OSS 117 Takes A Vacation/OSS 117 Prend Des Vacances/ Hot Holidays for OSS-117 (1970)

OSS 117 Takes A Vacation (1970)‘What would you say to Tucurucutuba?’

Agent OSS 117 is sent on holiday by his superiors but finds himself confronted by assassins at every turn. After evading a number of murder attempts, he discovers that the killers have been hired by a sinister organisation who plan to destroy Cuba with aeroplanes full of insects…

The last in the five-film 1960s series about superspy Hubert de Bounnasour le Bath finds handsome Italian actor Luc Merenda as this week’s ‘Bond On A (vanishing) Budget. Rather than just the usual cocktail of guns, girls and gadgets Merenda finds himself mixing it with far more dangerous foes; a threadbare plot that still manages to achieve almost complete incoherence and the stylistic choices of first-time director Pierre Kalfon. André Hunebelle, the creative force behind the series (as producer and usually director) is notable by his complete absence from the project.

The film joins Merenda already on his hols, visiting his aunt (Edinge Feuillère) at her chateau in the rural French countryside. Almost immediately, a double turns up and tries to kill him. From there it’s off to Sao Paulo where there’s another attempt orchestrated by the sinister Santovesti (Sergio I Lingst). And then another. And another. Until we finally get a few exploding prefabs in a forest at the climax. By then, Merenda’s already hooked up (and abandoned) various lovelies, including Elsa Martinelli, Rossina Ghessa and Norma Bengell and participated in lots of poorly-choreographed fight scenes in near darkness.

OSS 117 Takes A Vacation (1970)Further discussion of the film isn’t possible without some serious consideration of director Kalfon’s unusual approach. The most jarring element of this is his determination to introduce forthcoming characters by inserting split-second headshots when they are referenced in an earlier dialogue scene involving our hero.

This strange practice extends to buildings and locations as well! A quick run-down of the business interests owned by dodgy millionaire Balestri (Jess Moragne) results in a blur of stock footage images so fast they should carry a warning to photo-sensitive epileptics. It’s a technique that could work if it was sparingly employed, but it becomes increasingly present throughout the film and quickly wears out its welcome.

We also get several conversations spoken over library stock footage; including aerial shots of beaches, city streets, war ships at sea, spiders and insects, and close ups of cast members that look suspiciously like photography or make up tests. Rather bafflingly, there’s also a text crawl up a blank blue screen about halfway through for no real reason at all! Of course, this breaks one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking; ’show, don’t tell’ and, rather brilliantly tells us precious little we need to know anyway! Although, to be fair, this device could have been employed more often to explain what’s supposed to be going on!

OSS 117 Takes A Vacation (1970)

‘Hands up or the hairpiece gets it!’

Defenders of the film have apparently likened it to the French ‘New Wave’ cinema of the time, but I think the explanation is likely to be far more mundane. This looks very much like a production that simply ran out of money and was never properly finished, the end result being cobbled together from what they’d managed to shoot.

In those circumstances, some of what we see becomes only too understandable. Characters assume a momentary importance before disappearing from the narrative completely, some fight scenes look badly in need of a reshoot and the plot (such as it is) only arrives in one exposition dump near the end with no foreshadowing. Mention has been made that it’s supposed to be a spoof, and there are a few moments where that seems likely, but there’s no real sense of a definite comic approach. Obviously, that was successfully delivered in the far more recent iteration of the character, when he was played by Jean Dujardin in the late 2000s.

Merenda brings an impressive physique to the role, but has little of the charisma of predecessors Kenivin Mathews, Frederick Stafford and John Gavin. The acting plaudits mostly belong to veteran theatrical star Feuillère and Geneviève Grad, who gives a playful performance as Morgane’s bored mistress. Bengell also starred as one of the doomed spaceship crew in Mario Bava’s ‘Planet of the Vampires’ (1965).

Kalfon went onto make a handful of other films, but they don’t appear to have been released outside France, and this one took many years to reach foreign shores, only appearing on television.

An ignominious end to a Eurospy series that was never high on creativity, but was always pretty slick and professionally presented. The exact opposite of the qualities we are offered here.

OSS 117 Murder For Sale/Pas De Roses Pour OSS 117 (1968)

OSS 117 Murder For Sale (1968)‘What a shame. Mickey Mouse will never eat his cheese.’

