07 July 2012

THE TIES THAT BOND

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.

ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE
Directed by Peter Hunt
Written by Richard Maibaum
Premiered 18 December, 1969

This happens to be the only James Bond film that's actually susceptible to being spoiled, and it's partially because of its shock ending that it's also one of the most interesting stories in the entire franchise. So, thing is, I am totally going to spoil it whenever I need to in order to make a point. I don't think it will ruin your experience of the movie if you've never seen it, but there is nonetheless a WHOLE-REVIEW SPOILER ALERT in effect, so if that's an issue, know that I love the movie a lot and I'll see you next week.

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
In the London headquarters of MI6, spymaster M (Bernard Lee) is enduring a demonstration from gadgets expert Q (Desmond Llewelyn) on an exciting new way to track enemy agents using radioactive lint. "What we want is a location fix for 007" grumbles M, and we jump over to see exactly what 007 has been up to: goofing around in Portugal, it appears, for James Bond (George Lazenby) doesn't appear to be on his way to anyplace in particular when he saves a mysterious woman, who we'll seen get to know as Contessa Teresea "Tracy" di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), from committing suicide by walking into the ocean. This act of mercy gets Bond into trouble with small army of thugs, whom he fights off in a spectacularly well-choreographed and well-edited fight, silhouetted against the glare of the afternoon sun. But no sooner does he throw over the last fighter than the woman tears off in her sports car, leaving him befuddled and wet.

So far, so great - a fantastic fight scene, and we get to meet our new actor playing Bond in a way that makes him seem fittingly heroic and iconic. But then... what's going on? With a wry bit of detachment, Bond comments to himself, "This never happened to the other fellow", because oh my God, please yes, make a point of reminding us that you're not Sean Connery, and just break the fourth wall right down to the ground and, wait, stop, no, don't turn to the camera, oh my Christ, did you really just turn to the camera? Yes, you're not Sean fucking Connery, we did know that. As least he doesn't wink. Jesus, what the fuck.

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Rating: 2.5 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
A milestone: the second or third (depends on what you want to do with From Russia with Love), and final, Bond title theme that's an instrumental piece. This choice was undoubtedly made for a number of good reasons, among them being that the love child of George Gershwin and Cole Porter, raised to adulthood by Stephen Sondheim, would have been hard-pressed to set the phrase, "on Her Majesty's secret service" to music.

This leaves us, then with a John Barry composition that sounds rather more like a dramatic motif to score an action scene than a song (and, in fact, it makes several appearances in just such a capacity), though for all that, it works well enough as a piece of opening credits music: for one thing, it is by far one of the most dramatic, intense things composed for any Bond movie, sweeping you up and carrying you forward and being propulsive and all. Given how terribly the whole pop song thing was about to go for the franchise, one last burst of horn-driven action movie momentum isn't so bad.

OHMSS boasts another milestone: the first and only love theme in a Bond film, the Barry/Hal David tune "We Have All the Time in the World", the final track ever recorded by Louis Armstrong. You can hear in the singer's voice that he's not well, but as featherweight late-'60s love ballads go, it's quite listenable. Better still is when it, too, is taken up into the film's underscore; indeed, with its new harsh edge replacing the cool jazzy feeling of the previous scores, I'm tempted to say that this movie has the best overall soundtrack of any Bond picture.

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Rating: 3.5 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
Following along on the rather annoying meta-joke that ends the opening scene, the last thing we need is a title sequence that uses footage from the five preceding James Bond movies as some kind of desperate gambit to make sure we get that this is still the same movie franchise and still the same heroic, womanising superspy. But that is exactly what we get. I'm not certain whether Maurice Binder made that decision on his own, or if it was forced on him; either way, it was a singularly balls-less decision to have made.

That said, what Binder does with this awful idea is actually pretty effective. The sequence is dominated by images of time: a huge clock, and lots of hourglasses, announcing, AGAIN, that this is the "moving forward into a bold, Connery-less future" movie, but giving plenty of interesting graphic elements to work with: thus we have it that the footage from Bond film past rendered as the sand in an hourglass, drifting down; and the images are further distorted to look both out-of-focus and stretched in different places, as though Binder were secretly commenting that the whole idea of self-reference is kind of daft. Which, of course, it was.

Also, though this film makes relatively little use of the "naked girls in silhouette" motif that was already a series mainstay and would only become moreso, I should mention that the girls whose silhouettes were used in this case were particularly, um, cold, at the time of shooting. So that's nice.

