Kim Newman on... OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies
RT Obscura 12: Celebrating the other 2006 spy franchise reboot from France.
RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his twelfth column, Kim scoots back to 2006 and discovers that year's other spy franchise reinvigoration from France.
Just as the new version of Casino Royale thoroughly reworked and revitalised the flagging 007 franchise for the new millennium, OSS 117: Le Caire nid d'Espions (2006) brings back France's equivalent spy franchise. However, it takes exactly the opposite approach to the Bond property by setting aside dead straight thrills in favour of deadpan laughs.
Insouciant agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, who goes by the code-name OSS 117, was created by author Jean Bruce in 1949, and has appeared in a library's worth of pulp adventures. He made his screen debut, played by Ivan Desny, in OSS 117 n'est pas mort (1956), but didn't click as a screen character until the post-Dr No scramble to put rival suave superspies into pictures.
Sometime-Sinbad Kerwin Matthews was Hubert in OSS 117 se déchâine (1963) and Banco à Bangkok pour OSS 117 (1964), with Frederick Stafford taking over for Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117 (1965) and Atout coeur à Tokyo pour O.S.S. 117 (1966), followed by John Gavin in Niente rose per OSS 117 (1968) and Luc Merenda in OSS 117 prend des vacances (1970).
Wooden and widescreen, full of gorgeously inexpressive actresses and attractive locations, these mid-range productions all scored English-language releases in the 1960s under bland retitlings (Mission for a Killer, Panic in Bangkok, Murder for Sale) which didn't push the hero as anything special. Alfred Hitchcock, however, caught at least one of the series and cast Stafford as the bland, OSS 117-like hero of his least-remembered film, Topaz.
This new take, courtesy of director Michel Hazanavicius, doesn't present a Hubert who is as extreme a spoof character as, say, Austin Powers or Maxwell Smart, but does poke gently vicious fun at the spy's overconfident blind stupidity. With slick hair, a Gene Kelly grin and an array of Rat Pack suits, Jean Dujardin manages a letter-perfect send-up of the heroes of yore. In a black and white prologue, Hubert (with pencil moustache) and his best friend Jack Jefferson (Philippe Lefebvre, who also writes and stars in Tell No One) thwart some Nazis during the last days of the war, all the while laughing insanely and -- at least on Hubert's part -- barely repressing their attraction for each other. Then, in 1955, in full colour and sinuous widescreen, Hubert travels from Rome to Cairo to investigate Jack's apparent death and take over his mission to spy on various factions who are after a shipment of Soviet arms.