Important political figures are being assassinated and the secret service in Washington believes that it’s the work of an organisation for hire. Their top agent undergoes surgery, so that he can take the place of the world’s most wanted killer in the hope that he will be recruited to their ranks…

André Hunebelle was the French filmmaker behind the 1960’s revival of the secret agent created by novelist Jean Bruce. There were half a dozen films in total and he directed most of them, although this time with the help of Renzo Cerrato and Jean-Pierre Desagnot. This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is American actor John Gavin, taking over from Frederick Stafford who we last saw wrapping up an operation in Tokyo. Gavin also tangles with the usual formula of guns, girls and gadgets, but in varying proportions.

The film opens with one of its few action set pieces; a gunfight in the street with Gavin in his role as the escaping ‘Killer Chandler’; shooting a few cops before making his getaway. It’s all staged, of course; getting him valuable column inches in the global press and piquing the interest of the sinister Major (Curt Jurgens) who’s behind this new incarnation of Murder Incorporated. Gavin is duly kidnapped and assigned the job of rubbing out a middle-east peace envoy who has brokered an unpopular truce between two warring desert tribes. To ensure Gavin carries out the task, he is injected with a poison that will kill him if he doesn’t receive two doses of the antidote to be administered on subsequent days by oily doctor Robert Hossein.

OSS 117 Murder For Sale (1968)

OSS 117 had a more personal examination in mind…

This is a decent enough set up and there are moments of creativity, but the finished product also betrays all the usual qualities of the other films in this series, both good and bad. Firstly, though, it’s well crafted. There’s a budget here and it shows; with a selection of fine locations, a solid cast and good production values.

The fight choreography is imaginative at times, with an early scene of a naked Gavin using various items to both cover his embarrassment and confound his enemies being a particularly clever and humorous highlight. There’s far more serious combat later on when he goes up against George Eastman in a the cramped doctor’s office and later on a roof of crumbling tiles. These are both well conceived and executed.

Unfortunately, that’s really as good as it gets. The only significant gadget is a large, metal ball that hangs from a helicopter and pumps knockout gas into the air. There are no big stunts, action scenes or gun battles. The film does score highly in another of the recognised departments of this type of movie, though: girls. But there’s a catch. When you assemble a top-flight trio of Euro-beauties like Rosalba Neri, Luciana Paluzzi and Margaret Lee, be sure to give them plenty of screen time and lots to do! Don’t waste Neri as a Spanish dancer who appears in one ‘morning after’ scene with Gavin and give her just a couple of lines. Don’t have Paluzzi appear in only about ten minutes of the film as a rather ‘hands on’ member of the villain’s medical establishment and then make her disappear without explanation. Lee does get much more of a look-in as the wide-eyed, thrill-seeking heroine and tries hard to give the role some weight; but it’s an underwritten character at best. Eurospy regular Seyna Seyn also has a minor role.

OSS 117 Murder For Sale (1968)

‘You can have the sports section when I’ve finished with it…’

Elsewhere there’s more evidence of a lack of due care and attention. Jurgens, who famously went up against genuine 007 Roger Moore in ‘The Spy Who  Loved Me’ (1977), might have a real cool old mansion as his HQ instead of a giant submarine, but where are all his minions?

Sure, there’s Eastman as his right-hand man and Paluzzi, who wrestled so memorably with Sean Connery in ‘Thunderball’ (1965), but there’s no sense of a large-scale operation here at all, and therefore the stakes never seem all that high. Jurgens also has the ‘big lever that blows everything up’ in his office (the one so beloved of mad scientists everywhere) but it turns out to be a completely pointless plot device with no payoff.

Gavin was a capable actor, but almost a textbook case of someone who was never destined to become a Hollywood star. His handsome looks found him playing a number of bit parts in Rock Hudson vehicles at Universal in his early days, a couple of which were directed by Douglas Sirk. Gavin caught the well-known filmmaker’s eye and he cast him as the lead of war romance ‘A Time To Love and A Time To Die’ (1958) and opposite Lana Turner in ‘Imitation of Life’ (1959). Roles in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960) and Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ (1960) followed but, inevitably, his contributions were overshadowed by the leads in those big hits. The lack of a subsequent success found him appearing more on television and in a few supporting roles in features. The final nail in the coffin was Sean Connery’s last-minute change of heart about reprising his role as James Bond in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (1971). Gavin had already won the role and was contracted to play it. At least producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli honoured the arrangement and paid him in full.

Another entry in the OSS 117 series that’s professionally made but suffers from a sloppy, uninspired script that wastes a good cast.