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Rating: 3 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT

On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the first Bond novel published after the movie franchise premiered with Dr. No, but it was the last one written prior to that; making it something of a transitional text (or it would be, if Fleming had been able to complete more than one more book and a draft of a second prior to his death). This is important because the film OHMSS hews remarkably close to the source material; certainly the Bond movie that resembles the book most (outside of Thunderball, in which the film story and the novel were effectively written in tandem). And since Fleming's books were more subdued and grounded than all but the most pointedly raw Bond movies (even the relatively gritty film version of From Russia with Love is quite a bit more fanciful than Fleming's novel), this makes OHMSS perhaps the most realistic and sober-minded of the first wave of Bond pictures, right up until the hypno-beds show up.

Anyway: after the incident at the beach, 007 bumps into Tracy a second time at the local casino, where he helps her out by paying off her considerable baccarat losses. Considering this a debt to be repayed, she sleeps with him; that there is more to this tryst than a simple Bondian conquest becomes clear when the secret agent is carted off by henchmen to the home of legendary crimelord Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti, dubbed by David de Keyser), who in addition to being head of a syndicate second only to the notorious international terrorist group SPECTRE, is Tracy's estranged father. He has a business proposition for Bond: since Tracy is already smitten with the secret agent (a fact she takes great pains to hide), Bond should encourage her affections, all the way to the altar, in exchange for a million pounds. Bond is as offended at this suggestion as he dares in front of a crimelord, but has a counter-proposal: if Draco can point him towards the elusive head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond will happily romance Tracy, but marriage is ridiculous.

A deal made, a deal fulfilled. M is not terribly happy about this, and takes 007 off the Blofeld case; in retaliation, the agent quits, though the quickfooted Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) intercedes between her boss and her crush to make sure that Bond has to settle for a two-week Christmas holiday. Of course, this simply means that Bond has to pursue Blofeld unofficially, which he does by posing as Sir Hilary Bray of the London College of Arms, currently investigating a the authenticity of a certain Comte de Bleuchamp's claim to his title. For de Bleuchamp is none other than Blofeld himself, and when Bond follows the thread to the Swiss Alps, he finds his adversary in the flesh (Telly Savalas's flesh, to be precise), posing as an allergist treating a proper harem of sick women (naturally, Bond beds a few of them in between his investigations). This medical ruse is, naturally, just a front for his real plan, which is to destroy all the agriculture in the whole world if his demands aren't met.

Bond, of course, thwarts this scheme; while in Switzerland, he also runs into Tracy, sent by her father - she pulls him out of the fire and gets kidnapped for it, but is rescued in the same daring raid that ends Blofeld's crackpot scheme. Then comes the first twist: Bond has fallen so much in love with her through this that they marry. Then comes the second: Blofeld, having survived the downfall of his Swiss lair, ambushes the newlyweds on the road just after their wedding, killing Tracy and leaving Bond completely stunned.

The whole business with turning all the crops and food animals sterile is absolute nonsense, one of the fuzziest villain plots in any of the non-campy Bond movies (it doesn't help at all that the idea of an army of women doing the villain's busywork was used in not one, but two parody films earlier in the decade featuring American agent Derek Flint). But that's not what OHMSS is really about; this is a movie that's startlingly long on character arcs, and they're handled beautifully: the romance between Bond and Tracy, the antagonism and rivalry between Bond and Blofeld. Now, 141 minutes, this was the longest Bond movie for 37 years, and it doesn't earn that; there is a chunk square in the middle involving Blofeld's fake allergy spy that is deathly slow. But on the whole, this tells as compelling a story as any Bond movie has done, so even if the villain's actual plot is kind of dumb, I think we can give Richard Maibaum's script some points.

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Rating: 4 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
I have one and only one problem with Telly Savalas's take as the calculating, evil Blofeld: he's not Donald Pleasance. Having formally introduced us that that character in You Only Live Twice two years earlier, that actor created a bad guy not easily topped, and Savalas, in keeping with the more human-sized film he appeared in, is far, far more laconic and small and comfortable in his menace than Pleasance's buggy sociopath. There's a strong argument that this makes him more threatening, and certainly, there's a bored quality to Savalas's characterisation, like he doesn't even need to make the attempt to menace Bond, since he's so effortlessly in control of the situation for so long, that works phenomenally well. I do not care so much for the film's decision to put Blofeld front and center in several of the action sequences (this was, in fact, why the more physical Savalas was brought in to replace Pleasance), for it makes him a littler man, a man willing to resort to getting dirty himself; but it's not even slightly enough to wash out the self-satisfied look on Blofeld's face when he reveals to 007 how much he's been toying with the agent all along.

