Pas de roses pour OSS 117 (Jean-Pierre Desagnat, André Hunebelle 1968)
It’s strictly genre entertainment for the sixth adventure of Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, alias OSS 117. The series had been a great hit in France and had been sold worldwide. Much of the success was attributed to wise old spymaster André Hunebelle who had directed stories of espionage since1948 with “Mission à Tanger.” He had made most of the OSS 117 series and the equally lucrative Fantômas trilogy with Jean Marais. So the distributors officially signed the film to Hunebelle, although in fact it was directed by young filmmaker Jean-Pierre Desagnat.
Hunebelle’s touch is missing from “Pas de roses pour OSS117” but it has plenty to recommend it. It is essentially a fun, brainless and colourful romp with lots of action. Other OSS regulars were not available which also contributed to the change in the style of the series. Michel Magne who had scored the series thus far was replaced by Piero Piccioni. John Gavin took over the lead from Frederick Stafford who was busy shooting two other spy films (“L Homme qui valait des milliards” and “Estouffade à la Caraïbe”.) John Gavin’s handsome visage is too smooth (lacking the character of Stafford) and as such is less memorable. That said he has a quiet quality that is quite endearing; a characteristic one would not normally associate with OSS117. Gavin does seem like a nice bloke.
To build another connection with the series Robert Hossein is cast once again as psychotic Dr. Saadi reprising his role Dr. Sinn from “Banco à Bangkok pour OSS 117”. Here he keeps Gavin on the move by injecting him with a lethal virus and only administering the antidote once Gavin has done as he’s told.
The plot of Pas de roses is unmemorable. Gavin has to infiltrate an assassination organisation run by Curd Jürgens and Hossein. He becomes involved with Aïcha Melik (Eurospy queen Margaret Lee), falls victim of the evil doctor and is soon carrying out assassinations. What is memorable are the big deceptions OSS117 stages. OSS117 pretends to be a bank robber to nab a gang of villains at the start of the film. The bank job and his daring escape are all subterfuge. He uses fake bullets throughout the film tricking his adversaries. There is a great shoot out on the beach where Gavin pretends to shoot his fellow agents to win Aïcha’s confidence.
Piccioni’s madcap score is something of a Hammond inferno that seems incongruous at times but in fact helps move the film along. Rosalba Neri and Luciana Paluzzi bring further Eurospy calibre to the piece. It’s a fun ride overall even if it is a little incoherent; a useful addition to the OSS 117 cycle. 7/10
Passport to Treason (Robert S. Baker, 1956)
An interesting assembly of talent give this forgotten British film noir a certain appeal. Canadian actor Rod Cameron was drafted in at the end of his acting career to play hard boiled detective Mike O'Kelly. Cameron had been known for his westerns but had also played secret agents in Republic serial cliffhangers like G-men vs. the Black Dragon (1943) and Secret Service in Darkest Africa (1943).
The film noir influence on “Passpot to Treason” is obvious. Cameron wears the de rigeur raincoat and trilby as he traverses the nightclubs, docklands and offices of the city at night. Much of the film is shot in the fog with streetlamps making sweeping half lit pools of light. Cinematographer Monty Berman films the fog laden river city possibly to conform to the Hollywood cliché thereby boosting the film’s appeal in the US.
Cameraman Berman and director Robert S. Baker were also the producers of “Passport to Treason”. They later produced ITC spy TV series such as “Department S”, “The Baron”, "The Saint" and "The Persuaders!" (Baker retained ownership of "The Saint" throughout his career. He was executive producer of the fateful 1997 film version.)
“Passpot to Treason” takes a while to get going. The first half an hour is sluggish and aside from the visuals is rather dull. It is only when the real star of the film takes centre stage that the film moves up a gear. Another Canadian, Lois Maxwell, had not long graduated from Rada with Roger Moore when she took the role of secret agent Diane Boyd. It is great to see her in an early espionage role that could easily be a young Miss Money Penny. She has terrific poise and glamour (even in a heavy overcoat) and gives the film star quality. In “Passport to Treason” it is easy to see why she was cast as Money Penny and went on to play the role in the first 14 Bond movies.
The second half of “Passport to Treason” is much better. Cameron helps MI5 track down a spy ring, but in doing so is kidnapped and pumped full of sodium pentathol. The drama that follows is pacey and rewarding. 6/10
Password: Uccidete agente Gordon aka Password Kill Agent Gordon (Sergio Grieco, 1967)
Between 1965 and 1969, director Sergio Grecio made eight spy films one after the other under the pseudonym of Terence Hathaway. His work exemplifies the assembly line approach of Italian co-production cinema. The films were all made at high speed to a genre formula. But the restriction of time, money and format engendered a loose, freewheeling style that is at the heart of the best Eurospy. Password: Uccidete agente Gordon is a fast moving spionaggio that has such a convoluted plot it’s hard to know what is happening:
A lighter containing micro - information about gunrunning between the Vietcong and leading European countries is stolen from US agent Martin Bailey. His murder and the theft of the lighter are ordered by international criminal Albert Kowalski who plans to sell the secrets to the Vietnamese for $1 million. Kowalski’s network is run by Rudi Schwarz. The CIA knows Bailey was tailing Schwarz so agent Doug Gordon starts his investigation with him.
This plot outline includes much information that is only revealed as the film progresses. It may be that by creating a feeling of uncertainty and confusion, the convoluted plot adds to the sense of espionage and intrigue. For a first time viewer, the plot is virtually impossible to follow. But it does not matter.
It is actually the Eurospy motifs that are the real story of Password: Uccidete agente Gordon:
The Trans-World motif: Gordon’s arrival at Aeroport de Paris in the rain at the start of the film; his taxi ride through Paris with the opening titles (a series of point of view shots of Paris); panoramic shots from the cockpit approaching Tripoli and Madrid; numerous shots of exotic street locations highlighting foreign dress and climate.
