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|