Strangely enough, secret agent 117 was born four years before secret agent 007.
It was 1949 and French writer Jean Bruce published Tu parles d’une ingénue, the first of the eighty-eight novels he’d write featuring agent OSS 117 before dying an untimely death in 1963.
At this point, his wife Josette took over, penning another 143 volumes in the series between 1963 and 1985. At that point, Josette’s daughter Martine took over, and wrote the remaining 23 books in the series, between 1987 and 1992.
Through a total of 254 novels, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, an American of French descent, born in Louisiana, goes from working for the Office of Strategic Services to the CIA and finally the NSC, basically doing a hardboiled version of the James Bond thing but, as noted above, being actually the one that started first.
The OSS 117 novels are one of the European counterparts of the old pulps and of the American paperback originals – fast and furious caper stories, churned out at high speed to cater for a readership in search of thrills.
In Italy, they were the backbone of Segretissimo a book/magazine published by Mondadori that still survives today despite dwindling sales. Together with the science fiction of Urania and the mysteries of Il Giallo Mondadori, Segretissimo was a monstruous seller between the ‘60s and the ‘80s, and catered fro a generation that used to read on the bus, on the train, everywhere.
OSS 117 was also a series of movies, in the so called Eurospy genre. These were frequently on the TV when I was a kid, as filler for mid-week afternoons or hot summer nights – usually very poor copies, full of scratches and with missing bits and jumps, the audio grating.
But last night I spent two hours with the latest incarnation of OSS 117 – the 2006 movie OSS 117: Cairo, nest of spies, a lavishly produced send-up of the whole franchise, directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring French superstar Jean Dujardin.
The movie has been called by some “the French Austin Powers”, but the comparison is off. Austin Powers creates a whole new character, a distillation of different characters (Bond, Jason King etc.), and creates a farcical set-up; OSS 117 takes a character and simply plays it straight, bringing to the fore all the ridiculous elements of the original.
Because with a certain kind of fiction, the line between epic and silly is very thin, and a character with a long life like OSS 117 can’t escape the changing attitudes and worldviews.
Set in 1955, Cairo, nest of Spies sees French ace agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath on the trail of whoever killed his best friend and stole a Soviet cargo ship loaded with weapons.
The main drawback: Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath is an egotist fool, a boorish, bigoted individual that seems unable to move through a foreign country without attracting undue attention, offending his allies and irritating his enemies.
The “qualities” of the original character – his stolid loyalty to his country, his cavalier treatment of other cultures, his callousness – are simply turned up to eleven. The end result is hilarious.
If really young viewers where shocked and offended by old Bond movies, then Caioro, nest of Spies ups the ante by being willingly shocking – the main character breaks all the rules of political correctness, and does so in the funniest way possible.
And the movie plays as a wonderful counterfeit old Eurospy movie – from the Soul Bass-like titles to the day-for-night scenes and the back-projection effects, this is really like watching a movie shot in the ‘50s.
Featuring a few incredible set pieces (the chicken coop battle, the mambo, the traditional music, the Nazi base in the pyramid) and a deadpan delivery from all the excellent stars, the movie lampoons mercilessly a genre that never took itself too seriously, but that can count on some pretty hardcore, serious fans.
Well worth a look.