• OSS 117: Five Film Collection (OSS 117 Is Unleashed/Panic in Bangkok/Mission for a Killer/Mission to Tokyo/Double Agent)



    Released by: Kino Studio Classics
    Released on: September 26th, 2017.
    Director: Andre Hunebelle, Michel Boisrond
    Cast: Kerwin Matthews, Frederick Stafford, John Gavin, Curt Jurgens, Lucianna Paluzzi, George Eastman
    Year: 1963/1964/1965/1966/1968
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    The Movies:

    007. 117. James Bond. Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath?

    Before Ian Fleming’s “shaken but not stirred” creation, there was a fascinating secret agent born in the land of Brie and escargot - French born American superspy Hubert. Starting in 1949, author Jean Bruce wrote a series of globetrotting adventures that have continued even past his death thanks to the likes of his children taking up the gauntlet. Kind of like those James Bond novels that started coming out in the 1980s. Right out of the gate, the French lapped these up and they were huge hits. Oh, and if you’re wondering what the OSS stands for, that’s Office Of Strategic Services. The WWII era precursor to what we now know as the CIA.

    It was inevitable that films would be made and so they were, beginning with the 1957 N’EST PAS MORT (OSS 117 IS NOT DEAD). And while that film is not included here, Kino have rather generously provided fans of these highly entertaining outings a lovely box set that contains 5 films from the series in beautiful looking transfers. They are: OSS 117 IS UNLEASHED (1963), OSS 117: PANIC IN BANGKOK (1964), OSS 117: MISSION FOR A KILLER (1965), OSS 117: MISSION TO TOKYO (1966) and finally, the 1968 OSS 117 - DOUBLE AGENT. In an effort to avoid confusion, the films in this review will be referred to by their English titles in this review.

    While the Bond comparisons are inevitable, the OSS films had some pretty striking differences. The pacing, for one thing. A hallmark of these films was their beautiful location shooting and the producers made sure the viewer got an extended eyeful. Brazil and Tokyo. Corsica. Bangkok. The travel channel could run 20 minute stretches of these films. As a practical matter for the viewer, while that means the films can drag, they usually maintain interest by virtue of the fact that the scenery is so damn beautiful and fascinating. This is the pre-gentrified globalist McDonald’s world. To the Western and mainland European eye, these were genuinely exotic locales filled with fascinating locals and strange customs. Of course, being the 60’s and all there isn’t much in the way of cultural sensitivity, but that’s to be expected.

    Bond and Hubert were both outrageous womanizers and effortlessly cool and capable agents with serious espionage and hand-to-hand combat skills but OSS - especially as personified by his first portrayer here, the affable and charming Kerwin Matthews, lacked the resolute grimness of Sean Connery’s often brutal 007. OSS is played by three different lead actors over the course of this box with Matthews taking the first two films, Frederick Stafford (Hitchcock’s TOPAZ) tackling rounds three and four, and Ronald Reagan pal John Gavin closing things out in the 1968 movie. The 1963 film is in gorgeous black and white with the rest in color.

    Of the three lead actors portraying 117, Mathews is the most charming, Stafford the most effective in fight scenes and Gavin a decent mix of the strengths of the first two actors. The films had plots quite convoluted and ridiculous with mind control, evil geniuses plotting worldwide plague epidemics and drugs turning people into robotic assassins. The weakest 117 gets the best villains, a pre-SPY WHO LOVED ME Curd Jürgens and his henchman, Italian horror and exploitation legend big George Eastman. The first film stands out due to its stunning Corsican backdrop and intimate methodology. Mathews (THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) was gay and this was a barely concealed secret in the industry. Perhaps because of this, his character’s outrageous womanizing which borders on criminal assault at times comes off as a nod and a wink to the audience.

    The plot of UNLEASHED, centered around a murdered agent and the world of scuba diving, features amazing underwater photography and the only truly believable plot in this group of films. This is also where we are introduced to a staple of the OSS 117 franchise - a mind boggling amount of utterly gorgeous women. Forget the Bond ladies. The producers of this franchise found many of the great beauties of the world and most of them were far better actresses than their Cubby Broccoli counterparts. Irina Demick here, the breathtaking Mylène Demongeot in MISSION FOR A KILLER and the striking Peir Angeli
    (PANIC IN BANGKOK). It’s almost hilariously sexist how practically every car rental girl, female agent, villain’s assistant/secretary and incidental character looks like they stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine. And all of them find 117 irresistible.