OSS 117: Terror In Tokyo/Mission To Tokyo/Atout Coeur A Tokyo Pour OSS 117 (1966)

OSS 117 Terror In Tokyo (1966)‘Don’t take this as a complement, but you really are made to wear a battery’

A mysterious organisation is blackmailing the State Department with a new super weapon. After a military base is destroyed by this unknown method, Agent OSS 117 is despatched to the land of the midnight sun where our man in Tokyo believes he has a line on the villains responsible…

lt’s the second time around for Czech-born actor Frederick Stafford as Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, otherwise known as Agent OSS 117. Here he swaps the capitals of continental Europe for the capital of Japan in this French-Italian co-production based on the novels of Jean Bruce. Regular director André Hunebelle stepped into the role of executive producer here and handed the megaphone to Michel Boisrond, but it makes little difference to the final product, which follows the usual ‘Bond On A Slightly Higher Budget Than Usual’ template.

Here, we find Staffiord dispatched to the Far East where it doesn’t take long to establish that the weak chain in the local department’s operation is Marina Vlady, who’s allegedly being blackmailed into passing secret information to an unknown enemy. Stafford doesn’t trust her, of course, but he still decides that the best strategy is to pose as her recently arrived American husband. Carnal relations are strictly off the table, but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that’s going to last as long as the average New Year’s Resolution.

OSS 117 Terror In Tokyo (1966)

‘That’s the last time you give me a dirty fork.’

The dynamic between Stafford and Vlady is actually well-balanced, allowing for some wry humour that puts a little more heart into the spying business than usual. There’s also some inventive fight choreography and the best strangulation by telephone line since low budget noir classic ‘Detour’ (1945).

The creativity in the combat scenes come to a head when Stafford takes on a gigantic Sumo wrestler and the subsequent ‘cat and mouse’ action afterwards is also well- realised. Another plus is the high-quality cinematography by Marcel Grignon and an engaging supporting performance by the lively Jitsuko Yoshimura, who is best remembered for her role in the influential Japanese horror ‘Onibaba’ (1964).

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t veer very far from the series’ well-established formula and that brings with it some common weaknesses. The bigger budget does allow for some extra running time, but that does cause some pacing issues. Also the lack of a memorable villain for Stafford to go up against does not help matters. There’s a complete absence of gadgetry (apart from a radio receiver in some spectacles) and, although this makes for a more grounded thriller, it’s a little at odds with what modern day audience expect from this kind of thriller. Stafford does hold everything together with his quiet charisma, but there’s a sense that nothing is being pushed as far as it can go.

Surprisingly, the script was co-authored by Terence Young, who directed Bond’s first adventure ‘Dr. No’ (1962) and subsequent series entries ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963) and ‘Thunderball’ (1965). Other directorial credits include classic thriller ‘Wait Until Dark’ (1967) with Audrey Hepburn, a couple of Charles Bronson vehicles and ‘The Klansman’ (1974) with Lee Marvin and Richard Burton. Sadly, one of his final efforts was Korean War drama ‘lnchon’ (1981) which is widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time.

OSS 117 Terror In Tokyo (1966)

‘Good job I didn’t mention the dirty knife.’

Vlady was a star of French cinema, particularly in the 1960s, and had a major role as Kate Percy in Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes At Midnight’ (1965). Notwithstanding his strong performance over the two films where he played this role, Stafford was not a trained actor, having been spotted by series mastermind André Hunebelle at a social event! This lack of training probably didn’t help when he was cast as the lead in Hitchcock’s ‘Topaz’ (1969) and the failure of that film ended any Hollywood ambitions he may have harboured

Another entry in this efficient spy saga that looks good, is well-shot, presented and performed but never really catches fire.

OSS 117: Mission For A Killer/Furia A Bahia Pour OSS 117 (1965)

OSS 117 Mission For A Killer (1965)‘You may trust him implicitly; he’s only killed 20 people.’

South America is hit by a series of high profile assassinations, carried out by innocent members of the public under the influence of a hypnotic drug. Agent OSS 117 is sent to Rio to investigate, but his local contact is killed, and he’s soon involved with several beautiful women, whose loyalties are all suspect…

Third in the French Eurospy series based on the long-running novels by Jean Bruce, and again directed by André Hunebelle. This time around twinkly-eyed Kerwin Mathews has had his licence revoked and wannabee James Bond duties are in the hands of Czech-born actor Frederick Stafford. Crucially, he’s this week’s ‘Bond On A Far Higher Budget than Usual’ and this financial clout helps the film to achieve a level of technical quality and professionalism far in excess of the vast majority of the other exploits of the army of secret agents who invaded continental Europe in the wake of Sean Connery.

