He’s fast on his feet, quick with a gun, and faster with the to-die-for beauties that only existed in the swinging ’60s. The superspy exploits of OSS 117 were too big for just one actor, so meet all three iterations of the man they called Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath . . . seriously.
OSS 117 Five Film Collection
OSS 117 Is Unleashed; OSS 117: Panic in Bangkok; OSS 117: Mission For a Killer; OSS 117: Mission to Tokyo; OSS 117: Double Agent
KL Studio Classics
1963-1968 / B&W and Color / 1:85 widescreen + 2:35 widescreen / 528 min. / Street Date September 26, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 59.95
Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Nadia Sanders, Irina Demick, Daniel Emilfork; Kerwin Matthews, Pier Angeli, Robert Hossein; Frederick Stafford, Mylène Demongeot, Perrette Pradier, Dominique Wilms, Raymond Pellegrin, Annie Anderson; Frederick Stafford, Marina Vlad, Jitsuko Yoshimura; John Gavin, Margaret Lee, Curd Jurgens, Luciana Paluzzi, Rosalba Neri, Robert Hossein, George Eastman.
Cinematography: Raymond Pierre Lemoigne; Raymond Pierre Lemoigne; Marcel Grignon; Marcel Grignon; Tonino Delli Colli.
Original Music: Michel Magne; Michel Magne; Michel Magne; Michel Magne; Piero Piccioni.
Written by Raymond Borel, Pierre Foucaud, André Hunebelle; Pierre Foucaud, Raymond Borel, Michel Lebrun, Patrice Rhomm, Richard Caroun, André Hunebelle; Pierre Foucaud, André Hunebelle, Jean Halain; Terence Young, Pierre Foucaud, Claude Sautet; Renzo Cerrato, Jean-Pierre Desagnat, Pierre Foucaud, Michel Lévine.
From the novels by Jean Bruce
Produced by Paul Cadéac, Cyril Grize; Paul Cadéac; Paul Cadéac, Luciano Ercoli, Alberto Pugliese; Paul Cadéac; André Hunebelle.
Directed by André Hunebelle; André Hunebelle; André Hunebelle; Michel Boisrond; Renzo Cerrato, Jean-Pierre Desagnat, André Hunebelle.
The trailers say that author Jean Bruce’s secret agent OSS 117 books sold 40 million copies; movies about him are still being made. The books pre-date James Bond and the exploits of Francis Coplan, Agent FX 18 by several years, and at least one OSS 117 movie predated the theatrical Bond bonanza of the 1960s. Responding to the success of Dr. No, producer Paul Cadéac relaunched the character of the fictional CIA agent (although one show shows him in U.S. Army uniform, as a Colonel), whose name is ‘Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath.’ Kino has collected a string of the OSS 117 pictures, with three different actors in the lead role, in this OSS 117 Five Film Collection. As examples of mid-range French pop filmmaking of the ’60s they can’t be bettered. Although nowhere near as dynamic as the Bond films, they only partly try to mimic them — and a couple of the pictures have content that the official Bond series may have ‘borrowed.’
OSS 117 Is Unleashed (1963) is in B&W, both it and the color follow-up OSS 117: Panic in Bangkok (1964) star the well-known American actor Kerwin Mathews. Newcomer Frederick Stafford took over for OSS 117: Mission for a Killer (1965), and OSS 117: Mission to Tokyo (1966). A one-shot OSS 117 was John Gavin, in 1968’s OSS 117 – Double Agent. André Hunebelle directed four of the five pictures. Kino’s presentations are all the long French versions, in French with subtitles. You too will discover that ‘Homme de main’ is French for ‘henchman.’
All of the pictures have a certain relaxed tone, leaning heavily on travelogue coverage of exotic locations. Our two-fisted hero Hubert packs an automatic, is a martial arts expert and from time to time uses clever spy devices. He’s also a full-on womanizer. Wearing blatant sexism as a badge of honor, he comes on to almost every woman he sees. Because this is a not only a male fantasy, but a French male fantasy, the women all behave as if they’ve been waiting impatiently for Hubert to sweep them off their feet. This includes women in airports, hotels, restaurants, and the woman who rents him a car, who seems to like it when he openly assaults her for a kiss (in sped-up skip-frame) ten seconds after he meets her.