    PANIC IN BANGKOK saw a marked increase in budget due to the success of its predecessor but it suffers from grotesque overpadding. At almost two full hours, this is a film that needed a serious pruning of approximately 30 minutes. The bubonic plague plot line is fairly clever, and Robert Hossein’s master race obsessed eugenics enthusiast Dr. Sinn one of the series bad guy highlights, but the sloth like crawl of the film makes it a bit of a slog.

    Stafford’s debut, MISSION FOR A KILLER, is the second real highlight here after the first film. Following up on the stunning color photography of the last film, this one looks like a million bucks and has a crazy fun plot centered around drug induced assassins. The setting, Brazil and Rio, is superb, and director Andre Hunebelle gets the most out of his location. Then there’s Stafford. Interestingly, until catching him in his two OSS outings, I’ve never had much time for the man. His Hitchcock film, TOPAZ, is one of the master director’s worst and a lot of that is due to Stafford. He is one of the largest pieces of wood ever propped in front of a camera. One critic once quipped that Stafford looked like he perpetually belonged in a glossy magazine print ad with Tippi Hedren set on a beach selling swimsuits. But here, he works well. A very physical actor with a bit of a Jon Hamm from “Mad Men” vibe, Stafford is terrific in his fight scenes and this film has two doozies. One is set in a surgery room and the other in a small room with two enemies and a blowtorch. Both are chaotic and wild looking affairs that were obviously very carefully choreographed. Stafford moves like a panther in both. He’s also laid back enough to pull off the sexist guff this series had in so much abundance without coming off too sleazily. The Tokyo outing, with a convoluted blackmail plot about tiny undetectable missiles being used to destroy American military bases is a step back but features great Tokyo locations and a series highlight bomb in car sequence. This film predated the Japanese Bond outing with Connery and is less concerned with gadgetry. It also has the most Bond influenced opening of any of the films with an extended pre-credit sequence with 117 wielding a machine gun in a wild car chase. Gavin’s entry has more of the flavor of the Italian poliziotteschi films of the upcoming 70’s with a grittier aesthetic visually. But it also has an outlandish mind controlled assassins plot high on camp with German actor Curd Jürgens vamping it up. It is nice to see the return of the excellent Hossein as another memorable bad guy. Overall it probably ranks fourth in quality of the 5 films with BANGKOK at the bottom and MISSION FOR A KILLER at the top.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Kino’s 1080p AVC encoded transfers are quite lovely for all 5 films. Aside from the black and white UNLEASHED framed at 1.66:1, the remaining 4 titles are 2.35:1 affairs. All of the aspect ratios look correct. The first film has great inky black levels and nice sharp image detail. The middle three titles feature eye popping CinemaScope photography. Color tends to run “searing” on occasion but this is almost certainly what these films looked like first run back in the day. I find the look enormously appealing for this type of film and the Kino transfers of these are aces. Gavin’s film has a grittier look and more subdued color palette, but this is also a damn fine transfer. The key issues are all handled well across the board in this set. Strong color reproduction. Solid black levels. Good fine image detail. No DNR or digital tinkering.

    These were French financed films meant primarily for the French market so they were all dubbed into the language of love despite many of the English speaking actors involved. The discs all feature DTS-HD Master Audio French 2.0 Mono tracks that are free from distortion and any noticeable defects. Depth is decent and nothing sounds particularly artificial. These films had pretty cool soundtracks for the most part and that aspect sounds fine here.

    Extras? Nothing but three of the film’s trailers.

    The Final Word:

    Fans of the Eurospy genre should be thrilled with this set. Others, especially Bond fans with a willingness to get a bit more exotic, are encouraged to check this terrific set out. Kino have done a superlative job with the transfers and the films are quite fun. Just adjust yourself to the more leisurely pacing and enjoy the gorgeous international scenery. Highly recommended!

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!