While it doesn’t possess the lasting global celebrity of the James Bond series, either in film or print, Jean Bruce’s OSS 117 series beat Bond to both screen and print and became one of the most popular and enduring pulp series in France. Bruce’s first OSS 117 novel was published in 1949 (Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953), and the first cinematic adaptation came in 1957, five years before Sean Connery stormed the screen in Dr. No, the first of the Bond movies (though 007 did make an ignominious first appearance on American television in 1954, when Casino Royale was adapted for the series Climax! and James Bond was renamed Jimmy Bond). Jean Bruce wrote 91 OSS 117 novels between 1949 and 1963, when he died in the only way fitting for the creator of one of the first great spy series: in an auto accident while driving a Jaguar. He was only 42 when he was killed in the crash.
After his death, his wife Josette picked up the pen and wrote 143 more OSS 117 books, after which the son and daughter, François and Martine Bruce, got in on the family OSS 117 business and produced another 24 books. Unfortunately, none of the books is currently available in English translation. Nor is the first OSS 117 film, OSS 117 n’est pas mort (OSS 117 Is Not Dead), directed by Jean Sacha and starring Ivan Desny as Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, alias OSS 117. However, a few years after that, in 1963, André Hunebelle stepped in to direct a series of six OSS 117 films beginning, somewhat unspectacularly, with 1963’s OSS 117 is Unleashed. It was a role Hunebelle’s long-time collaborator Jean Marais, had assumed would go to him. Instead, France’s most popular spy was played by American actor Kerwin Matthews.
André Hunebelle was born the same year Georges Melies made his first film, and he made a name for himself in the world of design, working primarily in glass and leaning on his previous schooling as a mathematician to devise his Art Deco designs. How exactly a glassmaker of some considerable acclaim ended up directing films has to do primarily with World War II and the dearth of opportunities for a man of Hunebelle’s training. With employment prospects looking grim during those dark years, Hunebelle sought work from his friend Marcel Achard, who procured for him a position as an art director Production Artistique Cinématographique. Hunebelle later moved into production and then, in 1948, he directed his first film. He went on to direct a series of noirish crime thrillers (Mission à Tanger, Beware of Blondes, and Massacre en dentelles) starring Raymond Rouleau and, later, a series of swashbuckling adventures starring Jean Marais. It was Marais who first pitched the idea, in the wake of Dr. No’s success, that Hunebelle should look into adapting France’s own popular pulp espionage hero, with Marais in the title role. Or so Marais assumed.
As it turns out, Hunebelle ran with the idea — straight to American actor Kerwin Matthews, who was enjoying a string of fanciful hits at the time, including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Jack the Giant Killer (1962), and Hammer Films’ “pirate movie without a pirate ship,” Pirates of Blood River (1962). It was increasingly common for European productions at the time to leverage American actors in order to boast the international appeal of a film. The first wave of Americans in Europe were A list megastars that came to Italy as part of the phenomenon that became known as “Hollywood on the Tiber,” a trend that produced films such as Roman Holiday, The Barefoot Contessa, and the mammoth, studio-destroying debacle Cleopatra. The second wave of Americans seeking fame and fortune overseas included fewer names like Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant and was made up primarily of dependable B actors, successful television actors looking for big screen success, and more than a few bodybuilders who were ready to slip into the tunic of whatever mythological character was popular that week. European filmmakers were happy to pop them into a film, dub them in whatever language they needed (most European pictures at the time, especially genre fare, didn’t shoot with synchronized sound and used cast members from all over Europe, all speaking whatever language with which they were most comfortable), and depend on their American name recognition to secure a distribution deal. Kerwin Matthews might not have been Richard Burton, but more Americans knew him than knew Jean Marais.
While Marais need not have fretted — around the same time as the OSS 117 films started getting made, Marais assumed the dual lead of the journalist Fandor and the super villain Fantomas in Hunebelle’s colorful, action-packed trilogy of comic book movies — viewers are a little worse for his lack of participation, because as a suave super spy, Kerwin Matthews simply doe snot have the stuff. He has the hair for the role of Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, but he lacks the cool. There’s no swagger, no menace. The clothes don’t look as cool on him as they do on Sean Connery (or Jean Marais). He is altogether underwhelming in a genre which, while still in its formative years in 1963, demands a lot more than Kerwin Matthews. As a result, OSS 117 is Unleashed doesn’t feel very unleashed., but I guess you can’t lure them in with OSS 117 is Sufficient.