Here, Stafford even gets to travel out of Europe; to Rio no less, and the breath-taking scenery and beautiful locations are a definite plus, especially with cinematographer Marcel Grignon behind the lens. His choice of a muted colour pallet is very effective indeed, giving the whole enterprise a real touch of class. Furthermore, Hunebelle is able to add a real sense of scale to the proceedings with a climax involving plenty of extras, explosions and action, and this helps convey the importance of the issues at stake in the unfolding drama.

OSS 117 Mission For A Killer (1965)

‘If you look toward the front of the plane, the fire exits are located here and here…’

So, what’s the story? Well, in best movie tradition, super-agent Stafford is enjoying some pleasant R&R with appropriate companionship when he’s called back to the office by his boss to save the world. Again. This time a series of high-profile world leader types have gone to their maker, courtesy of succession of Johnnie Nobodies with no apparent political affiliations or connections with terrorist groups.

lt’s a three-pipe problem for sure, but Our Man ln Rio seems to have some idea about what’s going on. Unfortunately, by the time Stafford gets there, this guy’s in hospital after a mysterious car accident right next to the home of the gorgeous Mylene Demongeot (quite the compensation I’d say!) In fact, Hunebelle was so taken with her that he soon gave her the main female role in his ’Fantomas’ trilogy. But Stafford’s already up to his ears in beautiful women here, what with raven-haired Consuela (Perrette Pardier) and blonde Consuela (Annie Anderson), who are both claiming to be the injured man’s private secretary.

Investigations lead Stafford to the jungle where a secret military organisation are planning the overthrow of Western Civilisation using a ‘mind control’ drug distilled by a native tribe who they have enslaved. Local landowner Raymond Pellegrin happens to be a friend of Demongeot and may as well be wearing an ‘I am a Supervillain’ t-shirt, but it actually turns out that he’s just a cog in the wheel of this mysterious group. The fact that he shows up pretty late in the film and that Stafford’s main antagonist is finally revealed to be an anonymous military officer really hurts the film and makes it tough for an audience to really invest in our hero’s struggle.

OSS 117 Mission For A Killer (1965)

‘Late night, was it?’

Aside from the larger scale, the film’s major asset is Stafford himself. Previous series incumbent Mathews may have been more traditionally handsome, but Stafford is more charismatic and far more convincing as an agent who will make the tough calls when required; far more of a Sean Connery type than a Roger Moore.

Ironically, Stafford had no previous experience as an actor at all; being offered the role after meeting Hunebelle at a party! Born Friedrich Strobel von Stein, he apparently took part in swimming and water polo events at the 1948 Olympics in London, although this remains unconfirmed. However, the scene where he rescues Demongeot and the two narrowly escape being washed over a waterfall looks very convincing indeed, so there may be some truth to it. After appearing in similar Eurospy project ‘Agent 505: Death Trap in Beirut’ (1966), he reprised his role as Agent OSS 117 once more, before being cast by Alfred Hitchcock as the lead in ‘Topaz’ (1969). Unfortunately, the film flopped hard and his own performance received negative reviews. His career never really recovered and he died in a plane crash in 1979 at the age of 51.

Most Eurospy films of the 1960’s were cheap copies of the 007 formula. Despite the lacklustre story, thanks to a bigger budget, all round professionalism and the engaging performances of Stafford and Demongeot, this is one of the better examples of the type.

OSS 117: Panic In Bangkok/Shadow of Evil/Banco A Bangkok Pour OSS 117 (1964)

‘Mr Barton, despite your weapon and your smugness, you can do nothing against me.’

A series of plague outbreaks in Asia seem to be linked to the activities of a professor distributing vaccines. After an operative with a hot lead to the mystery is killed in Thailand, Agent OSS 117 is dispatched to Bangkok to take up the case…

This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is American actor Kerwin Mathews, reprising his role as Hubert Barton from ‘OSS 117 Se Duchaine’ (1963) and running around Bangkok for returning director André Hunebelle. Only this time he’s doing it in glorious Eastmancolor! And that’s a good thing because one of the film’s main attributes are its locations and setting; the old monastery at the climax being a particularly pleasing visual choice.

The film begins with the obligatory faceless agent getting gunned down by some faceless henchmen on a Bangkok street. It’s not exactly subtle and inevitably provokes the almost immediate arrival on the scene of our suave hero. Not a great move for our mysterious supervillain. Couldn’t he at least have tried to make it look like an accident? For a change, Mathew’s actually got some back up and he visits the local office to get the low down on the situation, where he meets cool blonde secretary Eva (Dominique Wilms). They run into each other again at an embassy reception, but he’s only got eyes for exotic Lila Sinn (Pier Angeli) whose brother (Robert Hossein) is a local doctor/guru and perhaps the most suspicious character in movie history.

