“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.