OSS 117 Is Unleashed (OSS 117 se déchaîne), the one B&W picture, sees Hubert sent to Corsica to find out what happened to a missing agent. A criminal conspiracy has created a sensor capable of detecting where the West’s atomic submarines are at any given time. These are all cold war fantasies, so even a passive defensive invention is an intolerable threat. It’s always a criminal conspiracy, or later, a fanatic organization to take over a continent, that must be stopped. In one show, the Americans figure out that the nasty drug smugglers are working in North Vietnam and North Korea. Who in those places has money to buy drugs?
Anyway, Kerwin Mathews is actually the best actor of the three Huberts. He carries himself with style and actually shows some seduction know-how in addition to his patented grab ‘n’ smooch technique. The wandering storyline takes him on various boats to Nice and back to Corsica, and underwater to locate the evil sub-detecting lab. I’m not too familiar with Nadia Sanders, but she’s the first of a long line of gorgeous actresses that make the series well worth watching; she ID’s herself as half-Swedish and looks a bit like Marisa Mell. A second-string baddie is the better-known Irina Demick of The Longest Day and The Sicilian Clan. Of the various good and bad guys, Daniel Emilfork is a face that might seem familiar from other Euro-crime pix. André Hunebelle made a string of Fantomas movies around the same time, which are unfortunately a little slack in the thrills department — there’s a lot of personnel crossover with this series.
Kerwin Mathews also does well in the fight scenes, which are nicely blocked out but last too long and are a bit slow, especially when compared to the impressive, editorially-enhanced fights in even the first Bond film. And Mathews tries for audience appeal by winking at the audience before he kisses the girl at the fade-out.
The second Kerwin Mathews entry OSS 117: Panic in Bangkok (Banco à Bangkok pour OSS 117) is a lot more expensive, with plenty of color and Franscope location filming in the Far East. The show can afford excellent rear-projection for driving scenes, but it looks as if at least some of the principals went on location. For the first time Hubert uses a 007-like gadget, a spy communication device hidden in a false book and a false pack of cigarettes. A lot of the driving scenes take place in locations that would later seem familiar in the Roger Moore Bond outing The Man with the Golden Gun.
The story is all over the place. Deadly plagues are breaking out in India, and yet another CIA agent is killed in Bangkok, prompting Hubert 117 to take over. He finds that a sinister Dr. Sinn (Robert Hossein, excellent) is involved with a pharma lab using thousands of rats to make the stuff. Hubert first romances drop-dead gorgeous Dominique Wilms (who starred with Eddie Constantine in an early Lemmy Caution thriller). Hubert then falls for the doctor’s innocent sister, Pier Angeli, and tracks the menace to an underground lab.
The editor in me wants to take a scissors to some of these films, as director Hunebelle lingers over prosaic airport arrivals, car travel, checking into hotels. It’s all a good excuse to fill in with gorgeous scenery and the jazzy music of Michel Magne. This second film was a full 13 minutes shorter in its American cut; I wonder if they did a good job.
Kerwin keeps up his bedroom manners, although these are family films with little or no skin involved. I don’t recommend Hubert’s pickup technique: when he wolf-whistles at a woman, she perks up like a puppy and answers, “Oh, a man who knows how to talk to women!”
The third film OSS 117: Mission for a Killer (Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117) switches to Frederick Stafford, whom director Hunebelle apparently discovered while filming in Bangkok; the devastatingly handsome Czech-born actor moves well enough but is burdened with the behaviors and instincts of a male model. Some of his come-hither smiles look attractive and others seem creepy; we can imagine him as the perfect mate for Tippi Hedren on a fashion page or perfume ad. Stafford was also said to be multilingual, a major asset for his job.
This time the location is Rio de Janeiro, and everything we see looks really pretty — even the travelogue-like shots don’t feel like padding. The again overlong story involves a secret organization — the kind with its own Fascist branding logos to guarantee secrecy — that wishes to take over South America by assassinating politicians. Using a Peyote-derived drug from a tribe deep in the Amazon, a megalomaniac is sending hypnotized suicide bombers to blow up victims with grenades. Hubert’s main love interest, gorgeous Mylène Demongeot (Bonjour Tristesse) briefly becomes one of these robotic killers. Loyal secretary and secondary babe-for-kissing-scenes Annie Anderson is also identified as being half-Nordic in origin. Raymond Pellegrin is a millionaire cattleman in the Brazilian hinterlands who lives on an almost unimaginably lavish rural estate. Easily the entry with the most action, this show ends with an extended battle scene (fanatics vs. paratroops) and a last-second rescue from the rapids of one of those enormous Brazilian waterfalls.