His new manicurist had a fresh approach…

What follows are the usual Eurospy shenanigans as Mathews investigates; dodging bullets, punches and car bombs along the way (or his stunt double does, anyway). As usual, all he has to do is to a stare at a woman for her to come over all unnecessary (rather than consider him a creep), and his other skills include immediately hailing a cab with just a wave of his hand and getting a parking space right in front of any building he visits.

Gadgets are limited to some basic surveillance equipment, including a transmitter inside a book, and an interrogation room where he gets strapped up to some electronic gizmo. He’s also shadowed everywhere by a mysterious man in sunglasses who eventually takes a brief part in the action. Who is he? An ex-Nazi double agent, apparently. What he has to do with what’s going on? No idea.

On the credit side, our mysterious super villain does have a nice line in maniacal patter: ‘The world will end in the multiplication of being that the soil one day will no longer feed’. So there! He also has a secret underground lair, including a lab where white coated technicians inject rats with plague virus and various beakers and test tubes boil and bubble. Unfortunately, he does exhibit the usual cavalier attitude towards Health & Safety standards, and the whole thing is instantly transformed into an inferno by a couple of machine gun volleys delivered by Mathews toward the climax.

OSS 117: Panic In Bangkok (1964)

‘And I bet her short hand is just terrific…’

Given that a total of 8 writers worked on this, five with the adaptation and three on the script (including the director), it’s remarkable that the end result displays so little imagination and creativity. Perhaps it was a case of the ‘filmmaking by committee’ method so beloved by big Hollywood studios, which removes any individuality or interesting aspects from a project.

At 118 minutes, it’s far too long as well, and specific events often seem stretched out and slow. Apparently, there is a 92-minute cut, which, if edited so individual scenes are tightened (rather than removed entirely) may be a significantly more enjoyable experience.

Both Mathews and Angeli’s best days were already behind them; Mathews in the title roles of ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ (1958) and ‘Jack The Giant Killer’ (1962), Angeli opposite Paul Newman in ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ (1956). The pair reunited a few years later to fight the dreadfully awkward and crappy ‘Octaman’ (1971), the first creation of SFX and makeup guru Rick Baker. Sadly, it was Angeli’s last role; she was found dead from a barbiturate overdose at her home after the production was over. Mathews made a few more scattered appearances in the years following before retiring in 1977 and becoming a frequent guest on the convention circuit in later years. He died in 2007.

Not a bottom of the barrel spy adventure by any means, but one that requires more than a little patience from the audience.

Fantomas Vs. Scotland Yard/Fantomas Contre Scotland Yard (1967)

Fantomas Vs. Scotland Yard:Fantomas Contre Scotland Yard (1967)‘But I had no idea Scotland Yard interrogates furniture these days…’

Masked mastermind Fantomas tries to blackmail the richest people in the world by threatening them with sudden death, in particular targeting a wealthy Scottish nobleman. The forces of law and order gather at the Laird’s ancestral castle with a plan to catch the supervillain and end his reign of terror for good…

The third and final part of the 1960s Fantomas trilogy from Gaumont Studios finds all the principals from the series back in front of the camera for regular director André Hunebelle. This is both good news and bad. The biggest joy, of course, is to see star Jean Marias wearing the striking Fantomas mask and also taking on hero duties as intrepid journalist Fandor. As ever he’s accompanied by the lively Mylene Demongeot and, although their partnership is somewhat side-lined this time, they still make for an appealing screen couple. Unfortunately, the bad news is far more serious. Louis de Funes returns as Commissar Juve along with sidekick Inspector Bertrand (Jacques Dynam). Worse still; their tedious comedy routine gets even more screen time than in the previous films.

After his failure to brainwash the world’s population in ‘Fantomas Unleashed’ (1965), our friendly neighbourhood megalomaniac has decided to raise a little nest egg before he gets around to ‘destroying the world.’ Allegedly, he’s braced all the world’s well-off with a simple proposition: pay him a ‘life tax’ or take a long sleep with the fishes. In practice, his scheme mostly seems to involve playing stupid, puerile pranks on policeman de Funes after everyone assembles at the remote castle in Scotland.

