Review: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006 movie)

Here’s a quite funny spy film parody from the director and stars of the Oscar-winning The Artist.

In 1949 a French writer named Jean Bruce launched a series of spy novels about an American of French descent named Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, who worked for the Office of Strategic Services in World War 2 as agent number 117. His adventures continued after the war, as the OSS evolved into the CIA. The series proved a major international hit, with a total of 91 (!) OSS 117 novels by Bruce himself, another 143 (!!) by his widow, and 24 more by their son and daughter, the last appearing in 1992.

(Incidentally, Bruce apparently wrote quite a few other novels besides the OSS 117 series. I would not be surprised if he was known as “le Robert Vardeman de la France.”)

The first OSS 117 film adaptation appeared in 1956, but others did not follow until the success of Doctor No, a film featuring a different spy who had been introduced in print some four years after OSS 117.

Ian Fleming said he got James Bond’s number from John Dee, a 16th century alchemist, astronomer, occultist, navigator, and spy who worked for Queen Elizabeth I and signed his letters to her with a stylized 007. In addition, the double-0 prefix was widely used in the British Secret Service to identify things highly classified. So it’s plausible that the similarity of 007 to 117 is merely a coincidence, but it’s still interesting.

There were eight OSS 117 films from 1957 through 1971 (counting one made for television). Then writer-director Michel Hazanavicius and co-screenwriter Jean-François Halin revived the series six years ago, casting Jean Dujardin (an actor with a striking resemblance to a young Sean Connery) as the hero.

The new OSS 117 — depicted as a Frenchman formerly with the OSS and now working for French intelligence, not an upper-class Louisiana Cajun as in the novels — is handsome, suave, self-confident, resourceful, a talented musical performer, and above all a complete blithering idiot.

When an Egyptian secret agent, played by the beautiful and exotic Bérénice Bejo, informs him that millions of people speak Arabic, OSS 117 laughs at the notion and asks if she even knows how big a million is. Awakened one morning by the call to prayer, OSS 117 storms out of his hotel, climbs the nearest minaret, and punches out the muezzin for his lack of consideration for people trying to sleep.

But OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions is by no means a one-joke comedy. True, some of the gags are on the Three-Stooges level, such as a hilarious fight between OSS 117 and a mysterious opponent who do battle by throwing live chickens at each other. But then there’s a scene in which characters from different countries exchange a series of disconnected but profound philosophical observations while one of them (not OSS 117) grows increasingly desperate trying to think of something interesting to say. The film makes fun of everybody—Americans, Germans, Egyptians, various other nationalities, and above all the French.

The story takes place in 1955, and Hazanavicius uses historically appropriate lighting techniques, fight choreography, and special effects, even going to the trouble of building a rear-projection screen for scenes with characters in cars or on motorcycles.

One very minor caveat: The film is in French, with English subtitles available but no dubbed dialog track, which may be annoying to people who can’t stand subtitles. (I’ve found that reading them mainly takes practice, glancing down at them quickly without losing track of what’s happening on the rest of the screen.)

Here’s the trailer:


And for good measure, here’s another review. (I assure you that’s not me reviewing it. I have nowhere near that much hair.)


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