OSS 117 se déchaîne

OSS 117 se déchaîneSynopsis: While he is scuba-diving, an American secret agent disappears. The Secret Services send agent OSS 117 to the scene of the American’s disappearance. In an underwater cave, OSS 117 catches out a bunch of spies putting together a submarine detector. He is captured but manages to escape thanks to beautiful Brigita and destroys the spies’ set-up.

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OSS 117 se déchaîne 7.75

eyelights: OSS 117. its meat and potatoes script. its balance of drama and action.
eyesores: the overdubbing. its low budget.

OSS 117 predates 007. A creation of French author Jean Bruce, he first appeared in 1949 in ‘Tu parles d’une ingénue’, four years before Ian Fleming’s ‘Casino Royale’ hit the shelves. The OSS 117 books were such a sensation in France that Bruce published 88 novels until his death in 1963 and many movie adaptations were produced.

Obviously, they were overshadowed by James Bond’s own silver screen adventures.

OSS 117’s first motion picture adventure was ‘OSS 117 n’est pas mort’, in 1957. It wasn’t a tremendous enough of a hit to warrant a sequel, but another production company bought the rights in the sixties and spun a popular series with André Hunebelle at the helm. By the mid-’60s OSS 117 was omnipresent in French cinemas.

‘OSS 117 se déchaîne’ is the first in this series. Based on ‘OSS 117 prends le maquis’, the 1963 black and white espionage film tells of OSS 117’s adventures in France, trying to find out what happened to an American colleague of his. In so doing, he unearths Russian agents building an underground submarine detection system.

The film is set-up with a pseudo newsreel explaining the state of the world “today”, how spy services are trying to find enemy nuclear devices, destroy them and keep the peace. We are then introduced to Agent Roos and Renotte, his scuba partner. While underwater, Roos gets shot (yes, underwater!) and Renotte scampers off.

Renotte goes to the cops but gives them a false account of what happened, telling them that his friend never came back and he couldn’t find him. That’s when we discover that Roos was actually an American spy, and his organisation naturally decides to investigate. So they send Hubert Bonisseur de La Batt, a.k.a. OSS 117.

OSS 117 is a ladykiller: he’s very good looking and (mostly) dapper, wearing his suit even in the field. Basically, he’s GQ material. What’s interesting is that the filmmakers hired an American to play the part: Kerwin Mathews whose claims to fame were a few Ray Harryhausen films (the trailer boasts of a “big American star”).

Mathews couldn’t speak French and it’s clearly overdubbed: he did his lines in American and it was later overdubbed in French. But he does a lot of his own stunts, albeit minor ones. Still, it’s surprising because he could easily have hurt himself by being chucked around in staircases and the like. The filmmakers got a good deal.

The first fistfight was basic fisticuffs: chairs are smashed, a knife is pulled, …etc. It’s nothing extravagant at all. Pretty much all of OSS 117’s fights (which become pretty regular as he follows the clues) are fairly basic like that, but it feels more realistic than in many James Bond films; he doesn’t come off as a “super agent” like 007.

For good or bad.

Eventually, OSS 117 finds Roos’ journal and discovers that he was onto something big, and that he had a map leading to it. Except that the map is missing. So he hooks up with Renotte, coaxing him into showing him where Roos disappeared. Having received threats, instead Renotte takes off in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, the French secret service discover that the Americans are operating on the coast and look into it. OSS 117 tracks down Renotte, and hooks up with his girl, who promises to help him. Except that she also has a secret… but he eventually gets her to take him to the scene of Roos’s disappearance anyway.

Unsurprisingly, after eventually joining forces with his French counterpart, OSS 117 saves the day.

No, seriously. (You didn’t see it coming, right?)

It’s a technically weak film (you can see the backdrops in close-ups, and in one scene you can see the camera’s underwater casing, and bits of editing was wonky), but it’s not at all surprising given that it’s a French film from the ’60s – they didn’t exactly have huge budgets to work with and probably scrounged to make it.

One thing that was likely a product of its low budget was the hip, loungy soundtrack. It gives the picture a French vibe, but it feels strange for an action piece. And then there’s an underwater fight with harpoon-guns and it has absolutely no music, just crappy sound effects (it sounded like they recorded in a toilet tank).

Still they do avoid some of the classic movie mistakes, like flinging a dummy out of a window and seeing its limbs flail limply; here, the “cadaver” just dropped like a stone, like a cadaver wound. So ‘OSS 117 se déchaîne’ is not all bad, and it does have its redeeming features, such as its gorgeous underwater cinematography.

It’s just too bad that it’s all monochromatic (unlike ‘Thunderball‘s own sequences). What a tremendous loss.

‘OSS 117 se déchaîne’ is rudimentary, but well-conceived and delivered. There are no gadgets, no eccentric villains, no huge sets, and it’s not nearly as exotic as James Bond films were then (partly because it’s black and white), but all in all, it’s a solid spy action film along the lines of ‘Dr. No‘. But French. And smaller in scope.

It’s certainly worth discovering.

Date of viewing: February 13, 2016

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