Commandant Theodore Dromard (Paul Meurisse), a.k.a. Le Monocle, has just successfully completed a case by putting a bullet in his main antagonist. He is an ace spy for the French Government, but there is not time for resting on his laurels, he has a different case to crack, one which involves the recent death in a car crash of a top missile scientist under suspicious circumstances. The authorities believe this has something to do with a spy ring they have traced to Hong Kong, and invite Le Monocle, so called because of his preferred item of eyewear is one such distinctive lens, to travel halfway across the world to that destination, teaming up with his allies old and new...
This was not the first in the series of Le Monocle movies, it was the third, and was never going to be a franchise that gave O.S.S. 117 any sleepless nights, not even when they had a try at jumping on the James Bond bandwagon that had proven such a world-beater in the nineteen-sixties. Certainly the refined Meurisse (best known as the villainous husband in horror classic Les Diaboliques), was not a Sean Connery type of star, coming across more like a French Walter Matthau of all people, but the international flavour, emphasised by location shooting in the Far East, gave it a lift above some of its contemporaries. That said, if cheapo producer Harry Alan Towers could manage it, maybe not so impressive.
While the other entries had been basic espionage thrillers like countless others, for Le Monocle rit jaune (as it was originally) director Georges Lautner opted for a more playful tone that was miles away from a Bond or O.S.S. instalment of the day, and the results were a film that occasionally had a mention in passing as a minor gem in its overcrowded genre. However, on watching it you may have found there was less than met the eye, monocle-sporting or otherwise, as that small, cultish reputation rested on a handful of directorial flourishes and perhaps the presence of Euro horror celebrity Barbara Steele as the female lead, and in a rare, non-supernatural role - Meurisse was apparently offended by her casting.
But don't listen to him, she was perfectly fine and it was nice to see her exhibit more range than her usual business of traipsing around a stone-walled castle in floaty nightwear during the sixties. What was less welcome was the impatience the main character had with anything that was not French, not so much what he said, but how he went about solving the mystery, an air of smug superiority never far away. He was something of a chore to watch, and those additions that were intended to lighten his persona were interesting, but not enough to buoy what was a rather ordinary adventure, no matter how often the hero got into a situation where he was able to gun down yet another bad guy, which was alarmingly often: by the end his body count seems to be threatening to reach triple figures.
It isn't, and he was too suave to register as a mechanical killing machine, but he was surprisingly bloodthirsty and only the demeanour that this was all a lark really, and we shouldn't take it seriously, amounted to much in the way of any degree of being lighthearted. Such undercutting moments ranged from Le Monocle taking his in-depth research rather too seriously by smoking opium with one of his contacts (imagine if Roger Moore's Bond had willingly shot up with heroin during Live and Let Die), a meticulously crafted coq au vin that goes horribly wrong in an explosion, and the action transformng into slow motion for a West Side Story homage complete with Sharks and Jets dance moves and finger clicking. It is these bits of nonsense that offer the movie its following, but they're sparsely arranged morsels in a work that was difficult to be enthusiastic about anyway, although sixties spy addicts would wish to track it down, and that was perfectly fair. Music by Michel Magne (also sounding familiar in places).