicians wear as they load the miniature remote-controlled fighter planes. (Yes, Hubert was right about that, of course... and the movie’s cooler for it!) There ensues a Bond-like countdown and Bond-like destruction, followed by a solution so Bond-like that Bond himself uses it under very similar circumstances in The Spy Who Loved Me! And I mean all of that as a high compliment. I usually love watching how Eurospy movies manage to pull off “budget Bond” finales, but they’re even more impressive when they manage to pull of legitimate big budget Bond finales, as is the case here!

What makes the OSS 117 movies great–and generally a cut above other Eurospy series–is that they not only learn the lessons of Bond from the Bond films that have already been, but also manage to anticipate and prefigure what will come later in that series! OSS 117 went to Rio, Thailand and Tokyo before 007, and visited some of the same sights and got into some of the same scrapes. He also battled a villain with a ship-swallowing tanker base and battled Curt Jurgens before James Bond! All that has to count for something. It’s tempting to credit the mastery of the Bond formula demonstrated in OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo to the original Bond director, Terence Young, as he gets a co-story credit on this film. But Philippe Lombard concludes in his booklet that Young probably had very little to do with the movie other than to add marquee-value name recognition–and cash a paycheck. Whoever’s responsible, though, OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo pulls off a pseudo-James Bond movie better than Flint and better than Helm and better than just about any Eurospy movie short of maybe Deadlier Than the Male. Like that film, it would make a great stepping stone for Bond fans eager to explore the wider world of Sixties spy films by starting with something fairly familiar.

As with all the others in the OSS 117 box set, Gaumont’s Region 2 DVD looks great and contains all sorts of cool extras. The major caveat, once again, is that none of it–neither film nor features–is subtitled in English. (OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo was dubbed into English, however, and gray market copies of the English version turn up a lot on Ebay.) Gaumont again serves up a cool sampling of (mostly) spy-related clips from newsreels of the time to create another entertaining pre-film experience. This one begins with a live action guide to being a spy and looking for bugs in your living room and using gadgets and whatnot that plays like one of those Disney cartoons where the how-to book talks to Goofy. It’s also got another one of those silly shorts about different signs of the Zodiac–this time picking on Capricorns, and for some reason containing trick shots of goats jumping down the sides of mountains. More interesting to the spy fan is a bit about how gadgets are everywhere and will be even moreso in the near future. It’s funny but also prescient: the 1966 documentary showcases rudimentary versions of cell phones (giant walkie-talkies) and iPods (a huge record player strapped to a cyclist’s chest into which he can awkwardly insert a giant LP). All of the gadgets appear to also function as either a cigarette lighter or liquor dispenser off some sort. Sadly, that latter part never came to pass; a nice aged malt may be the only function lacking on the latest Apple i-Thing.

As for the film-specific features, there’s a text fact track; if you watch the movie in this mode random facts pop up–in French–throughout the film. Most of them are really quite informative, except when they getting cute instead and needlessly quote other pop culture, like Terminator or Austin Powers. (“Hasta la vista, baby,” it reads when OSS gets on a motorcycle. Ho ho!) To a non-native speaker, this sort of text-based track is much more useful than a French audio commentary would have been. There’s also a 12-minute making-of/interview with co-director Michel Wyn, and an 8-minute featurette on the many fights in the series called “The Fatal Blows of OSS 117" which compiles a greatest-hits montage of scenes from the whole series intercut with an interview with a stunt coordinator. There’s sadly no theatrical trailer for OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo included this time, but the disc makes up for it by offering two mystery trailers instead of the usual one: The Dirty Game (portions of which really were directed by Terence Young) and an Eddie Constantine movie called Fire At Will that looks like tons of fun. Gaumont has put out a great DVD of a really great spy movie. Hopefully one day (perhaps if the new films ever truly catch on?) someone will release this in the US with an English language track and subtitles on the copious features.

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 Furia à Bahia 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.


Christopher Mills said...

Each one of these reviews you post makes me wish more an more that I could afford a region-free player and import discs -- and had learned French like my grandmother wanted me to.

Those screen caps are friggin' gorgeous.

Johny Malone said...

Great coverage of a crucial series in the spy-fi. I like the Frederick Stafford's photo in the tunnel. Very cool!

Steve Carroll said...

I'm dying here! I want to see these so bad! The screen caps are amazing! I'm tempted to go gray market just so I can see these Stafford movies (and be able to know what is being said!).

Tanner said...

Yeah, it's very frustrating that these excellent releases aren't available in America. I really do hold out a hope that some US distributor might take advantage of the small degree of name recognition that the new movies have afforded the character and license the Gaumont discs. And if no one was considering that, I hope that showcasing the films here might encourage someone to do so! In the meantime, if you poke around the Eurospy fan community or check Ebay a lot you should be able to turn up gray market copies or, better, fandubs.

Thanks, Johnny! This movie was so full of great imagery (particularly in the final act when everything got all Ken Adamy) that it was hard narrowing down the shots I captured!

skadog said...


You do realize that the whole set is available with English friendly fandubs, don't you? Well, se Dechaine is a fanSUB. These are 1 to 1 copies on dvd9 and the particulars can be seen at the Eurospy Forum.
Check out the dvd newsdesk section.