Fantomas Vs. Scotland Yard:Fantomas Contre Scotland Yard (1967)

‘Please tell me there are some good jokes on the next page of the script…’

Sure, he kills off lord of the manor Jean-Roger Caussimon and infiltrates a group of syndicate mobsters, but he spends a lot of time hanging corpses in de Funes’ bedroom, which mysteriously disappear when anyone else comes back to see them. It’s a strange plan, to be sure, and unfortunately means that we spend almost the entire second act of the film in the ‘hilarious’ company of de Funes and his second-hand Inspector Clouseau impression. At least his kilt doesn’t fall all the way down, I suppose.

Leaving aside the comedy, the film has a tired, padded feel to it anyway, which is not helped by the 104-minute running time. The story meanders through a number of pointless sequences, including a half-baked séance and an endless fox-hunt that mostly features de Funes looking for his horse. The Scottish locations are also unconvincing and it’s disappointing to find that our villain has abandoned his secret base on the slopes of a volcano to just skulk around the highlands for a bit and take the odd trip in his helicopter. His ambitions have also become strangely limited; for all his threats, it turns out that he’s just after some jewels. This may be more in tune with the original literary source, but doesn’t it seem to be a key element in taking over the world.

Fantomas Vs. Scotland Yard:Fantomas Contre Scotland Yard (1967)

‘Cheerio!’

Judging from the publicity material, de Funes was now the star of the series, even if that may be somewhat hard to credit for a modern audience. However, it was a fact that apparently led to Marias’ decision to hang up the Fantomas mask and pass on a planned fourth film. If that was the case, it’s a decision that was perfectly understandable.

Taken as a trilogy, the Fantomas films are a bit of a disappointment. There’s no doubt that talented people were involved in their creation on both sides of the camera, and there are some fine moments, particularly when Marias is on the screen in the title role. However, rather than embrace the pop culture explosion of the times to try and create something truly memorable, the films just fall back on stale, dated comedic tropes and conventions. And that’s never more obvious than in this final episode.

Rather a frustrating experience.

Fantomas Unleashed/Fantomas Strikes Back/Fantomas de Déchaine (1965)

Fantomas Unleashed (1965)‘I’m sure we’re surrounded by Martians.’

Super villain Fantomas intends to snatch a famous scientist from a conference in Rome. Police Commissioner Juve rushes to stop him, unaware that journalist Fandor is already on the case, disguised as the boffin in question…

The success of Sean Connery’s turn as secret agent 007 had a serious knock-on effect on the European film industry. Sensing a possible box office bonanza, producers rushed out dozens of similar, formulaic projects, and the continent’s capital cities were soon overrun with guns, gadgets and beautiful girls. It also prompted French company Gaumont Films to resurrect mysterious criminal Fantomas and cast him in the role of a Bond villain. It was a pretty obvious fit; the character had been a big success on the silver screen in the silent days and all that was required was to upgrade his aims and objectives from fabulous jewel robberies to world domination. But this time there would be a crucial change of emphasis. Instead of serious drama, these would be played tongue-in-cheek.

The first of the series was ‘Fantomas’ (1964) and it proved to be a considerable success, so it was no surprise when the principal cast and crew returned barely a year later for this sequel. Jean Marias again takes on the dual role of the title character and his nemesis, investigative journalist Fandor. It was always an interesting choice to cast this way as the main weapon in the Fantomas arsenal is his mastery of disguise. Indeed, in the original series of novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, the plots often just seemed to be an excuse to put the principal characters in disguise for as many pages as possible! And, given that Fantomas was always a shadowy, anonymous figure (whose very existence is doubted by some), this blurring of identities was always a central aspect of the character. However, in these films, he is given his own clear identity, albeit that is Marias playing the role in a strange, green mask that gives him a weird and genuinely unsettling appearance.

Fantomas Unleashed (1965)

‘You mean I’m not remotely funny?’

Unfortunately, reuniting the cast also means we get more of Police Commissar Juve (Louis de Funes) and his hapless assistant Inspector Bertrand (Jacques Dynam). Yes, the film is not to be taken seriously, but De Funes and Dynam’s tiresome double act constantly derails proceedings just when they seem to be getting interesting. The jokes are obvious and often repetitive when a subtler approach to the humour would almost certainly have been far more effective.

On the plus side, the luminous Mylene Demongeot is back as photographer Héléne, and the easy chemistry between her and Marias helps us over some of the rougher spots. Another point in its favour is that director André Hunebelle keeps things moving at a good pace and has a good eye for shot composition. The cinematography by Raymond Pierre Lemoigne is excellent too.

