Saturday, September 14, 1974: OSS 117 Double Agent aka Murder for Sale (1968) / Captive Wild Woman (1943)

Synopsis: Secret Agent 117 (John Gavin) has recently undergone plastic surgery to make him resemble a notorious criminal named Chandler. Seducing beautiful Spanish dancer Conchita Esteban (Rosalbi Neri) during her visit to Paris, Chandler makes sure she sees newspaper headlines that link him with a recent bank heist, one that was secretly staged for the media’s benefit.

Esteban calls the police and Chandler is arrested, and the media has a field day playing up the capture of the famed criminal. Under heavy guard, the van taking Chandler to prison is escorted by a helicopter.

The police in the convoy assume the helicopter is one of theirs, until it lowers a canister on a winch that begins to spray a gas that knocks out all the drivers in the convoy. The helicopter lands and two men in gas masks take an unconscious Chandler away with them.

Chandler awakens in a beautiful but heavily-guarded chateau. He is greeted by Dr. Aicha Melik (Margaret Lee) who tells him to prepare to meet The Major (Curd Jurgens), who leads an international syndicate of assassins. They want Chandler to assassinate UN negotiator Hendrick van Dyke (Pierro Lulli), who is working out a delicate truce between two Middle East countries.

In order to ensure Chandler’s cooperation, The Major has Chandler injected with a poison that will kill him unless he receives a specific antidote that must be applied at 24 hour intervals.

Chandler arranges a bombing which is believed to have killed van Dyke, but he secretly has the diplomat spirited out of the country. He returns to Paris in time for his next injection, but The Major has already decided that Chandler should die as soon as his job for the organization has been completed…..

Comments: This was enough of an oddball choice for Horror Incorporated that I couldn’t help but wonder if the TV listings for the time got it wrong. A goofy Eurospy entry from 1968, starring an American actor who’d been in Spartacus and who would later serve as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico?

Oh well. Why not?

James Bond knockoffs were all the rage in the 1960’s of course, and smug, oversexed spies (Harry Palmer, Napoleon Solo, John Drake, Matt Helm, etc) were seemingly on every movie and TV screen. The OSS 117 series, though, requires a little bit of explanation.

The French / Italian OSS 117 series preceded the James Bond films by a few years, and they’re still being made today. Unlike the Bond films, no actor has played the title role in more than two films (Kerwin Matthews, whom we saw in Maniac, played the role twice, and John Gavin was in fact the fifth actor to portray the character) and while tonight’s entry is definitely tongue-in-cheek, later films leaned much more heavily into the comedy elements. Despite the fact that OSS 117 films arrived before the Bond movies did, this one is clearly cashing in on the Bond craze of the era, and is a standard-issue Eurospy film of the late 1960s.

We have a smug secret agent who is always one step ahead of the bad guys and who gets plenty of opportunities to wear a tuxedo and seduce the most beautiful women around. He gets into car chases and plays with improbable gadgets and fights an overconfident madman who favors Nehru collars and is bent on world domination. Bond films make this sort of wish fulfillment effortlessly entertaining, but somehow OSS 117 seems tremendously labored, having to constantly wink at the camera to signal that the cast and crew aren’t buying any of this, either.

As he did throughout his career, John Gavin comes across as competent but rather bland; he’s probably ideal for this sort of carbon-copy role. Oddly, the Bond producers thought enough of his performance in this movie that they briefly cast him as the lead in Diamonds are Forever (1971), before Sean Connery agreed to return to the franchise. Gavin wouldn’t be the first Bond wannabee who received this sort of consideration — Patrick McGoohan was also offered the role after his turn in TV’s Danger Man series. Nor was Gavin the only American who was, for some reason, considered to play the part of a very British icon.

Margaret Lee is perfectly fine as Aicha, who serves as both the good Bond girl and the bad one. Curd Jurgens, who’d been so effective in The Enemy Below, is left a bit flat with little more to do than rock a groovy jacket and deliver the occasional sinister laugh while 60s-era lounge music noodles away in the background.

Captive Wild Woman

Synopsis: Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) returns from a two-year trip to Africa, where he has been gathering wild animals for the Whipple Circus. He is particularly proud of a gorilla he’s captured named Cheela, whom he has taught a number of tricks on the long sea voyage home.