The plot revolves a ring of spies attempting to set up a system by which they can detect the movement of NATO nuclear subs, thus rendering the subs more or less useless, or at least making them easier targets. When an American agent investigating the matter is murdered, OSS 117 is dispatched to find out what’s going on and put a stop to it. What follows is a lot of Kerwin Matthews visiting hotel rooms and waiting around to meet someone. The plot is serviceable enough, but progress through it is poorly-paced. Any sense of dramatic tension is usually undercut by bizarre musical choices. Composer Michel Magne turns in a groovy little cocktail lounge score, but it’s peppy beat and xylophones are ill-suited for action scenes. But that’s OK, since more times than not, the film’s action scenes are executed without musical accompaniment, while the music is saved for things like Kerwin Matthews opening a door or waiting to make a telephone call. I suppose it’s a bit like how Dr. No leans heavily on the raucous James Bond theme for scenes in which 007 is, say, walking in leisurely fashion across a lobby or waiting in line at the airport. But at least that movie had other music for other scenes. I don’t know why Hunebelle decided not only was he going to have an extended SCUBA diving chase and fight scene — a precarious decision even under the best of circumstances — but that he was also going to do do the entire thing without any music at all to jazz things up. No, just a couple slow-moving people paddling around to really ridiculous “bubbles” sound effects.
Which means the overall mediocre nature of this film isn’t entirely attributable to Kerwin Matthews. A more charismatic lead might have convinced one to ignore the film’s sundry weaknesses, but that wouldn’t change the fact that those weaknesses still exist. Plus, if Matthews seems a bit stiff and out of it, that’s not entirely his fault. He was Americna actor thrust into a French production, and as every actor who came from hollywood to work in Europe learned, the two industries don’t operate in quite the same fashion. Add to that the language barrier, and it’s perhaps forgivable that Matthews appears ill at ease for the task of bringing to life France’s most iconic epsionage agent. Even his suits don’t seem to fit quite right.
His supporting cast is better equipped for the task at hand. As the chief villain Mayan, Roger Dutoit doesn’t have enough screen time to make much of an impression, but Daniel Emilfork’s gawky yet effective henchman Sacha is quite good. So too is Nadia Sanders, a Florida girl who handles the cross-cultural filmmaking better than Matthews. That’s not a surprise; she had less acting experience (her first credit came in 1959, where as Matthews had been working since 1954), but of those credits, many were in European films, including Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Italian genre fare such as The Giants of Thessaly, The Vengeance of Ursus, and a slew of comedies alongside Italian funny man Toto. Matthews had one Italian sword and sandal film under his belt (The Warrior Empress), but other than that his overseas work had been primarily for England’s Hammer Films. So perhaps Sanders just knew the game a little better. Or maybe she was just a better performer. Maybe both. As the femme fatale caught between two sides, she brings an added depth to a predictable role.
Stylistically, OSS 117 is Unleashed occupies a space between the emerging post-Bond Eurospy genre and French noir that emerged in the 1950s in the form of films such as Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954), Rififi (1955), Bob le Flambeur (1956), and Classe Tous Risques (1960). Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly great example of either genre. It lacks the camp of the former and the cool of the latter. As one’s mind starts to wander during some of the less engaging scenes, one can’t help but perhaps imagine what this film would have been like not just with an actor like Marais, but also someone like young Jean-Paul Belmondo or Lino Ventura. And when one finds oneself playing the game of “what if” during a movie, that’s rarely a good sign. However, I wouldn’t want to imply that OSS 117 is Unleashed is aggressively bad. It’s not. It’s just aggressively average, and for a genre — be it noir or espionage — that depends heavily on style and attitude, OSS 117 is Unleashed is a modest, comfortable sweater of a film.