May 13, 2010

Movie Review: Banco A Bangkok Pour OSS 117 aka OSS 117 - Panic In Bangkok aka Shadow Of Evil (1964)

Movie Review: Banco A Bangkok Pour OSS 117 aka OSS 117 - Panic In Bangkok aka Shadow Of Evil (1964)

The second OSS 117 movie, Panic in Bangkok, follows the formula established by the first one (and borrowed from Bond) pretty closely, and reunites director Andre Hunebelle with star Kerwin Mathews. Into that mix it adds vivid technicolor and even more far-flung locations. But... it’s just not as good. It’s not bad, either, but it simply doesn’t have enough action to sustain its overlong running time. Still, there’s plenty for Eurospy fans to enjoy in this glossy film with unusually high production values for the genre (a hallmark of the OSS 117 series).

As with OSS 117 se déchaîne, Panic in Bangkok begins with a CIA agent with a weird name ("Christopher Lemon" this time) being gunned down in an exotic location (Bangkok, natch) setting the scene for top agent OSS 117 to jet off and find out what happened. This time the “what” has to do with pharmaceuticals, particularly a nasty batch that’s been flooding regions of India and leaving outbreaks of bubonic plague in its wake. Before leaving on his latest assignment, though, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (Mathews) takes time for some particularly show-offy target practice, shooting a smiley face onto his human-shaped target’s head, and buttons down its chest

If the OSS 117 movies learned one lesson from Dr. No, it’s that people always try to photograph secret agents when they arrive at airports. Hubert is just as nasty in dealing with the shady blond guy who snaps his picture on his arrival in Bangkok as James Bond is with the girl in Jamaica.

Fortunately, though, the OSS 117 films learned a lot more lessons from 007 than just that one: exotic locations, diabolical villains and beautiful women await. As do a few other moments lifted pretty much wholesale from Dr. No, such as when Hubert opens the door of his contact’s office to reveal one of those beauties–the contact’s secretary–eavesdropping with her ear to the door. This is the movie’s Blonde, Eva. There will also be a Brunette. The variety is important, because it gives Hubert a chance to utilize his favorite (and cheesiest–I can’t believe the makers of the new parody movies have overlooked this one!) pickup line for the first few–but not last–times in the series. “You’re a blonde with green eyes, Eva, and the girl of my dreams is always a blonde with green eyes.” He later tells the film’s Brunette, “You’re a brunette with green eyes. You know it’s an odd thing, but the woman of my dreams is always a brunette with green eyes.” Throughout the film–and those that follow, even in the guise of different actors–Hubert happily plugs in the appropriate colors as needed. He’s a suave one, our OSS 117! So suave, in fact, that he’s not above whistling at a beautiful woman directly, like a construction worker–even in the context of a fancy-dress party. His behavior doesn’t go without notice. “Well there’s a man who knows how to speak to a woman,” replies the woman in question, nonplussed.

At the same formal event, Hubert meets the two Frenchest Indians imaginable: the turbaned Dr. Sinn (Robert Hossein) and his beautiful sister Lilla (Pier Angeli). I almost just wrote “the villainous Dr. Sinn” before I realized how ridiculously redundant that was! Clearly, anyone named Dr. Sinn is a villain. Less clear is their nationality. We’re told that the Sinns are Indian, but in fact Joseph Wiseman made a much more convincing half-Chinese baddie than Hossein or Angeli do Indians. Even by white-guy-playing-Asian standards (the standard in Sixties spy fare), Hossein pushes credulity a bit far. It’s funny to listen to him speak so disdainfully about “occidentals.” Of course, despite the turban, Sinn is really as much of a grab-bag of pan-Asian stereotypes as Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu. He’s prone to touting “the mysterious Orient” where he learned his powers of hypnosis and picked and chose whatever bits of Eastern mysticism would make him most villainous to xenophobic audiences. He’s a doctor, he’s a hypnotist, he’s a mystic, he’s a swami... you name it; he’s got the credentials.

In keeping with generic traditions, Hubert’s first meeting with Sinn consists of verbal sparring in the exchange of vaguely threatening nonsense like “the future is only illusion” and “the chicken inside the egg inside the chicken”–the latter phrase used on its own as a supposedly complete axiom! Unfortunately, these baffling barbs aren’t delivered across any sort of gaming table, so clearly OSS 117 hasn’t learned quite enough lessons from James Bond. Excusing himself from such impenetrable conversation (surely both participants realized such banter was a terrible waste of their valuable time and not advancing the plot), Hubert makes a beeline for the doctor’s alluring sister, pinpoints her as a brunette and immediately launches into his “girl of my dreams” schtick. He’s right that actress Pier Angeli does have appealing eyes, but she’s awfully skin-and-bones for a top-tier spy babe. Personally, I prefer my Eurospy vixens a bit more on the voluptuous side.

After the party OSS 117 goes back to his hotel where, as usual, he gets attacked. While they’re not bad for the genre, the fights in Panic in Bangkok aren’t quite up to the high standards usually set by this series as a whole. (Perhaps because they try to incorporate martial arts moves without a clear understanding of them?) Still, Hubert earns some points for using the old Three Stooges hand-in-front-of-the-nose block against an attempted two-finger eye-poking move!