His girlfriend Beth Colman (Evelyn Ankers) is glad to see him, but she reveals some developments that she hasn’t shared via letter since Fred went on his journey. Beth’s sister Dorothy (Martha Vickers) has been deeply troubled, and her doctors have concluded that her problems are glandular in nature. She took Dorothy to see Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine), an expert on glandular problems, and Dorothy is now hospitalized at his sanitorium. She also shares that Dr. Walters has shown a keen interest in Beth, and has taken her to dinner several times.

Perhaps looking to size up the competition, Mason goes with Beth and meets Dr. Walters, inviting him on a behind-the-scenes look at the circus. Walters is deeply impressed with Cheela and asks off-handedly if Whipple would ever sell a beast like that. He’s told that the circus would never sell at any price.

Feeling that Cheela is necessary for the experiment he wants to try, Walters secretly meets with a fired worker from the circus (Paul Fix), offering him money to help him steal Cheela. Once he has the gorilla in his possession, he murders his nurse, Miss Strand (Fay Helm) and uses her cerebrum on the gorilla to augment its intelligence, then injects it with Dorothy’s glandular secretions.

This presumably violates all the standard laws of God and man; nevertheless the procedure is successful. Cheela is transformed from a hairy gorilla to a beautiful woman (Acquanetta). Walters gives her the name Paula Dupree and takes her to the circus, where she seems to have a hypnotic effect on the animals. As long as she is close by, the animals are easy for Mason to control.

It soon becomes clear that Paula has fallen in love with Mason. But what simian savagery will be released when she discovers that he loves Beth?

Comments: This Ben Pivar production is interesting for a number of reasons, mainly because of the clever way it uses extensive footage from a completely different movie. All of the circus animals we see are from a 1933 film called The Big Cage, featuring famed animal trainer Clyde Beatty. Most of the scenes in Captive Wild Woman are built around this archival footage.

In fact, a good third of this film’s 60-minute running time is from The Big Cage, so Captive Wild Woman must have been a bargain for the studio. They didn’t spend a lot of money on the cast, anyway. Milburn Stone, a lackluster contract player at Universal who was usually cast as the lawyer or the family friend, was evidently chosen to play Mason because his wavy black hair resembles that of Clyde Beatty.

With matching costumes it was fairly simple for Edward Dmytryk to show Beatty in long shots and reverse angles, and Stone in closeups. Through clever editing, most people in the audience probably were never aware of the recycling job. It’s a bit of stretch to imagine Evelyn Ankers waiting around for Milburn Stone for two years, but it works for the purposes of this movie.

Stone doesn’t get top billing in this picture, though: that honor goes to horse-faced ham John Carradine. In spite of this being his first starring role, Carradine’s performance was already tiresome. Will this guy ever stop ranting about glandular secretions? And scientists of the 1940s, please stop trying to turn gorillas into human beings, especially since you don’t seem to have any point in doing it.

Even allowing for the slipshod science, it’s not clear how or why Cheela the gorilla (played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan and his trusty gorilla suit) would turn suddenly into Acquanetta. Fortunately, the Venezuelan Volcano doesn’t speak, automatically making this her best screen performance. The whole movie is quite silly, even by the gland-happy standards of 1940s horror cinema.

I do want to address one element of the film that really bothered me, and that I would hope many others would find disturbing today as well. The scenes of animals being mistreated probably didn’t bother very many people, once upon a time. But the world has changed a lot since this movie was released in 1943 (and indeed, since we saw it on Horror Incorporated in 1974).

By today’s standards the circus scenes are simply appalling: we see magnificent animals that don’t belong in captivity caged up and tormented for the amusement of spectators. Clyde Beatty cracks a whip and fires blank cartridges at animals that are obviously frightened and stressed, and at one point a tiger and a lion are made to fight one another on camera (the fight was real; the animals were forced into a cage together and the resulting fight was filmed, with one of the animals dying as a result of the staged altercation).

People can wax nostalgic about the past if they wish; there were certainly good things in the world that are now gone forever. But we tend to forget the thoughtless and cruel things that have gone by the wayside, and we should all be grateful that circuses and inhumane zoo exhibits have largely vanished.

And with that, my friends, I shall step off my soap box, doff my hat in farewell, and disappear into the night.

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