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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

O.S.S.: A non-noir 1940s Alan Ladd wartime adventure.

In December, Turner Classic Movies, in partnership with Universal, released a packaged DVD set of three lesser-known Alan Ladd films from the 1940s (here).  Having recently tumbled headlong into the Alan Ladd fan club, I was excited to see this when the announcement was first made, and practically ran for my credit card to pre-order the set.  Originally supposed to have had four movies, the set only ended up with three in the finished product.  They are: O.S.S., TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST, and LUCKY JORDAN. All three of these films are reminders that Ladd's career during the 1940s extended well beyond film noir. This post focuses on my reactions to O.S.S., a well-made and well-acted WWII adventure film.

Directed by Irving Pichel, O.S.S. was made by Paramount in 1946, and uses the medium of film to inform the public about the heroic actions of the men and women of the 'Office of Strategic Services', the precursor to the C.I.A., during WWII.  To add verisimilitude an opening testimonial was captured on screen from General "Wild Bill" William Donovan, the real head of O.S.S. at the time. According to Marilyn Henry and Ron DeSourdis in their book The Films of Alan Ladd, 30 real O.S.S agents served as advisors on the film.

The story centers around Ladd and his cohort of Allied spies dropped into occupied France near the end of the war, to pose as French citizens and carry out clandestine and dangerous orders to thwart the Nazis at every turn.  Geraldine Fitzgerald is the leading lady, and the cast features terrific support from Patric Knowles, John Hoyt, and Harold Vermilyea.  The tone is quite dark and serious, with very rare touches of humor, quite a bit of irony, and a not insignificant dose of patriotic messaging, which was common in films like these during and after WWII.  There is a little bit of everything:  menacing Nazis, hairbreadth escapes, romance, plastic explosives disguised in sculptured busts (!), and snippets of "My Country Tis of Thee".

What I found fascinating about the film:

--The first episode of the film sets up Ladd, still in the U.S., stealing some important military papers, and leaves the audience initially unsure of who he is or what side he is on.  Eventually after a harrowing interrogation, all is made clear.
--There is a lovely composite scene showing Ladd in various scenarios learning the skills of a spy, with voice over that reads straight from the spy instruction manual.

--We learn early on that if you're an American spy posing as French during the war you must take care to always eat holding your fork in your left hand, and not switch it to the right, which is the custom in the U.S., or fear being found out.  One character lost his life because he slipped up with this!
--Ladd has his typical character arc going from tough cynic to believer through his experiences and the love of a good woman, but a special treat in this is that he has a scene of uncharacteristic emotion near the end of the film where he breaks down in grief and panic--it's a heart-wrenching scene, and makes one wish he'd been able to play more roles requiring him to drop his reserve from time to time.  Apparently Alan was nervous about playing this scene, yet it's really well done.

--There is a lovely little bit piece about a telegraph receptionist and the romance that starts up between her and one of the spies, whom she only knows via love notes he codes in the telegrams he sends her.

What I didn't like:
  • Ladd's character early on makes it very clear he doesn't approve of a woman being among his company of spies, and tells Fitzgerald she should be home raising kids in Cleveland Heights or something to that effect.  Although he was expressing a common point of view of the time it was still painful (ugh, come on now Laddie!). 
  • The chemistry between Ladd and Fitzgerald is lukewarm and while the two clearly grow in affection and respect during the film, the story and our experience would have benefited from a turning up of the heat just a bit.
  • The script ends with a bit too much propagandizing; again, not uncommon during the time.
All in all, a film worthy of Ladd's talents and those of the others, and if not a classic, certainly well worth the 2 hours spent to learn one's history in an intelligent and entertaining way.
Ladd and Fitzgerald surveying their surroundings
Tense meeting between Vermilyea and Hoyt

Fitzgerald is recruited by Knowles


  1. I think audiences have always been savvy to the propaganda angle even if Hollywood producers may have underestimated them. For the sake of a good story and a favourite star, they were able to overlook it then and for the sake of historical setting, we put up with it now.

    As a Canadian whenever I hear a snippet of "My Country 'Til of Thee" I immediately wonder on earth they are playing "God Save the King/Queen". Throws me off balance for a bit.

    1. Yes, we put up with things in films as classic film fans; one of my online 'profs' mentioned the term 'anthropological artifact' in reference to classic films and the propaganda angle is an example of that.

      Yes it's amazing about how familiar tunes can SO take you out of the movie, or jar you. I mentioned in my post about 'COUNT THREE AND PRAY'that there was a recurring musical theme that was nearly identical to the first 6 notes of the 'Star Trek' theme. Did that ever take me out of the film!

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  2. Goodness, yesssssss, more chemistry would have been nice -- but I kinda like that she's as abrasive and stand-offish as he is. Like, Alan doesn't have to be the only one playing cold and untouchable and gradually thawing.

    And yes, his little despairing breakdown is so good.