Frederick Stafford does well enough in the over-choreographed fight scenes — Hunebelle like detailing moves that a wrestler might favor, almost as if we’re watching a how-to video. This show has the best action scene in the series, when OSS 117 takes on three thugs in a cramped office. One is armed with a blowtorch that he adjusts to become a flame thrower — people are lit on fire, big flames are blasting all around and there’s no way to fake any of it.
Stafford looks great, but still in the mode of a personality-challenged male. He’d be a fine generic secret agent for the cover of a record album. It takes the sight of Demongeot or Anderson swooning to make us feel that Stafford has sex appeal — he’s just too stiff.
Frederick Stafford’s second OSS 117 thriller OSS 117: Mission to Tokyo (Atout coeur à Tokyo pour OSS 117) is self-explanatory — it’s our French hero at large in Japan a full year before James Bond got there. Stafford’s Hubert goes through a similar scene where a group of giggling geishas undress and bathe him, and at one point the leading players pass a wedding procession in the street. One fight scene with a giant Japanese is played for laughs, smashing through paper walls, etc. As in You Only Live Twice, Hubert’s main Japanese helper is the female agent Tetsuko (Jitsuko Yoshimura of Onibaba). She repeatedly picks him up in her car, as did Akiko Wakabayashi in the Bond film. Hubert returns the favor in one scene by slapping her around — just a good French-American putting an Asian girl in her place.
Hubert’s main love interest this time is luscious Marina Vlady (Two or Three Things I Know about Her). We used to call her puzzling relationship with Hubert, ‘French’: when she refuses his advances with the news that she’s married, he decides she doesn’t need his protection from the flood of assassins that have been arriving at regular intervals. Instead of screaming at Hubert, Vlady leaps forward and starts kissing him. Seriously, Mike Hammer didn’t run into women this ‘motivated.’
Hubert 117 pretends to be Vlady’s husband, as the real husband is selling his ultra-explosive weapon to ‘bad men’ that are using it blow up important Allied military bases. A miniature F-107 drone plane delivers the explosive; Hubert destroys the control center with some clever Oddjob-like electrocution tricks. He and Vlady do a nice stunt at the finish, jumping off a speeding ship in the middle of the open sea.
Bond director Terence Young has a screenwriting credit, which makes us wonder if he put some inside Bond info into the show — this was after he quit Salzman & Broccoli after protesting the curtailed post-production schedule for Thunderball. The way the lovers jump into the ocean, and pop up in a swimming pool for the kissy-kissy finale seems very much like a Goldfinger gag. This is the only picture in the series that doesn’t carry an André Hunebelle credit; director Michel Boisrond is best known for a number of early-career Brigitte Bardot pictures.
The final episode OSS 117 – Double Agent (Pas de roses pour OSS 117) skips two years, has three directors (for separate Italo and French versions) and yet another actor in the role of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath. Doing the girl-kissing and karate chopping this time is none other than second-tier leading man John Gavin, known for Lana Turner pictures and of course, his ‘healthy’ alternative to Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Nine years later Gavin looks leaner and meaner; as his disguise in this Italian-set thriller has him pretending to be a gangster-bandit-mass murderer, he initially comes on like a thug, not the suave guy in a white dinner jacket we finally meet.
After a car chase past a flurry of Roman landmarks, we see this new Hubert, pretending to be the wanted killer Chandler, bedding none other than cult actress Rosalba Neri. Pretending to be a killer is Hubert’s way of infiltrating a Murder Incorporated racket calle ‘the organization’ run by the effete boss called The Major (Curd Jürgens). He sits in an ornate room behind a broad desk, like the villain Jürgens will later play in The Spy Who Loved Me. The impressive cast includes names from films by Jess Franco and Mario Bava, while the terrific (flat-widescreen) cinematography is by Tonino Delli Colli. As the art director is Flavio Mogherini, a couple of action scenes evoke memories of Danger: Diabolik. One scene on a highway resembles You Only Live Twice when a large metal object hung from a helicopter turns out to be a dispenser of Diabolik- like smoke and knockout gas.