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Rating: 4.5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
I must acknowledge my bias first, or we'll never get anywhere: I really and truly think that Diana Rigg is the sexiest woman produced by the British Isles in the 20th Century. So, first and foremost, Tracy di Vicenzo is already my easy pick for the hottest of all Bond Girls (not that A necessarily implies B in this case; not that many of the Bond Girls were, in fact, Brits. But still). And while I'm not altogether thrilled to let that be a major factor in my love for the character, the Bond Girls are eye candy; it's fair game even if it feels like meeting the franchise on its chauvinistic level.

The good news, then, is that Tracy is also one of the most capable of all Bond heroines - in a pinch, she can beat Blofeld's thugs in a even fight, and she has absolutely none of the oh-gasp-help-me girlishness that just about all of the other "strong" female leads for Bond get stuck with: when she's alone with Blofeld in the third act, his prisoner in his lofty fortress, she's far more arch and bored than scared or wilting. Plus, she's so quick-witted, sexy, fun, and all such good things, that she's the only woman that James Bond has ever committed to emotionally. And Rigg, one of the best actresses to ever take on one of these parts, plays all of this with intelligence and a profound sense of personal amusement.

Tracy's punishment for being so completely awesome is, of course, death; Bond with a wife that could actually control his manliness would have never fit the series' laddish tone. But setting that aside, she's absolutely the tops, my single favorite Bond Girl of them all in every way, shape, and form.

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Rating: 5 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMAN
With Blofeld himself getting so much to do, it doesn't leave a lot of room for his muscle to make an impression; outside of a couple of especially prominent thugs, the only one who does is Fräulein Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat, who died the week of the film's premiere), the franchise's second dumpy psychotic middle-aged woman coded as a lesbian after Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love. And you know what, calling up Lotta Lenya comparisons puts just about anybody in a bad place, but it doesn't help that the script gives Steppat so little to work with: other than snappishly introducing "Sir Hilary" to the health resort, Bunt doesn't do much - just barks at the girls taking Blofeld's cure, a role that seems much diminished in light of how nobody involved actually cares about curing allergies. Steppat's performance is sufficiently authoritative and nasty that she manages to make the character seem more than she is, but this is still not one of the Bond antagonists likely to top anybody's list of bests.

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Rating: 3 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRLS WHO END UP DEAD
You can't drop Agent 007 into a mountaintop lair full of pretty women who've been isolated from men, and not expect some action to happen; by the same token, you can't introduce that situation without it feeling a little bit like the filmmakers were desperate to give their hero at least two sexual partners over the course of the feature. Certainly, flighty Ruby Bartlett of Yorkshire (Angele Scoular) adds virtually nothing of value to the film other than facilitating an outstandingly great bad pun (and the dirtiest joke in the series until the 1990s): he twitches a bit as she writes her room number on his thigh, under the table, causing Bunt to ask if anything is the matter. "Just a slight stiffness coming on. In the shoulder".

Catherina Von Schell's Nancy can't even contribute that much: she just gives Bond a dazzling smile and open legs, and barely even gets a full scene to herself. Looking for the argument that the James Bond movies are ultimately just about male fantasies of easy sex with beautiful, empty women? Look no further than this pair.

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Rating: 2 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
If You Only Live Twice raised the bar for Bond action, I persist in believing that OHMSS readily matches it. For one thing, it has sheer quantity on its side: the wonderful opening fight on the beach, two separate skiing-based chase scenes, a bobsled chase, a car chase on any ice rink, and the de rigeur small army invading the bad guy's base in the final act; and that's all in a movie notable primarily for its added emphasis on character! So we have a dense fucking action extravaganza, and it helps that nearly all of these sequences are fantastically executed: only the second skiing scene really feels like it's beneath the level of the rest, and that owes mainly to how it had to be rejiggered at the last minute when the mountainside that the filmmakers had picked to stage an avalanche went and actually had an avalanche when they weren't filming. And I suppose it's worth mentioning that the first skiing scene has a problem making up its mind just how much daylight there should be from shot to shot.

