OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies [subtitled]


This is just a fun, fun movie from start to finish.

“OSS 117” is the government agency designation for secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath. From 1949 to 1992 there were hundreds of books written about this fictional spy by a French author and then by his family after he died. They are like the James Bond books, though not based on them, since the first of the OSS 117 books came out several years before the first of the Bond books.

And again like Bond, several (serious) movies were made about the OSS 117 character and his adventures, from 1956 to 1971.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is not one of them. It is one of two OSS 117 movies from several decades later that is a comedy, a parody of Bond-type movies.

Actually I guess James Bond movies themselves—with their outlandish gadgets and hyperbolic action and such—are slightly parodic versions of spy movies, but these recent OSS 117 movies are more along the lines of the Austin Powers films.

One notable change is that whereas in the novels and I think in the serious movies OSS 117 is an American spy of French descent, in the recent comedies he is a Frenchman working for France. (“OSS” is the abbreviation for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, and there is no equivalent with the same acronym in France, so in that sense his agent number in the parodies makes no sense, but perhaps that’s part of the humor.)

In OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, set in the 1950s, the protagonist is supremely confident, suave and debonair enough to bed hot babes at will, extraordinarily skilled at hand-to-hand fighting, an undoubting patriot and lover of all things French including their colonial empire, comically condescending toward women, foreigners, and anyone he considers his social inferiors, and a clueless buffoon whose lack of awareness and lack of self-awareness is about the last trait you’d want if you were hiring a spy.

He is sent to Cairo in part to investigate the disappearance of his sometime partner Jack, who had been running a company that raises chickens as a front for his work as an undercover spy for France monitoring events in turbulent Egypt, in which Nasser has recently overthrown the monarchy, and in part to “bring peace to the Middle East,” both of which aspects of his mission he throws himself into with a smiling confidence that success is inevitable.

Once in Egypt, he’s soon sleeping with beautiful women, inadvertently insulting the locals with his patronizing manner (e.g., patting them on the head and passing out little black-and-white photos of the President of France as treats), focusing way too much on the success or failure of the chicken business, and getting himself embroiled in various situations he doesn’t comprehend.

There are plenty of good gags, plenty of genuinely funny moments in this film. I’ll mention only minimal specifics, not just for the spoiler factor of not wanting to give things away, but also because they are of the “you had to be there” type, that is, they’re funny to see but not so funny to hear a description of.

But one of the things I especially got a kick out of are the hilariously homoerotic flashback scenes of OSS 117 and Jack, especially since OSS 117 turns out to be very thin-skinned about any suggestions of homosexual tendencies.

I also liked the little fellow with the fez assigned to keep tabs on OSS 117 in Cairo. Each time OSS 117 would leave his hotel or wherever, there was this little man crouched in a phone booth reporting the departure to his superior, yet somehow he was always already wherever OSS 117 arrived next, eagerly phoning in that update as well.

The nonsensical recurring password is good too. It’s a clever touch that the first time it’s used in the movie is in a context where taken literally it makes some sense, but then after that it’s a completely random, meaningless phrase.

I enjoyed OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies—enough that I’d gladly watch the other parody in the same series that came out after this one if I happen to come across it—but I think the subtitle factor may have diminished that enjoyment a bit. I say that because there were many times in the film when I thought something was funny, but it was more like I was recognizing that intellectually than that I was actually spontaneously laughing at it. It’s kind of like that little extra effort to read the movie made it feel a bit more like “work” than like the relaxed state that it’s more natural to be in when watching comedy, and somehow I wasn’t responding the way I normally would to things I genuinely regard as funny.

Be that as it may, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies earns a thumbs up.

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