They talk about OSS 117 having plastic surgery, but he has more medical trouble with Luciana Paluzzi’s lady doctor, who uses an electric wand to open doors just as in the next year’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Paluzzi gives ‘Chandler’ an injection that turns out to be a poison: he must perform his intended assassination hit on schedule in a Middle Eastern country, and return twice to another doctor (Robert Hossein, again) to get the antidote. As Chandler/Hubert is of course working for the CIA, he finds out that the target is a peacemaker between two bedouin tribes. A banker is paying The Major to create a civil war so he can sell guns to both sides. Finally, a decidedly liberal story premise.
John Gavin is the least convincing OSS 117. He has fewer fights and seems less athletic than his predecessors, but he’s just as ruthless. To function as a double agent Hubert uses the banker’s daughter, the gorgeous Margaret Lee, who is 25 but can pass for 17. Almost as attractive is Hubert’s choice of car in his disguise as a journalist, a Ferrari lookalike with a massive Detroit muscle car engine called an Iso Grifo. It’s a far cry from the tiny Renaults that Hubert drives in the first picture.
At one point Hubert uses an elevator shaft for an escape, and later he rescues Margaret Lee from killers on a beach, more story points predating On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. If those Euro-pulp connections aren’t enough, Hubert’s final showdown is with cult actor George Eastman (of Rabid Dogs), atop the villa seen in scores of Euro-horror pix, most notably The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. Meanwhile, Luciana’s character drops from the movie without explanation.
The OSS 117 movies will be special fun for those of us who like the fringes of the ’60s superspy pictures. Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath may not be James Bond, but he’s not some pretender, either. All three actors are more than adequate for the demands of the part. The fight scenes may be slightly dated but they’re highly entertaining. The leading actresses are first rate, with the lesser-known ladies just as stunning and memorable as the name stars. The ‘sophisticated, adult’ banter between the spy and his girlfriend of the moment is dated in a way that’s charming, not offensive. Frederick Stafford and John Gavin pose well and make with the come-hither smiles, but ironically it’s Kerwin Mathews that projects a little human charm around the edges. Apparently somebody told Alfred Hitchcock that Frederick Stafford would be an excellent leading man for his 1969 Cold War spy tale Topaz. The inexplicably clunky Topaz made a whole string of good actors look bad, not just Stafford.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of OSS 117 Five Film Collection contains clean transfers of the five films in excellent condition. It should be the answer to the viewers on the web complaining about the poor-quality prints being shown on (foreign?) television. These unedited original versions look far better than the snippet I saw of one on TV, with big cuts and awkward dubbing. Daily Variety’s Hollywood-protectionist reviews had the habit of calling them weak, local efforts unlikely to play well out of their home country. Yes, they aren’t as polished as the official 007 series.
The first B&W picture uses plenty of shadows for night scenes, while the color shows present a high-key expensive look. Color values are consistently good, although the show set in Bangkok at times has a slight yellow cast that may be the result of faded elements. The films never look cheap, that’s for sure; OSS 117 stays at the best hotels, and the travelogue views indeed make Rio and Corsica look like interesting places to visit.
The first film actually has a rock theme behind the titles, complete with a catchy French lyric. It’s pitiful compared to John Barry but sounds pretty charming now. Michel Magne scores the first film with great light jazz, adding to Kerwin Mathews’ appeal, But for successive pictures he switches over to less distinguished themes, plus location-appropriate ‘oriental’ cues and Samba music. When Piero Piccioni takes over for the final show the musical interest goes way up. Even though his music is barely scored to fit the action, Piccioni’s jazzy organ riffs enliven events on screen considerably.
The pictures come on three discs, segregated by star; John Gavin’s show is on a disc of its own. The only language is French, with English subtitles. The last disc has trailers for just the first three feature entries. Each emphasizes the popularity of the books. According to Wikipedia, Jean Bruce wrote 88 separate books, and after his death his wife continued the series for 143 additional adventures. His daughter and son-in-law picked up the baton from there.
With so much information and so many names to keep straight, the package-back text is a proofreader’s nightmare — and I gleefully report that the credit blocks misspell Frederick Stafford’s name.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
OSS 117 Five Film Collection
Movies: Good + plus
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers for OSS 117 is Unleashed, OSS 117: Panic in Bangkok and OSS 117: Mission for a Killer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Three Blu-ray discs in keep case
Reviewed: September 15, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson