OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Longtime Readers know that I like to use this space to recommend great movies that you probably haven’t seen yet; so in that spirit, allow me to commend to your attention the 2006 French comedy OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.

OSS 117 is based on a long-running series of French spy novels centering on the character of an intrepid secret agent of French descent, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, undertaking undercover missions for the CIA’s predecessor agency, the Office of Strategic Services. (Which may seem derivative of Ian Fleming’s archetypal James Bond, but the first adventures of OSS 117 hit the press in 1949, years before Bond did.)  A square-jawed, straight-up action figure — think Sean Connery’s version of James Bond — OSS 117 proved so popular that he eventually featured in more than 90 novels as well as several movies during the 1960s.

That OSS 117 is not the OSS 117 featured in Cairo, Nest of Spies, however.  Rather than try to play the agent’s adventures straight — a losing proposition, given how thoroughly the James Bond formula has been milked dry — the makers of this film instead use them as a platform for cutting, incisive satire.  In this version, OSS 117 is not a deadly secret agent; he’s a clueless bumbler whose only successes come by accident.  He’s not an irresistible ladykiller, he’s a tone-deaf sexist doofus who thinks he’s much more appealing to women than he actually is.  He’s not a cosmopolitan jet-setter, he’s a shuttered provincial who finds every foreign culture bizarre and confounding in precisely the degree to which it is not French.  And so forth.

Cairo, Nest of Spies takes this reimagined OSS 117 and drops him into 1950s Egypt, where he’s charged with finding out if there’s any connection between two recent disappearances there, one of a Soviet cargo ship and the other of his fellow agent (and best friend) Jack Jefferson.  His attempt to find out leads him afoul of a colorful group of villains with plots for world domination ranging from the implausible to the ludicrous.

Based on the description above, you’re probably mentally comparing Cairo, Nest of Spies to the most popular recent spy-movie spoofs: the Austin Powers series.  Two things set Cairo, Nest of Spies apart from those films, though.  The first is an incredible attention to the details of the 1960s spy-movie aesthetic; the costumes, the sets, the camera angles.  These touches make OSS 117 feel like an early James Bond movie, where Austin Powers, with its bright colors and over-the-top sets, never really did.  And the second is an outstanding performance by the lead actor, Jean Dujardin, who brings just the right touches of arrogance, self-regard and obliviousness to his portrayal of OSS 117. It’s a performance that reminds you of the great Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, which is high praise.

Anyway, it’s a great movie, very funny, and well worth your time. It’s available on DVD, and if you’re a Netflix member, they have it both for disc rental and for instant streaming.  (There’s also a 2009 sequel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, but I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet; here’s Roger Ebert’s review.)