Saturday, June 09, 2012

Tonight's Movie: O.S.S. (1946)

Last month I read a post at Kevin's Movie Corner about the WWII spy film O.S.S. I was immediately intrigued, as the movie costars Alan Ladd and Geraldine Fitzgerald, and I'd just enjoyed two separate evenings paying tribute to Ladd and Fitzgerald at the Noir City Film Festival.

What's more, O.S.S. was written and produced by Richard Maibaum, who filled the same positions on Ladd's THE GREAT GATSBY (1949), the first film I saw at the festival. Maibaum's work on this '40s espionage film is especially intriguing as he went on to write DR. NO (1962) and many other James Bond films.

This Paramount film has never been released on DVD, but Universal -- which now has the rights -- released it on VHS 15 years ago. I was able to buy a mint condition "used like new" copy from Amazon at a very reasonable price.

Released one year after the end of WWII, O.S.S. is an engrossing, if rather exhausting, story about U.S. spies behind enemy lines. The beginning of the film, which is particularly interesting, depicts the agents' training and subsequent deployment to France. One of the team (Don Beddoe) is killed almost immediately, leaving John Martin (Ladd) in charge of a team which includes Elaine (Fitzgerald) and Bernay (Richard Benedict). They successfully blow up a train in a tunnel and evade the Gestapo, but just when it seems Martin and Elaine will be successfully airlifted out of the country, their boss (Patric Knowles) personally asks them to complete one more mission.

It's a somber film, somewhat along the lines of Ladd's CHINA (1943), with tight-lipped, straightforward "We've got to do it" heroics and a fairly high body count. Ladd's character doesn't have much back story to explain his motivations, but the audience simply accepts that of course Alan Ladd will do whatever he has to do to beat the Nazis.

There's a bit more explanation for why Elaine is willing to repeatedly risk her life, but even so, one marvels at her commitment and toughness of character, particularly when she's the first one on her team to parachute into France. O.S.S. was one of three Geraldine Fitzgerald films released in 1946; the others happened to be THREE STRANGERS (1946) and NOBODY LIVES FOREVER (1946), both of which were introduced by Fitzgerald's son, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, at the Noir City Festival.

The film is studio bound, and spies and villains alike often sound American or British, although the Americans are supposed to be "blending in" in France. The French and Germans all speak English, which I actually found a little bit confusing in the context of a spy story, although the need for suspension of disbelief in this regard is certainly very typical of the era. Despite these Hollywood conventions, the film successfully generates real suspense and an oppressive atmosphere.

British-born Patric Knowles plays an American commander. The supporting cast is filled with interesting faces, including Frank Ferguson, Dorothy Adams, James Westerfield, Patrick McVey, Bobby Driscoll, and Catherine Craig (Mrs. Robert Preston in real life). John Dehner is in the IMDb cast list, but I apparently missed him if he's in the final film.

This 105-minute film was directed by Irving Pichel, who also occasionally acted. O.S.S. goes on a bit long, with the final mission stretching both the characters' and the audience's stamina, but overall it's a well-done and interesting movie.

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