Codenames and Gadgets: X-19 sprays Gordon with perfume from a gun; Agent 2-2 uses a bouquet of flowers to gas him; a waiter attacks him with a soda siphon full of sulphuric acid.1A (Kowalski) has an electrified bed, a harpoon umbrella and a gas chamber. Agent MM1 has Laser firing Lipstick. The gunrunning secrets are imprinted on a metal plate within the lighter.
Exotica and Nightclubs: Exotic dancing by Amelia Sanchez (Rosalba Neri) and Karin (Helga Liné). Title song sung at the Salon Jean casino.
Agent Browne as Superman: Gordon is always the victor in the tough fight sequences at the casino, on the dockside, Kowalski’s headquarters and on board ship – here he takes on about 12 sailors and wins.
Dress: Helga Liné’s spy girl chic: black tight trousers, black polar neck and leopard print waistcoat. Roger Browne’s sharp wardrobe supplied by Rosato.
Music: Piero Umiliani’s bubbling jazz and exotic score. The big opening torch song spy number “Play to Win” sung by Carol Donell is reworked throughout with a range classic spy music motifs: twanging guitars, exotic percussion, mysterious yet sprightly underscore.
The parts that make up Password: Uccidete agente Gordon are what defines it as classic cult Eurospy. It is not the story of gun running secrets but of Roger Browne’s prowess, a jet-set world, groovy music, Helga Liné’s leopard print waistcoat and perhaps most important of all, laser lipstick. 8/10
Prisoner, The (Peter Glenville 1955)
Alec Guinness is the Catholic cardinal of a middle-European country arrested for treason against the state. Jack Hawkins is the interrogator determined to get a confession. The cardinal is a public hero with strong anti-totalitarian convictions. Having resisted the Nazis he is now resisting the state control that has taken their place. Despite displaying great courtesy when he is with him, the interrogator uses sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, and continuous bright light in his cell to break the cardinal.
The film’s origins as a play by Bridget Boland are evident in “The Prisoner”. It is a two hander that takes place almost entirely within the jail. The film showcases the enormous talent of Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins with back up from Wilfrid Lawson and Kenneth Griffith. It is directed by famous stage director Peter Glenville. “The Prisoner” is essentially a filmed play.
This heavy morality play is most earnest and wears its high quality on its sleeve. As such it is heavy handed, self-conscious and rather pleased with itself: great actors tackling lofty contemporary themes. There is no denying the talents of Hawkins and Guinness but it is preferable to see them actually being other people rather than showcasing their abilities. They did not need to. Guinness in “The Quller Memorandum” or Hawkins in “The Two Headed Spy” are far more compelling. 5/10
Puppet on a Chain (Geoffrey Reeve 1971)
“Puppet on a Chain” comes from the golden period of Alistair Maclean espionage thrillers such as “When Eight Bells Toll” and “Where Eagles Dare”. It is a feisty thriller with a fantastic speedboat chase, great location and production values and a funked up Piero Piccioni score that gives it a high rating.
Sven-Bertil Taube is laconic, suitably blonde and Nordic as the Interpol drugs enforcement agent Paul Sherman on the trail of perennial baddy Vladek Sheybal. Set amidst the waterways of Amsterdam, it is the story of a heroin smuggling ring that Sherman is determined to smash.
“Puppet on a Chain” is not a masterpiece. Like Geoffrey Reeve’s other Maclean adaptation “Caravan to Vaccarres” it pales in comparison with the original novel. Although Maclean contributed to the screenplay, some of the more startling scenes in the book are played down or excised from the film altogether. For example in the novel the “hay dance” which also features in the film is where Sherman’s female agent Maggie (Barbara Parkin) is killed. It is a bizarre “Wicker Man”- like ritual killing performed by native Dutch women in national dress. It is missing from the film. The torture by clock chimes of Sherman by Meegeren (Vladek Sheybal) and the assassination at the Amsterdam Schiphol airport are not as effective as in the original book. Only the weird Dutch puppet imagery of the title retains its dynamism in the film. On the other hand, there was no speed boat chase in the book and here it is the film’s raison d’etre.
While the Amsterdam setting is perfect for an extended speedboat chase and impressive northern European backdrop, the depiction of the city’s infamous drug milieu is clichéd and old fashioned. Heroin addict Trudi (Penny Casdagli) becomes a unbelievable retard due to her addiction.
With a little more work “Puppet on a Chain” could have been a bone fide classic. Despite these minor failings, the film still entertains and has plenty of appeal for the espionage aficionado. 7/10
Pursuers, The (Godfrey Grayson, 1961)
A tight little British “B picture” running a scant 63 minutes and all the better for it. It was made by the Danziger Productions studio that was derided for their high output and cheap filmmaking. The television - like constrants put on the production of these program fillers sometimes helped. Some Danziger films have a gritty docu feel that is created by shooting no name actors in immediate London locations quickly.
Such qualities resonate in “The Pursuers”. The warehouses, airport car parks and suburbia of London are documented with a seamy world of nightclubs, gangsters and prostitution thrown into the mix. The film tells of a secret agent of a French war crimes revenge organisation sent to London to kill a Nazi camp commander. (Mossad’s kidnapping of Eichmann in South America the previous year was clearly an influence on writer Brian Clemens.)
Cyril Shaps as the mild mannered Karl Luther is the star of the film. We are not sure if he is an innocent man as he is hunted by agent David Nelson (Francis Matthews.)
“The Pursuers” is a very neat piece of early writing by Clemens who of course went onto script nearly every television spy show in Britain for the next twenty years. Recommended. 7/10