Fantomas Unleashed (1965)

‘You mean this isn’t the set of Ali Baba & The 40 Thieves’?

All these virtues combine to make this film that rare cinema beast; a sequel that’s actually better than the original. Sure, the lack of budget is visible in places, particularly with the SFX in the climactic scenes with the flying car, but Fantomas gets a greater number of gadgets to play with and there’s much more of a story.

The plot is a cliché, of course, what with the kidnapped scientist and secret weapon, etc. but then it’s supposed to be a satire, after all, and the screenplay (by three separate writers) does exhibit a good level of invention at times.

A pleasant enough way to spend 90 minutes or so, particularly when the more obvious gags are kept offscreen. However, there’s a feeling that, with a different approach, this could have been so much more.

OSS 117 Se Dechaine/OSS 117 ls Unleashed (1963)

OSS 117 Se Dechaine (1963)‘I don’t want to get involved in nutty escapades.’

An American secret agent is killed when diving off the South coast of France. His mission was to locate and prevent the deployment of a device which can track atomic submarines. After his death, the authorities send in agent OSS 117 to complete the assignment.

When James Bond became an instant movie phenomenon in 1962, it was inevitable that film producers around the world would look to ride his coattails (or cocktails, perhaps!) to the promised land of financial glory. Perhaps it was a little surprising that the French were first off the mark, but they had an advantage. Agent OSS 117 was already a well-established character with name recognition value, thanks to a series of 88(!) novels by Jean Bruce, the first of which was published four years before Ian Fleming debuted Bond. There’d also been a movie: ‘OSS 117 n’est pas mort’ (OSS 117 ls Not Dead) (1956), which starred Ivan Desny, an actor who was born in China, of Russian descent, and a Swiss national! The producers here also chose to ignore homegrown talent and cast U.S. actor Kerwin Mathews in the title role instead, a leading man best remembered for tangling with Ray Harryhausen’s menagerie of creatures in the title role of ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ (1958).

The plot revolves around the usual ‘device that must not fall into the wrong hands’ and the threat it poses to the free world. For now, it’s only a prototype but, if it proves to be successful in pinpointing atomic subs, a network of the things submerged in caves around the world could have serious consequences. Agent Jacques Harden is already on the case as the story begins; scuba diving off the southern tip of Corsica with the help of local sailor Renotte (Henri-Jacques Huet) and his girlfriend Brigitta (Nadia Sanders). Unfortunately, he pokes his mask in where it doesn’t belong and ends up dead, and Huet is desperate not to get involved in Matthews’ subsequent investigation. Sanders is not so immune to our hero’s rugged charms, of course, but her loyalty to truth and justice is more than a little suspect as well.

On the whole, the film is slow and not particularly exciting. The action is limited to a few bouts of energetic fisticuffs and some underwater combat with spear guns. The aquatic sequences are well-shot and edited tightly so they don’t overstay their welcome, a lesson someone should probably have imparted to director Terence Young before he shot ‘Thunderball’ (1965) with Sean Connery. One significant weakness here are the villains. They are simply anonymous foreign agents, with the notable exception of the creepy Daniel Emilfork, who fans of cult cinema should recall from his performance as the mad scientist in Jeunet and Caro’s astonishing ‘The City of Lost Children’ (1985).

So how much does this film resemble one of Bond’s escapades? Well, quite a bit, so long as you bear in mind that we’re still a decade away from Roger Moore using crocodiles as stepping stones, and an even further distance from giants with metal teeth, space stations, invisible cars and surfing on CGI waves. Yes, this is a far more grounded espionage adventure, much in the manner of the first two acts of ‘Dr No’ (1962). In fact, it bares more than a slight resemblance to the 1960s TV show ‘Danger Man’ which starred Patrick McGoohan. Mathews does have more of an eye for the ladies than McGoohan though and this stretches to sexual harassment in the workplace, grabbing some quick tongue action from a car hire employee in an airport car park. Still, she doesn’t seem to mind too much, because…the Sixties, baby!

OSS 117 Su Dechaine (1963)

‘Tell me! What have you done with the Princess Parisa?’

Director Andre Hunébelle had more than a decade of experience in the canvas chair by the time he first got involved with the spy game, through this film and its sequel ‘OSS 117: Panic In Bangkok’ (1964) (again with Mathews). He shot two further entries in the series, one with Frederick Stafford, and one with John Gavin, and also delivered the ‘Fantomas’ trilogy, a series that shared more than a little DNA with the Eurospy genre.