The driving works a bit better than the fighting. There aren’t any real car chases, just a lot of long drives–often with someone following someone else. (One ends with Hubert getting his taxi driver machine-gunned in his stead and showing no remorse about it. He even smiles.) But these driving and following scenes are shot well, with just the right mixture of rear projection and location photography for my tastes. The lush cinematography (replicated perfectly on the Gaumont DVD) is unmistakably Sixties (and I mean that as the highest compliment), and if you like glittering night time shots of Bangkok, then boy are you in luck! Personally, I love the travelogue aspect of spy movies, and lament the relative lack of lingering scenery shots in the modern Bond films. Therefore, I never expected myself to say this, but I think Panic in Bangkok is actually one spy movie with too much scenery! The film tries to get by on pretty shots of lush, exotic locations (and I am a sucker for those), but they’ll only get you so far, especially when there isn’t enough action going on. (Which is strange for a series normally so jam-packed with fight scenes.)

Instead of doing any of his usual fighting, Hubert decides to drop in on Dr. Sinn again and exchange another fairly civil conversation, each one pretending to pretend that they don’t know what the other’s really getting at while making it perfectly clear that they do. Dr. Sinn starts by testing Hubert’s reflexes. Even psychiatric/mystical doctors have those little rubber hammers handy. And “even excellent reflexes are ineffectual against the powers of the occult,” the doctor warns.

Hubert remains unfazed, explaining, “You’re speaking to a mere materialist, Doctor.”

To which the doctor gives one of those hokum lines that could turn up in any movie with white guys playing other races: “In the mysterious East, everything’s possible.” I really can’t overstate how non-Indian this guy looks. He and his sister are definitely the Frenchest Indians ever. But he does do an accent (or whoever dubs him in English does, anyway), and when you hear it, it becomes instantly clear why OSS 117's alias this time out is “Hubert Barton.” Whenever Dr. Sinn says, “Mr. Barton,” it sounds a lot like, “Mr. Bond.”

The usual OSS 117 stuff happens. Hubert gives a communication device to a confederate, asking him to signal him if anyone comes, and then he ignores the signal when it's given, putting said confederate in jeopardy. (This exact scenario replays itself in the next film.) The women switch loyalties, multiple times. (This happens in all the films.) And Hubert pretends to drink a cocktail he knows is drugged, then pretends to be unconscious when the bad guys come to collect him. (This happened in the previous film.) Here, he then proceeds to play opossum for what seems like an eternity. For a huge chunk of the movie, Hubert is acting catatonic, and the results are much the same as if he’d actually swallowed the Mickey. He’s loaded into a fake ambulance and given an impromptu tour of Thailand (by road and by boat) on the seemingly endless journey to an interrogation facility deep in the jungle. Again, the scenery is beautiful, but there’s so much of it as to become yawn-inducing. I started wishing I were watching a Kommissar X film with similar locations, in which Joe Walker would be tearing things up instead of pretending to be asleep. That thought came to me only because these are similar locations to one of the Kommissar X movies, and to The Man With the Golden Gun. I guess Thai spy locations are limited enough as to be predictable.

Eventually Hubert’s deposited at his destination and strapped into an interrogation chair that apparently “no one has ever been able to resist.” He finally brings the film back to life by turning the tables on his would-be inquisitor and using the technology of the chair against him. (I’m not quite sure how it works, but it involves wearing a silver colander on one’s head.) There’s a burst of action (including some poorly sped-up fight scenes that don’t work as well as the rest of the series' more subtly sped-up fights) as Hubert escapes, followed by a motorboat chase that soon outstays its welcome as much as the driving did earlier. Rather than moving along to a new location, the chase eventually moves the action back into the city, where more of the same stuff that happened before happens again. Someone puts a bomb in Hubert’s car and Michel Magne cranks up the suspense with a great “ticking” cue reminiscent of Henry Mancini’s score for a similar scene in Touch of Evil, but the whole build-up peters out when someone else conveniently steals the car and finds himself in the driver’s seat instead of OSS 117 when it finally blows up.

Hubert, meanwhile, follows some crates to a monastery where things really pick up for a satisfying Eurospy finale, but by this point it’s a case of too little too late. There is, of course, a spacious lair concealed within the ancient monastery, complete with drug labs. From here, Dr. Sinn (now wearing a cape, because he’s Indian) runs “the People Elect,” a group bent on eliminating all the “inferior races” so that “an ancient, spiritual civilization may survive” instead. You know. Hubert makes the rather ballsy move of taking Dr. Sinn prisoner in a room full of his armed goons, and even risks turning his back on them, but somehow he succeeds. Then Dr. Sinn leads him down an electrified corridor and traps him in a room full of what can only be described as “rat dispensers,” unloading hordes of plague rats! It gives away absolutely nothing to note that the usual third act explosions and comeuppances and lair destructions ensue–and one hopes the resultant fire is enough to wipe out all those plague-carrying rodents, but the movie doesn’t make that entirely clear.

Panic in Bangkok is certainly on the higher budget side of the Eurospy genre, and a very good looking film.  But its pace lags too much for it to be considered among the very best of the genre.  If you're already a fan of OSS 117, then it's certainly worth seeing, but if you're just discovering this series, do yourself a favor and begin with Terror in Tokyo or OSS 117 se déchaîne. The French Gaumont DVD looks fantastic (and boasts the same fantastic extras as the rest of the series), but once again lacks any English language options. There is also a German DVD, but that doesn't offer any English options either.  If you want the dubbed version, then for now you'll be forced to turn to the gray market.


Steve Carroll said...

Wow - I sure wish someone (anyone!) would release this OSS 117 set here for Region 1 with subtitles. Or for that matter any region with subtitles! Based on the screen grabs, this transfer looks gorgeous and the sets and cinematography look amazing.

Editor Bill said...

Where do you see these films? Your reviews are making me want to see some of the original OSS 117 films, especially since OSS: Nest of Spies was so much fun.

Christopher said...

Why is the CIA agents name weird? ;-)