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September 14, 2017

OSS 117 - Five Film Collection

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OSS 117 is Unleashed / OSS 117 se dechaine
Andre Hunebelle - 1963

OSS 117: Panic in Bangkok / Banco a Bangkok pour OSS 117
Andre Hunebelle - 1964

OSS 117: Mission for a Killer / Furia a Bahia pour OSS 117
Andre Hunebelle - 1965

OSS 117: Mission to Tokyo / Atout coeur a Tokyo pour OSS 117
Michel Boisrond - 1966

OSS 117: Double Agent / Pas de Roses pour OSS 117
Andre Hunebelle and Jean-Pierre Desagnet- 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A three disc set

This series of five films proves, as if proof was needed, that even with clearly commercial fare, the choice of director can make a difference. Three of the films were directed by Andre Hunebelle who also had a hand in supervising assistant Jean-Pierre Desagnet and signing the film under his name. Hunebelle, who was busy with other projects, gave the assignment of directing Mission to Tokyo to Michel Boisrond, a journeyman more associated with comedy. As it turns out, Mission to Tokyo is the best of the bunch, funny, sexy and visually more imaginative.

For those unfamiliar, or who only know of the spoofs starring Jean Dujardin, OSS 117 originated from a series of about seventy books by French author Jean Bruce, about an American super spy. The cold war inspired thrillers preceded Ian Fleming's James Bond. While one OSS 117 film was made in 1957, it was the success of Dr. No that inspired the French company, Gaumont, to re-launch the series. One source claims that Jean Marais, most famous for his work with Jean Cocteau, had suggested the series to Andre Hunebelle as a starring vehicle for himself. Perhaps as the spy was an American, Hunebelle instead cast Kerwin Mathews initially, followed by Frederick Stafford for two films, and finally another American, John Gavin.

As the series continued, budgets got bigger, and settings more exotic, along with bigger named co-stars. OSS 117 is Unleashed has the spy looking for a secret laboratory in Corsica where the bad guys have a device to detect the location of nuclear submarines belonging to the U.S. and its allies. One of the characters lives in an apartment with a window conveniently overlooking an oceanside cliff, making it easy to dispose of dead bodies. In terms of action and humor, it's fairly mild entertainment. Fortunately for Hunebelle, that film was popular enough that the next four films were co-productions with Italy. Panic in Bangkok involves a Dr. Synn who's idea of world peace is to create a new breed of rats to infect enough people with the plague, and let a chosen elite take over. French star Robert Hossein plays the bad doctor, while a somewhat emaciated Pier Angeli plays his sister, also the film's romantic interest. My favorite moment was a fight with a blow torch as the heavy's weapon of choice.

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Mathews' demand for a bigger paycheck was the reported reason why Hunebelle chose another actor for the series. Except that Frederick Stafford was not an actor, although he was married to one. What Stafford did have is the right look, more lived in than that of the still boyish Mathews. In Mission for a Killer, we are to believe that an extract of peyote is capable of turning people into suicide killers. As was typical of filmmaking of the time, we get a tourist's eye view of Brazil. Cutie pie Mylene Demongeot shows up as the love interest here. And then things get very interesting . . .

I've never seen anything by Michel Boisrond before, but Mission to Tokyo is the one film where almost everything works. Sure, you can fault the series for the action scenes where the film has been sped up, and other small technical imperfections, but Boisrond makes a film that is visually dynamic, where lots of tracking shots follow the action. One nice moment has OSS 117 walking down a hallway, the camera following him, when a karate chop pops out from the side, knocking him out. Arguably the most attractive of actresses in the series, Marina Vlady, stars as the secretary who may be spying for an organization that is trying to blackmail the U.S. government. Also on hand is Jitsuko Yoshimura, in a sweet and funny performance as an undercover cop posing as a bar hostess. Even if the name is not familiar, Yoshimura has been seen in several Japanese classics including Onibaba and Dodes'ka-den. The film suffers a tad from the Orientalism of past decades, where little attempt was make to distinguish Japanese, Chinese or Korean names. Director Terence Young is credited for the story, although there is some dispute regarding his input. Famous primarily for directing most of the Sean Connery James Bond films, this film was made a year prior to the Japanese based You Only Live Twice and has a few moments similar to that film. As Mission to Tokyo as many of the same key names in the production as the other films in the series, including the screenwriters, I can only attribute the more imaginative cinematography and use of color to the change in director.

It may well have been Mission to Tokyo that convinced Alfred Hitchcock to cast Stafford in Topaz. With Stafford unavailable, Hunebelle cast John Gavin as the American spy. What makes Double Agent of some interest is that it gives a glimpse of what we might have seen as Gavin played James Bond, which almost happened for Diamonds are Forever. Gavin looks a bit more like Sean Connery, and looks more convincing as a man of action than George Lazenby. The film as features a past Bond girl, Luciana Paluzzi, as a doctor with the occasionally accommodating bedside manner, and future Bond villain, Curt Jurgens, as the head of a criminal organization called . . . The Organization. Robert Hossein returns as a different doctor, deadly on a more modest scale, with the antidotes of life and death in his less than trustworthy hands. The action here is in an unnamed mid-Eastern country.

Not as successful as the previous films, Hunebelle discontinued the series, especially with European cowboys taking over movie screens. One more OSS 117 film was produced in 1970, by an Italian company, initiating the career of male model Luc Merenda, who found greater success in poliziotteschi, Italian police thrillers.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 14, 2017 06:01 AM