January 22, 2010

OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES (2006) - uncanny recreation of sixties' spy movies

(2006, France)

A retro spy spoof with modern targets
At first glance this looked like a revival release of a lost French spy film that I'd never heard of. It turned out to be a recent spoof that looks back affectionately at the 1960's spy scene. Sort of like Austin Powers, but with some humour lost in translation, so don't expect the same amount of comedy, broad or otherwise. It's still laugh-out-loud funny in places, but I'd liked to have understood more of the verbal gags and the ironic jokes about France's history.
The character of OSS 117 is actually from a long series of spy novels that started before Ian Fleming typed the number 007. They've been adapted (seriously) as movies in the fifties and sixties, with actors like John Gavin (Psycho) and Kerwin Matthews (Seventh Voyage of Sinbad) in the title role.

What makes this new incarnation definitely worth seeing are the standout performance of Jean Dujardin, and the meticulous recreation of the look of 1960s celluloid. While Austin Powers gave lip service to sixties pop culture, it mostly joked about the fashions and the technology, but never looking at all authentic. OSS 117 at times made me think I was looking at a lost Sean Connery Bond film.
Though rubber-faced, Dujardin even resembles Connery at times, helped by wearing copies of many of his early Bond outfits. I was also reminded that James Bond's 'eyebrow acting' began long before Roger Moore took the role. Dujardin is astonishingly good at portraying the swaggering, self-centred bighead who thinks he's irresistible to women. Connery's clothes, hair, and also 'catlike' movement are meticulously copied and spoofed.

The spy's occasional detective work is
offset by his obsession with his appearance and... his chickens. My favourite moment is when his glamorous accomplice has to drag him off the dancefloor to do some work because he's enjoying himself too much.

The story is crucially set in Cairo in 1955. Agent OSS 117 has been sent to solve the murder of his best friend (whose very name sends him into flashbacks to happier times), as well as sort out the problems of the Middle East (just as the 'Suez crisis' threatened to ignite another World War). He easily gets sidetracked by everything unimportant, even taking more time over his cover, the chicken-breeding business, than the job in hand. In the style of incompetent detectives, he still accidentally impresses his superiors.

His complete ignorance of life outside France makes him completely unsuitable as an international secret agent. His mission needs him to be knowledgeable about local customs and blend in with the mostly Muslim population. This of course highlights how little has changed with attitudes and indeed foreign policies.

The absolutely authentic look of course includes fashion and music, but with an obsessive amount of paddleball, depicted as a fad of the same popularity as skateboarding!

I'd liked to have seen more action, more fighting and maybe a car chase - all par for the genre. But the pleasant surprise that I didn't expect was a skeleton graveyard - a beautifully creepy scene that seemed to reference the 1968 Japanese horror The Living Skeleton! Am I reaching?

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, was popular enough to spawn a sequel, OSS 117: Lost In Rio (2009), with yet another in the works. The bare-bones UK DVD (from ICA) is nicely presented in 2.35 anamorphic widescreen but the English subtitles are rather large for the job. But they're the only translation - there's no dubbed Enlgish audio track.

English release trailer on YouTube...

This next trailer, for a 1964 OSS 117 movie (starring Kerwin Matthews), appears to be a direct influence on Jean-Paul Belmondo's superb spy spoof Le Magnifique (1973).


  1. Yeah, it's almost scary how realistic it looks! I love it, great comedy. I hope the sequel will arrive soon on an english subbed dvd.

  2. I'm glad to see this movie in an english blog. I saw it at a theater and it was one big laugh. actually, there are a lot of revivals in french movies these days, but ironically only a parody dared to reproduce the look and feel of the original movies. I am french, so feel free to ask me about obscure jokes!

  3. Ah, FrenchRogue, thank you.

    Was wondering if there were any direct Jean-Paul Belmondo references in the film, because that's who the lead most reminded me of, besides Connery.

    Also, what was joke about the President, who the hero kept on handing out photos of?

  4. I didn't notice any reference to belmondo (although I can direct you to a 1964 movie 'l'homme de rio' which is similar is some ways). besides sean connery, the main references are the actual actors who played OSS 117 in the sixties (although they were also impersonating connery): Kerwin Mathews and Frederick Stafford. in the original movies, they played as the french superspy gentleman, who almost never leave their kinda bland suit, always buttoned to the top.

    the funny side about the rene coty joke (the french president at the time of the movie, who the hero reveres) is the tone of the hero: he adresses the local man as if he was a complete moron, a common trait of french people abroad at this time (and even today, I admit). later, he asks the same local about his son, but he answers 'I would, but he's currently studying in Harvard'!

    at this time, a huge part of northern Africa was still french colonies, that's why the hero considers Rene Coty as an important figure for locals. his actions in the movie actually trigger the the Algerian War of Independence!

    another funny fact: after learning his partner's name (an attractive woman), he answers 'what a complicated name! I'm Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath' which is an even more complicated name, but it's the ACTUAL name in the original movies and books!

  5. I recently tracked down L'homme de Rio, because it was the same director as Le Magnifique.

    Are the old OSS 117 movies fun?

  6. the old OSS 117 movies are not very good enough. if you like French movies, try "ne nous fachons pas" by Greorges Lautner, "l'homme de rio" of course, and somme good comedies with Gerard Depardieu during the 80's (la chèvre, les fugitifs, les compères) and the most popular french film "the diner game" (le diner de cons) avec Thierry Lhermitte and Jacques Villeret.
    have a nice day

  7. Thank you Willis, always looking for new recommendations. I loved L'HOMME DE RIO and have been watching more Belmondo movies.