Before he was The Artist, French actor—and Academy Award-winner—Jean Dujardin was OSS 117 (cent dix sept), a suave spy in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (Nid d’Espion). This secret agent, though, is a cross between James Bond and Inspector Clousseau, and he’s able played with joie de vivre by Dujardin.
The film starts off with a black and white prologue during the final days of World War II. A Nazi is trying to escape to South America with important blueprint, but he is foiled by OSS agents Hubert and Jack. Then after the opening credits ten years have passed, Hubert (agent OSS 117) is with a woman who tries to kill him when in Rome. She knows he’s secret service; he knows she’s the niece of the former King of Egypt.
After she’s insulted him several times, he says, “You’re pretty vulgar for a pharaoh’s neice.”
“My uncle is King,” she states incredulously. “The pharaohs ruled 4000 years ago!”
“I knew that,” says Hubert with an expression that strongly suggests he didn’t.
Then it’s back to Paris, where Hubert visits a little Parisian cafe. “Comment est la blanquette de veau?” he asks, which leads him to his contact. He learns fellow agent, OSS 283—his close friend, Jack—has been murdered, he is to go to Cairo to invesigate—wait for it—a poultry farm. Well, this was where the last agent was working undercover.
The situation in Egypt is a mess. The English are looking to take complete control of the Suez Canal. The Americans and Russians are fighting each other, and a Russian cargo ship has gone missing. And to top it off, there’s a religious extremist group, the Eagles of Keops, who want to take over. Jack was reporting in on the situation until he was killed.
After actually enjoying the veal stew (la blanquette de veau), Hubert is off to Cairo as businessman Lucien Bramard. “Enjoy Cairo, OSS 117,” he’s told, “Land of pharaohs and pyramids. And a veritable nest of spies.” At the airport, he meets Jack’s secretary and his contact, Larmina El Akmar Betouche. They get off to a rocky start. It’s clear occidentalist Hubert’s arrogant, chauvanistic, imperialistic cluelessness is going to be a challenge to overcome in solving this case.
As one character says of Hubert, “He’s either very stupid… or very smart.”
After a visit to the S.C.E.P., the chicken factory where Jack worked, it’s off to the hotel, the Metropolitan, where the Egyptian King’s niece is waiting for him. Then it’s tuxedo time as he attends an embassy party. There, someone is murdered. He chases a killer, gets lost, and returns to the hotel, only he’s woken up in the middle of the night. He stalks off to”shut up” a muezzin—calling for prayer—inciting religious revolutionaries.
The film, with Mad Men-esque style, is loaded with humor, spy movie cliches, and a sort of persent day sensibility poking fun of the culture of the 1950s. There’s the British agent who gets beat up every time he tries to make contact with Hubert because he fails to ask, “How’s the veal?” There’s a mysterious informant in a fez hat who reports the comings and going of Hubert. There’s fights—including one with chickens—chases, double-crosses, and murder.
One of the best scenes includes the exchanges of statements at the embassy party between Hubert, the German Gerhard Moeller, and the Russian agent Yevevni Setine while a clearly confused Belgian man doesn’t know quite what to say.
With surprising twists—the whole case may have something to do with the stolen blueprints from the War—the story unfolds at a brisk pace leading up to final confrontations at the docks.
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies was released in 2006, followed in 2009, by the sequel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio. set in Brazil naturally, takes place in 1967 with Hubert not having aged a day! It’s worth noting that these films are a revival of sorts. The character of OSS 117 Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, created by French author Jean Bruce, previously appeared in seven films from 1957 to 1970, with Kerwin Mathews—known for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jack the Giant Killer (1962)—in starring in two films. Other actors playing the role include: Ivan Desny, Frederick Stafford (in two films), John Gavin, and Luc Merenda.
The Jean Dujardin appearances as OSS 117 are readily available on DVD. Look for them in libraries or stores with good foreign film collections. Watch the trailer here.