The Lens: Secret-agent homme | St. Louis Public Radio

The Lens: Secret-agent homme

Jun 6, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 6, 2008 - Sometime around 1964 or '65, after the success of the first James Bond films, movie screens - especially drive-ins and neighborhood houses - were besieged by the Attack of the Pseudo-Bonds. From America's Robert Vaughn, (whose TV series "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." was recycled for theatrical release) to Sean Connery's brother, any leading man who could part his hair, hold a gun and look presentable in a dinner jacket had a shot at temporary stardom.

Producers in America and England quickly skimmed the paperback racks to find such pretenders to the espionage throne as Matt Helm, Derek Flint and Harry Palmer, but in France the favorite son in the Bond-alike stakes was a secret agent with the name Hubert Bonisseur de Bath, better known as OSS 117, hero of more than 200 novels and seven films.

Never heard of him? That's not really a detriment to enjoying "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies," a new film that lovingly re-creates the culture-blind exoticism and genteel macho of the Bond pretenders and the '60s knockoffs. It's not a broad spoof like the Austin Powers films or a too-hip-for-the-room pastiche like the odious "Grindhouse"; its comic spirit falls somewhere in between, something like "Police Squad" or Blake Edwards' 1963 "The Pink Panther," a genre film that plays more or less by the rules, as if unaware of the blissful goofiness of its bumbling hero.

Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin star in "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies."
Credit Music Box Films

Reviving a character last seen on screen in 1970, the new film, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, takes place in 1955, when tensions in Egypt challenged Western notions of the Middle East as a primitive yet exotic region. When a French agent is murdered, his friend and successor Hubert/117, played with sublime self-satisfaction by Jean Dujardin (think of a cross between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Sacha Baron Cohen), steps in to find the killer, put the lid on civil unrest and uncover a handful of local conspiracies.

Remarkably, Dujardin lets us see the hero's wrong-headedness without himself becoming the subject of ridicule. The core of the film's humor is 117's assumption of his natural superiority in everything from diplomacy to love, and the joke, of course, is that the secret-agent hero is the last remnant of arrogant Cold War values that have lost their appeal not only to modern audiences but to history. He's a dinosaur, as much a part of the past as the slightly faded colors, rear-projection photography and ethnic stereotypes that come with his genre.

Don't get me wrong. "OSS 117" is more about the cultural resonances of the secret-agent genre than it is about the ideological positions of post-colonial France. And it's also a very funny and at times just plain silly film (one of the central set-pieces, after all, involves characters throwing chickens at each other).

I suppose there may be younger audiences - anyone who thinks of Timothy Dalton as the "old" James Bond - that don't quite get it, but if you've ever wasted two hours of your life on the likes of "Where the Spies Are,"  "Kiss the Girls and Make them Die"  or "The Second Best Secret Agent in the World,"  "OSS 117" is very sweet revenge.

"OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies," which premiered locally at the 2007 St. Louis International Film Festival, opens June 6 at the Tivoli Theatre .

Robert Hunt has been writing about film and the arts -- mostly film for more than 25 years. He is a frequent contributor to The Lens , a blog about all things cinematic.