Sunday, May 3, 2009

OSS 117, 007, and Alfred Hitchcock: A French Secret Agent and the Bond Bonanza

By Ron Payne

FOR MANY YEARS I WAS AWARE OF FRENCH THRILLER WRITER JEAN BRUCE, WHO WROTE THE ADVENTURES OF SECRET AGENT HUBERT BONISSEUR DE LA BATH, better known in France as "0SS 117." Bruce, who created his suave and sophisticated agent, four years before Ian Fleming created BRITISH AGENT 007, earned millions writing about the character---and in the 1960s---at the height of the Worldwide Bond-Craze, Gaumont Studios, the oldest and certainly one of the greatest film studios in the world, started making motion pictures about Monsieur de la Bath 0SS 117.

SINCE 2006, when Parisian actor Jean Dujardin became the French equivalent of a new Sean Connery, with the hit Gaumont Studio production of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, there has been a renewed interest in the French counter-intelligence agent. THE NEW de la Bath adventure, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, also starring the charismatic Dujardin, soon to be released in Europe, promises to be a blockbuster for the great French studio, which only sixteen months ago lost a distribution-contract with Sony Pictures.

Hubert (pronounced U-Bear) Bonisseur de la Bath was created in 1949 to immediate literary success in France. Jean (pronounced like Sean) Bruce wrote like an angel doing Figure-Eights, effortlessly on ice, when he wrote about de la Bath, who has everything going for him that Bond does. He is handsome, cool-in-danger and good with the ladies. Ian Fleming read Jean Bruce, when he travelled in France and Bruce's books were easy to find in London bookstalls.

BUT the enormous popularity of the character has yet to catch on in America, though he has his admirers in this country as well. de la Bath has been portrayed on screen by Sean Flynn, the late son of movie idol-swashbuckler Errol Flynn. (Sean was lost in Vietnam, when captured by the North Vietnamese while riding his motorcycle. He was a photographer and war correspondent, like his father years earlier in the Spanish Civil War [1937] and the younger Flynn was held hostage for a year and executed.)

Frederick Stafford, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s production of Leon Uuris’s Topaz, also starred as de la Bath and gave the character a genuine James Bond-like persona. (It was because of his OSS 117 role that Hitchcock hired Stafford for the Topaz role.) Producer Harry Saltzman remarked at the time of the Topaz release, "If Frederick Stafford had not been French, but English, he might have followed directly in Sean Connery’s footsteps as Bond."

Kerwin Matthews, most famous in the United States as Gulliver in The Three Worlds of Gulliver and "The Sinbad" series (one in which he co-starred opposite Mrs. Bing Crosby) was also successful in the role. BUT FOR THE SAKE of comparisons, it was John Gavin, who later became President Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to Mexico, who stands out. Gavin, who played the romantic lead in Hitchcock’s Psycho, opposite Vera Miles, was a rising star at Universal Pictures before leaving for France and undertaking the role of Agent OSS 117. At Universal, Gavin felt lost in a relentless attempt by Universal executives to pigeon-hole him in roles better suited for Rock Hudson, who was the studio's top star at the time. If GAVIN was not being proposed for the next "Tammy" picture, he was made to fill out his contract playing "Destry," a character created by James Stewart in Destry Rides Again and who was later played by Audie Murphy. Gavin's Destry television series soon hit the dirt and Gavin picked-up the trail for France and GAUMONT STUDIOS, when his Universal Pictures agreements expired.

FRANCE WAS GOOD for John Gavin and his tenure as "0SS 117" was a successful one, if not the most successful of any other actor who played the role. (See his film, OSS 117: Double Agent at www.sinistercinema.com under Espionage and Spy Films).

IN 1971, after George Lazenby, on bad advice from his Business Manager Ronan O'Rahilly, resigned from the role of James Bond after just one film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the producers, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli were desperate to find a new Double-0-seven. John Gavin, on the strength of his '0SS 117,' was signed to a contract to be the next James Bond in Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever. Mr. Gavin was given a script and United Aartists went on alert that John Gavin, would, indeed, be starring in the diamond smuggling caper, set to be filmed in Amsterdam, South Africa, London, Las Vegas and UNIVERSAL PICTURES (his old studio) in the spring. Diamonds Are Forever was to be EON Productions’s first Bond film completed in the United States. (Exterior scenes of Miami Beach in Goldfinger were 'Second Unit' sequences, with interiors and Fort Knox filmed at Pinewood Studios outside London.)

John Gavin, an American of Mexican descent, who played a French secret agent as Hubert Connoisseur de la Bath, was now ready to become ENGLAND's MOST FAMOUS EXPORT---James Bond, 'DOUBLE-0-SEVEN,' Ian Fleming’s GENTLEMAN AGENT with THE LICENCE TO KILL.

DOUBLE-0-SEVEN-DOUBLE-TAKE

Albert R. Broccoli liked John Gavin." Harry Saltzman liked John Gavin. Enter David Picker, Executive Vice President of United Artists. "WE WANT CONNERY....!" GET CONNERY BACK, AT ANY PRICE...! became the "War Cry" at United Artists, then a subsidiary of the giant San Francisco insurance firm, Trans-America Corporation.

SUDDENLY, producers Saltzman and Broccoli were faced with a new casting crisis. Broccoli had already turned down Burt Reynolds (because he was not English) and Reynolds claims he turned down Bond earlier (because "No one can play Bond but Sean Connery. ") Either way, John Gavin (who was definitely not English and had no woes about being compared with Connery) was already signed. His name was on the deal. The contract was "in the pocket."

TURN AROUND "007 STYLE."

There are many stories circulating that John Gavin was in a holding pen, contractually, during this period. That, actually, he was the back-up-plan, in the event Sean Connery could not be lured back into the ring to once again put on his gloves as Bond and go for the 'Championship.'

THE ANNOUNCEMENT GOES FORTH: Sean Connery "IS" JAMES BOND in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER." Dennis Selinger, Mr. Connery's agent at International Creative Management in London "inks the deal" that makes the future SIR SEAN, "the highest paid movie star in the world," up until that time. For a then staggering $1.2 million, plus a large percentage of the gross receipts (not to mention the financing of 2 motion pictures of Mr. Connery's choice by United Artists-- He does The Offence, which UA finances and Connery stars and produces in London), the legendary icon returns in the role that made him famous. Jill ST. John is signed as his co-star, and rumors of a romance between the two starts immediately during filming. Lana Wood is signed as 'Plenty O'Toole' and country-western singer-sausage king, Jimmy Dean, becomes Willard Whyte, the Howard Hughes of Diamonds Are Forever overnight.

John Gavin, though he is passed-over for the "superstar-making-role-of-a-lifetime," is paid $100,000 for his participation by the producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, as Roger Moore, receives a call at the end of filming telling him "to cut your hair and lose weight. We think you're going to be the next James Bond."

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For more on Frederick Stafford and how Alfred Hitchcock used him in Topaz, check out:

Killers, Traitors, and 007: The Influences on and Failures of Alfred Hitchcock

Posted in the “Spies on Film” files at

WWW.Spywise.net

There, you’ll learn how this film not only employed a former OSS 117, but a former Bond girl, namely Karen Dor from You Only Live Twice.

2 comments:

David said...

Great article Ron.

The OSS 117 films were released on DVD in France - pristine widescreen prints too (rather than the grey market source you mention) - but unfortunately they didn't have an English language option or subs.

Although, if you search the fan forums you should be about to find a sensational 'fan redub' of Murder For Sale / AKA: Double Agent.

Cheers
D.

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