There’s an element of patriotic propaganda to O.S.S. (1946), which dramatizes the actual efforts of secret agents behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. But once you get past that thin, government-sanctioned veneer, there’s a compelling, thorny spy tale underneath.The film chronicles the formation of the Office of Strategic Services — the U.S. intelligence service that went on to form the basis of the CIA — and, more specifically, the deployment of several of its agents. The cell in question, Applejack, consists of four members, who parachute into France on a mission to sabotage a Nazi-controlled railway in the lead-up to the Normandy invasion. The small team is led by Gates (Don Beddoe) and supported by the brawny Bernay (Richard Benedict), but its most important members quickly become the shifty John Martin (Alan Ladd) and the resourceful Elaine Dupree (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Together they work to carry out this sabotage, but as their experience evolves, their mission continues to shift, thrusting them into more and more danger.
O.S.S. initially looks like it might suffer the narrative pitfalls of the biopic, tied as it is to actual history. But by using composite characters and liberally interpreting its sequence of events, the film overcomes its docudrama stodginess, achieving a satisfying shape and generating genuine emotional investment in the characters. The key to this is the romance-under-fire relationship between Martin and Elaine, which while somewhat hampered by the unselfaware sexism of Martin’s character, ultimately comes off quite convincingly. Fitzgerald in particular is charismatic and winning, proving the team’s most adept and fearless member — an early prototype for Mission: Impossible’s Cinnamon Carter, perhaps. (I found this film in The Alan Ladd Collection, but really this film belongs to Fitzgerald.) There’s also plenty of nifty tradecraft and historically interesting detail in the film, as well as classic life-or-death decisions. Overall, I found this one quite enjoyable.