But on the whole, I can't complain about this stuff. In this respect, it's very much worth pointing out that the film was directed by Peter Hunt, till now the series' editor and second unit director on You Only Live Twice (he was replaced in those capacities by John Glen, who'd graduate to directing Bond pictures himself soon enough), making him arguably the single individual who most understood why the Bond action sequences worked they way they did. And the action in OHMSS feels like it was conceived editing first; the way the images flow through and around one another, the way that continuity is out-and-out broken in certain very exciting ways, all speak to an editor's mentality of how the momentum of action can be augmented by the momentum of the cutting. Hunt would never have anything to do with Bond after this; his loss was immediately and keenly felt, but at least he got to leave this one monument behind him.

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Rating: 4.5 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
Skip back up to the "Pre-Title Sequence" section. Radioactive lint. That's it, and except for a brief appearance near the end, it's all we see of Desmond Llewelyn in the whole movie. The only gadget to speak of that Bond himself uses is a gigantic safe-cracking machine/photocopier that takes about 10 minutes to work, and seems much lower-tech than the little handheld job he had in You Only Live Twice. I'm sorry, more "grounded" Bond movie or no, that shit is weak.

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Rating: 1 Easily-Riled Welshman


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Well, it's not a giant goddamn volcano, but Blofeld's mountain lair at Piz Gloria is still pretty spectacular, in a far more physically plausible register. As it would almost have to be, given that the filmmakers found a location they liked right where a restaurant was actually being built. In exchange for shooting there, they helped design and pay for the space, which is still in existence and still shows footage from OHMSS on a loop inside. It must be a hell of a place to eat, because it was a hell of a movie set: vistas as far as your eye can conceive of, showcased by huge windows.

The rest of the Piz Gloria lair, on sets, is almost as impressive: in keeping with the film's scaling down, everything is more muted and tangible, but there's a definite sexy chic thing going on that does the franchise proud, and this is particularly impressive when we note that Ken Adam had taken a break with this film, leaving production designer duties to Syd Cain, in his only Bond outing; I don't know if he could have survived into the more fantastic period of the franchise, but he's fantastic here. The incongruity of seeing Christmas decorations in the villain's lair is the icing on the cake.

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Rating: 3.5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
So here's the thing: to me, George Lazenby is, of all six "official" James Bonds, the classiest. I'll get into that a bit more later, but he's just so comfortable in a tuxedo, or drinking martinis and chatting in a nice library with a master criminal, or wearing a kilt; he makes being elegant look so easy and fluid, and while he's not nearly as "cool" as Sean Connery, he makes the upper-class life look approachable and livable in a way Connery could never do so effortlessly. And that's why, even though there are not very many lifestyle porn elements after the opening casino sequence, OHMSS comes across as being such a singularly classy Bond movie. For me, Lazenby is the only Bond whose life I actually want. I know that makes me completely terrible.

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Rating: 4.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
There are two! First, having just rescued Tracy from her watery fate in the pre-title, Bond cheerily introduces himself. Much later, he announces himself to Draco.
Forced or Badass? Extremely forced, since it is literally the first line Lazenby speaks, and the effect could not be more transparently, "See? It's still James Bond! You'll like this new guy!"


BEST QUIP
OLYMPE, DRACO'S ASSISTANT (Virginia North, voiced by Nikki van der Zyl): "There are many things about Mr Bond one does not know. It would be interesting to attend night school, perhaps."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Here we come, with our very first important change in the marathon, to the second of the Eon James Bonds, and the only one to play the character just one single time. The stories of how Lazenby came to take the part are fascinating, and doubtlessly muddled with apocrypha, and they're easy to find online. So I will not repeat them here; I suspect I'm taxing your patience enough with the length of these things.

Lazenby is uniformly held to be the Odd Bond Out. Connery is the First and for most of us, the Best; the One Who Does It All. Roger Moore is the Playful, Charming one. Timothy Dalton is the Serious, Violent one. Pierce Brosnan is the Serious Bond Stuck in Zany Situations. Daniel Craig is the Thug Who's Most Like the Books. And that leaves Lazenby as the trivia answer, the placeholder, the Australian (to date, he's the only official Bond not born in the British Isles).

Just on account of not being Sean Connery, he gets a lot of shit that he doesn't deserve; I have myself made the claim several times that On Her Majesty's Secret Service would be my favorite Bond movie if it had Connery in the role and not Lazenby. This most recent viewing has softened me on that; in fact, I think it would be a worse film, or at least no better, with Connery; there is a distinct new emphasis on emotion and humanity in the movie that Connery's cold gentleman killer was incapable of. Lazenby's is, maybe, the feeling-est Bond.

