Thursday, May 3, 2012


“O.S.S.” (1946) is a real pip of a WWII espionage thriller, with a strong cast and several genuinely suspenseful situations. What’s most interesting is its screenplay credit, an early credit for Richard Maibaum, who went on to write 13 James Bond films. There’s quite a bit here that looks ahead to the later 007 films.

I mean, you have the hero Alan Ladd sporting a pipe that turns into a revolver, and sculptress/agent Geraldine Fitzgerald using molding clay that also doubles as plastic explosive. Not to mention a Gestapo colonel (John Hoyt, a terrific performance in his film debut) who, thanks to a run-in with the OSS agents, sports a white, not a black, eye patch, that looks ahead to Maibaum’s gallery of deformed Bond villains.

“O.S.S” is presented, at first, in that semi-documentary style so popular after the war. This one tends to lean more towards melodrama than realism, despite the seal of approval at the beginning by OSS founder William “Wild Bill” Donovan. OSS stands for Office of Strategic Services, and was a forerunner of the CIA.

Supposedly based on actual OSS case files, I suspect that only the germ of actual OSS incidents found their way into the finished script. When the film was made, the war had been over for only a year, and I’m sure many top secret files stayed that way for years, if not decades, after.

“O.S.S.” follows a team of agents code named Applejack placed into France to help pave the way for the invasion of Europe. We follow the agents as they learn their cover stories and the local customs, such as using a fork in the left hand European-style, not right-hand American style.

Philip Masson (Alan Ladd) doesn’t like the idea of working with Ellen Rogers (Geraldine Fitzgerald). He doesn’t think women can be relied upon. But they form a team whose assignment is to blow up a key French railroad tunnel. How to smuggle explosives into that heavily guarded section of France?

I won’t spoil it for those that haven’t seen the movie, but it’s very clever. When the team completes this assignment, the movie is barely half over. There’s still the problem of laying low in France, while obtaining whatever information they can on troop size and their movements, all while evading the Gestapo who are after them for blowing up the tunnel.

The firm was produced by Paramount Pictures and directed by the intriguing Irving Pichel. Starting out his career as an actor, and arguably best known for his role as the manservant Sandor in “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936), Pichel also was known as a voice actor and later as a director. He directed the nifty noirs “They Won’t Believe Me” (1947) and “Quicksand” (1950) and some of “O.S.S” plays like a noir in spots, with the foggy, darkened streets of Paris harboring Gestapo threats around every corner.

No starlet type, Fitzgerald was one of the more intelligent actresses of the era and it’s a pleasure to see her using her intelligence and wits to finesse her way out of countless situations. She’s a good foil for Ladd, who may not be among the cinema’s great actors, but had a terrific screen presence and possessed charisma that many more respectable actors would kill to have.

Despite the 007-like touches I mentioned earlier, and the impressive performance by Fitzgerald, the movie offers other surprises. Just when you think its over, and Ladd and Fitzgerald are awaiting in an empty field to be picked up by an airplane and taken back to England, they are asked – no, ordered - by their commanding officer Patric Knowles to stay for one last mission. In one of the best scenes of his career, Ladd, grits his teeth and tells Knowles to let someone else do it, they’ve done their bit and want to go home.

No gung-ho type, Ladd’s character is scared and doesn’t want to go the self-sacrifice route. (I suspect that if this was made during the war, he would have willingly accepted the assignment). The ending is somber too, and a good tonic to those who think all 1940s war movies end on an upbeat, patriotic note.


Alas, “O.S.S.” has yet to be released on DVD, and its been a long time since its been shown on television. I was fortunate enough to snag a used VHS copy during a recent trip to the local Half Price Books, where the VHS tapes were being sold for fifty cents each. In what can only be termed an Alan Ladd goldmine, I also grabbed VHS copies of “China” (1943) and “Two Years Before the Mast” (1947) for the same price.

I do hope that a company like Olive Films releases it on DVD, or it shows up on TCM. It’s a terrific film, with more than a few very suspenseful sequences. It deserves to be better known. For a WWII espionage thriller, “O.S.S.” is one of the best.


Caftan Woman said...

It's been ages since I've seen this movie. Although, it pops into my head occasionally when I silently debate how to use my table utensils.

Alan Ladd had a great screen presence and knew how to use it. An important movie making skill that would have benefited many an acclaimed thespian.

Wonderful article, as usual.

KimWilson said...

Nice to know where Maibaum got his training for the Bond films. O.S.S. and 007 almost sound symmetrical. I've never seen this, but Fitzgerald, a good but underrated actress, is a favorite of mine.

Kevin Deany said...

C.W., I always get this film confused with Cagney's "13 Rue Madeline" which has a similar plot. I think in that one they stress using the fork in the left hand, but I could be wrong. I kept waiting for the scene for Alan Ladd to be captured and tortured in Gestapo headquarters. Nope, that was Cagney again.

Kim, I like Fitzgerald too. I don't know how she felt about working with Ladd, but I liked their scenes together. But her subtle seduction scenes with Gestapo commander John Hoyt really shine.

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, I've never seen this one, but you make it sound quite appealing. Where do you come up with these neglected gems? As I read I was reminded of another similar film I just saw, and it was "13 Rue Madeleine"!

Not much mentioned these days, Ladd didn't have a lot of range, but what he did he did very well, well enough to be one of the most popular leading men of the 40s. In 1947 he was one of the top 10 box office stars, along with people like Bogart, Cooper, and Gable. He made the top 10 again in 1953 and 1954, I suppose because of "Shane." For some reason his career seemed to stall after that. I'm with Kim about Geraldine Fitzgerald, one of the most interesting and clearly intelligent actresses of the 40s. I especially liked her in "Three Strangers" with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Since "O.S.S." isn't out on DVD, I'll just have to hope it turns up on TCM one day. Now that I'm aware of it, I'll be looking.

Kevin Deany said...

R.D., I agree what you said about Ladd. I get more pleasure watching him on screen than many a legitimate actor. What he did, he did very well. In his chase scenes, he moves like a jungle cat. I think of David Lean's reaction to watching Errol Flynn - "I like the way he moves."

These 1930s and 1940s Paramount titles are maddingly elusive, probably more than any other major studio. TCM has started to show some of these in the past year or two, but the floodgates have hardly been opened. I am hoping that we might see some unearthed gems.

The Lady Eve said...

Kevin, I read this piece a few nights ago but apparently didn’t post my comment properly. I'll give it another try...

I haven’t seen “O.S.S.” and from what you say, it seems like it may be a while until I do. Sounds fascinating, though, with Alan Ladd during his glory days of the ‘40s and a pre-Bond Maibaum screenplay. I’ve seldom see Geraldine Fitzgerald in a leading role, and that interests me, too. Hopefully, this movie is in the TCM library and will make its way to the small screen sometime soon – would love to see it.

Caftan Woman said...

I'm back! And this time I bring the 7X7 Link Award. It's forwarded sincerely to accept as you will.

Laura said...

This sounds great! I've really developed an appreciation for Ladd this past year, and having recently seen a double bill of Fitzgerald films on the big screen, your review was especially well timed for me! I'm going to look into getting a used VHS copy from an Amazon vendor. Thanks for the recommendation!

Best wishes,