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.

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.