The OSS 117 Films: Michel Hazanavicius’ Warmup for The Artist

The French director of The Artist may be an unknown to American audiences. but he's been paying tribute to Hollywood-style movies for his entire career

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Music Box Films / Everett

Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin in a scene from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.

On Oscar night, Feb. 26, something unprecedented in movie history is likely to happen: the Best Picture award could go to a movie whose makers were unknown to virtually every member of the Motion Picture Academy. The Artist, a Gallic valentine to the glamour and glory of Hollywood in the 1920s and ’30s — but virtually wordless, and in black-and-white — would be the first out-of-nowhere Oscar champ. The Best Picture prize would also be a fitting reward for a French writer-director who has devoted his career to lovingly twisting the conventions of English-language movies.

Michel Hazanavicius, the 44-year-old filmmaker born in Paris to a Lithuanian Jewish family, is new to Hollywood, but Hollywood is an old friend to him. Three of his four previous features are canny pastiches of American-style thrillers — if, that is, you grant honorary U.S. citizenship to the earliest James Bond films and their myriad imitations, since Hazanavicius directed two wicked Gallic contortions of the 007 ethos, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 177: Lost In Rio, both starring The Artist’s Jean Dujardin (and both available on DVD from Music Box Films).

(MORE: See Mary Corliss’s review of The Artist)

An impish satirist in the Mad comic-book tradition, he had only to add heart to the recipe to produce The Artist. Rarely has a filmmaker, American or otherwise, prepared himself so assiduously to create a tribute to Hollywood in its first golden age. Since the OSS 117 movies received only furtive release in the U.S., and Hazanavicius’ first film effort, La classe américaine, was not released at all, a look at these three works can provide clues to the director’s pastiche style and how it grew.

LA CLASSE AMĒRICAINE

In 1993 Hazanavicius was working at Canal Plus, the giant pay-cable channel that owned most of the post-1948 Warner Bros. film library. With co-director Dominique Mézerette, he dove into this trove and created La classe américaine, a 72-min.action comedy comprising Warners clips from the 1950s through the ’70s.

If the notion makes you think of Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, you’re halfway there. Martin and director Carl Reiner had buttressed their film-noir burlesque with segments from black-and-white crime dramas, which were woven into new scenes with the star and other actors. Hazanavicius and Mézerette one-upped Dead Men by relying only on the found footage from the Warners vault. Actually. La classe américaine is closer to the 1936 avant-garde film Rose Hobart, in which artist Joseph Cornell stripped the 75-min. 1931 jungle epic East of Borneo down to 19 minutes, mostly of dreamy closeups of its leading lady, and in the process devised a meditation on any moviegoer’s obsession with star quality — even of an actress who was never remotely a Hollywood star.

(MORE: Audiences ask for refunds on learning The Artist is silent)

La classe américaine has nothing but stars. Prefaced by a misspelled, crudely printed title card that translates as “Attention, This flim is not a flim about bicycle-ridign, Thank you for your understanding,” it begins in the South Pacific, where ship’s captain John Wayne, from The Sea Chase, exchanges belligerent words (in French) with buccaneer Burt Lancaster from The Crimson Pirate. Soon Wayne, whom the film renames George Abitbol (Dujardin’s character in The Artist is also called George) and describes as “the classiest American,” is dead. Three reporters — Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, from All the President’s Men, and Paul Newman, in clips from Harper and The Drowning Pool — are assigned to investigate Abitbol’s demise and, Citizen Kane-style, to discover the meaning of his final words: “Ah, monde de merde!

The movie, which can be seen in its entirety on Google Video, uses a split screen to show Newman reading a phone number (of about 27 digits) to Hoffman and then Redford calling James Stewart in The FBI Story. Reaction shots from different movies put Wayne in the passenger seat of a car, pouring his heart out to Newman in the driver’s seat just before a tremendous explosion. Henry Fonda, bearded or clean-shaven, is a frequent visitor, as are Steve McQueen (Bullitt), Clark Gable (Band of Angels), Elvis Presley (Charro!) and hundreds of extras from The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Star actresses get short or no shrift; the on-screen evidence suggests that the Warners lot from the Eisenhower through the Nixon era was totally a man’s world.

The French audience got more out of La classe américaine, not just from the pun-strewn script but from the directors’ hiring of the American stars’ usual French dubbers to mouth the parody dialogue. Eventually running out of steam and gags, even in its brief running time, the flim reveals Hazanavicius’ smarty-pants impulse for Hollywoodophilia. The talent he displayed in The Artist would be a long time coming.

OSS 117: CAIRO, NEXT OF SPIES

More than a decade (and a non-pastiche comedy, the 1999 Mes amis, starring his brother Serge) elapsed before his biggest French hit, the 2006 OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Officially, the movie was a decades-tardy spinoff of seven international adventure films limning the exploits of French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, the creation of novelist Jean Bruce. The film series began with the 1957 OSS 117 Is Not Dead, starring Ivan Desny and directed by Jean Sacha; but it got its strong second wind with the success of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, in 1962. As the 007 craze spread, spy spoofs proliferated in Hollywood and abroad. Six OSS 117 films appeared from 1963 to 1970 — OSS in Chains, Panic in Bangkok, Mission for a Killer, Terror in Tokyo, Double Agent and OSS 117 on Vacation — four of them directed by comedy specialist André Hunebelle and featuring the American and European B-listers Kerwin Matthews, Frederick Stafford, John Gavin and Luc Merenda in the role of Hubert (none more than twice).

Bruce’s Bonisseur de la Bath might be thought a knockoff of Ian Fleming’s Bond, but it could be the other way around — though both novelists were responding to political turmoil in their own countries. Bruce began his series of some 90 books in 1949, when France still occupied Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria and was waging a last stand in Indochina. Fleming inaugurated his series in 1953, when Britain had shriveled as an imperial power and the acrid embarrassment of the Burgess-MacLean-Philby spy scandal was still fresh in the national nostrils. As these empires were trembling or crumbling, 007 and 117 rose as international superheroes — fantasy and nostalgia in similarly suave packages. “Some people have adventures,” Hubert says in OSS 117: Lost in Rio. “I am an adventure.”

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