Mathews was never the busiest of actors and after the OSS 117 sequel took a break for 3 years before shooting another spy adventure ‘The Viscount’ (1967) and then heading across the channel for tatty sci-fi action flick ‘Battle Beneath The Earth’ (1967). After that, he seems to have gone into semi-retirement with just over half a dozen pictures and some limited television appearances before he called it quits completely at the end of the 1970s.

Sanders was born in Miami and, although biographical information on her is a little scant, is seems fair to assume that she had some facility with languages. Her first film role was a small bit as ‘French Girl’ in the Three Stooges Sci-fi comedy ‘Have Rocket Will Travel’ (1959), but she swiftly relocated to Italy, where she had half a dozen second leads in ‘sword and sandal’ pictures and appeared in Fellini’s ‘8 1/2’ (1963). After this picture, she returned to the U.S. but her career never really took off and she retired in 1970 after some TV roles and a supporting part in Matt Helm ‘Bond’ spoof ‘Murderer’s Row’ (1966) with Dean Martin.

This is a mildly engaging spy picture with some slow spots, but a decent level of intrigue and action. Mathews breaks the fourth wall right at the end of the picture, presumably to confirm that we shouldn’t have been all of it very seriously and it’s an undemanding, if unexciting, way to spend 90 or so minutes.

Fantomas/Fantômas (1964)

Fantomas (1964)Men Hunt Him Down…Women Look Him up!’

A tremendous jewel robbery is carried out by a thief disguised as a member of the English aristocracy. The press put the blame on a mysterious criminal named Fantômas and an ambitious journalist gets a scoop by creating a fictional interview with the villain, but the real Fantômas is not impressed by his article…

The character of super villain and master of disguise, Fantômas was brought to life in a series of books by French authors Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain in 1911. Their work was such a runaway success that a series of five silent films followed, and there would probably have been more if not for the outbreak of the First World War. Amazingly, Gaumont Studios still held the rights to the character over half a century later and launched a new trilogy of films, bringing him firmly into the swinging 60s, via a technicolor world of secret agents, gadgets and beautiful girls.

Jean Marias is Fandor, an investigative journalist who senses a career opportunity when news of the jewel robbery breaks and Police Commissioner Juve (Louis de Funes) goes on TV to rubbish the notion of a master thief in their midst. With help from his photographer girlfriend Héléne (Mylene Demongeot), Marias creates some ‘fake news’ that gets the whole town talking and the real Fantômas (Marias, again) rather ticked off. It’s not long before the reporter finds himself in the villain’s hi-tech, underground lair with Demongeot trapped in a weird, trippy room next door that seems to be half real and half illusion.

At this point, it looks like we’re in for a real treat. Marias looks great as Fantômas in a bald, smooth-faced mask with devil ears, and his entry is accompanied by a little Lon Chaney on the pipe organ. The actor also creates a genuinely unsettling presence, hinting at his less than honourable intentions towards Demongeot with delicious glee. Unfortunately, the reporter manages to flag this up with jealous Lady Beltham (Marie-Hélene Arnaud), and she arranges for our heroic couple to escape. The character of Lady Beltham as the lover and partner in crime of Fantômas was integral to the novels but it’s peripheral here, and she never appears in the trilogy again. It may have been that there was an intention to develop a relationship between Fantômas and the Demongeot character, but, if so, it was never pursued.

But, more importantly, this is the moment where the film begins to slide seriously downhill. Within a short time, Fantômas is on the run and being pursued by Marias (as Fandor) and Demongeot, as well as de Funes and the forces of law and order. ln his flight, he utilises five different types of transport, which is a neat idea, but the chase is shot without any real dynamism or invention and soon begins to drag. As the film closes in on a finish, we realise that there is simply no story left and the audience is thrown back on the comic mugging of de Funes and some underwhelming action. Although it does have to be acknowledged that Marias obviously did his own stunts, including a leap from a moving train, which looks a fair way beyond the call of duty. The problem is that no real momentum is built, and the climax is almost non-existent.

It’s appropriate for the era when the film was made that director André Hunebelle ditches the serious approach of the character’s early days and aims for a more light-hearted, freewheeling approach, and it’s not the worst artistic decision ever made. However, it has done much to encourage the trilogy’s somewhat mixed reputation. This film does hit a fair balance between humour and action, but more of the latter would certainly have helped. Marias is excellent in both roles and it’s an interesting casting decision, perhaps prompted by the fact that the character’s true identity is never really established in the source material.

A decent slice of 1960s fun that runs out of steam around the end of the second act and never recovers. Marias is very good, but you just can’t help wishing he was in a much better film.