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.
The basic joke is that, through simple-minded idiocies, Hubert actually causes the Suez crisis which will ultimately lead to the end of France as a colonial power. Furthermore, by getting out of bed early to tell a noisy muezzin to shut up during the call to prayer, radicalises local Muslims (he hasn’t heard of the religion and assumes it won’t catch on) to the extent that his confidence that Westerners will always be welcome throughout the Middle-East is sorely misplaced.
Along the way, Hubert exerts his manly prowess in fistcuffs and wrestling with thugs (including a pyramid full of leftover Nazis), has steamy relationships with secretary-cum-rebel Larmina (Bérénice Bejo) and King Farouk’s niece (Aure Atika), is dogged by a djellaba-clad mastermind whose ultimate identity is fairly guessable (but prompts a terrific contradictory flashback joke), persistently misses obvious clues (a match-book with a name scrawled in it) that are literally thrust under his nose, is menaced by various conniving factions (including a Belgian chicken salesman who is furious that the poultry operation France runs as a cover for its local secret service outpost — which Hubert takes a childish delight in — is outperforming his legitimate business), impersonates an Arab cabaret star to do a catchy Eastern-inflected cover of ‘Bambino’ (known in English as ‘With his Little Mandolin’) only to be distracted by the sudden audience acclaim from his actual job of blending into the background, and escapes from certain death when tied up and dropped into the Suez canal (he tells Larmina he’s impressed that Egyptians could have dug this 4000 years ago).
The political angle isn’t stressed, and there’s a refreshing refusal to trade in ‘funny foreigner’ comedy stereotypes as Hubert is presented as the only true idiot in the story, with various Arab dignitaries looking on in astonishment as he babbles. Hazanavicius has an eye for cool period trappings and smart compositions, recreating almost exactly the look and style of the original OSS 117 films, from the slick animated titles through the underpopulated panoramic backdrops to the magazine layout costumes. There is a healthy dose of low humour (involving chickens or barely-repressed bisexuality) amid the smart stuff and Dujardin brings just enough heart to the simple-minded, dangerously inept hero (who has never heard of Arabic but has bothered to learn hieroglyphics as prep for his Cairo mission) to make him worth putting up with for a whole film. A sequel is in the works.
Like Dujardin’s surfing comedy Brice de Nice, a major hit on its home territory, OSS 117 hasn’t so far been widely exhibited outside France, but is well worth tracking down.