It's still the case that OHMSS would be a better movie with a different actor (1969-era Rogert Moore, in his pre-silly years, might have been absolutely flawless). Or at least with an actor that Peter Hunt didn't fight with quite so hard. And that is, still, probably the single reason I can't call the film my favorite, though it is even so comfortably in my top 5.

Because even hobbled as he is by a character he doesn't entirely get, and Hunt's antagonistic direction, and the film's annoying tendency to remind us of Connery (there's a simply ghastly scene of Bond looking over his mementos of past assignments, with the previous films' theme songs playing on the soundtrack), Lazenby puts up a good fight, and this Bond is certainly the most interesting character in the movies until, arguably, Craig's films came along; it's not just the tragic love affair between Bond and Tracy that gives the film a more human element, it's everything: even M and Moneypenny, stalwart set dressing that they are, register as people more here than ever before, and as they would have scant opportunity to do later.

If I can name one single, film-damaging flaw other than some of the places Lazenby's untethered performance drifts to (and that ludicrous extended sequence at Blofeld's spa), it's the film's idiotic treatment of the Blofeld-Bond relationship. Not in terms of how it plays; on the contrary, the dancing between them is as great an antagonist/protagonist struggle as the series ever presents us with. But in the continuity of the franchise, it simply cannot be: the book that this is so closely based on presents the first-ever meeting of the two characters, but for the films, that already happened in You Only Live Twice. Meaning that all of the story beats which assume Bond has never seen Blofeld before make no sense; perhaps if the original plan had been followed, with OHMSS preceding rather than following You Only Live Twice, this would be a complete non-issue, but coupled with the new film's relentless insistence on continuity, which already causes it problems as I've mentioned, it makes it impossible not to think about how theoretically, these people already know each other, making Bond's disguise as Sir Hilary even stupider than it already is on the merits. A discarded scene has Blofeld receiving plastic surgery and perhaps if we assume that in-universe, both characters changed their appearance, we can forgive all of this; but that's quite idiotic.

It's not a "real" problem, perhaps; but it does speak to the film's persistent weakness in second-guessing itself and never knowing how much of a Connery film it wants to be or how much it's proud to be something new and original. It hurts the plot, it destroys Lazenby's performance, and it robs the movie of much of its own identity (no Bond film until Quantum of Solace would be so much up its own ass about continuity, to its detriment). I still pretty much love it, but there's a movie that I'd love even more that tangibly isn't the one that we've been given, and that has always frustrated me.


OVERALL SCORE
41/60

6 comments:

james1511 said...

When I went through almost all of the Bond series on their TV broadcast a couple of years ago, I was really struck by how well Lazenby plays that death scene at the end, and I'd go so far as to say Connery couldn't have done it.

Also, as much as I do like some of the later Bond films, I can't help but feel this was where the series should've stopped.

Rick said...

I have long argued that having a legitimate actress, rather than some bathing beauty, as a Bond Girl elevates the role. When asked to provide proof, I refer them to Dame Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

As for the title theme, I would have ranked We Have All the Time in the World highly IF it were the official theme. However, I always give it an honorable mention because I find it simply beautiful and poignant.

franklinshepard said...

I have never seen this movie, although I have long meant to. I have to try to do that soon.

But I wanted to say, I kind of feel like this movie can be spoiled about as much as Citizen Kane can be spoiled. That is to say, anyone who knows anything about Citizen Kane, even if they've never seen the film, knows Rosebud is his sled. (SPOILER AHEAD) Likewise, everyone knows this movie as the one where Diana Rigg dies, right? I've always thought so.

Michael Grover said...

Hi there. I'm a new reader; I found your blog via a link over at Neil Fulwood's The Agitation of the Mind. As I'm sure you know, Neil also has a Bond marathon going on, and it'll be fun to compare and contrast your reviews. As I mentioned in my comments on his review of OHMSS, it's one of my favorites in the series, for many of the same reasons you point out. I think Lazenby more than holds his own, and the score is one of John Barry's best. I'm looking forward to reading more of your writing.

Tim said...

James- I agree that Connery didn't have the sensitivity for that death scene. And I even agree, sort of, that if it had ended here, we wouldn't be much worse off.

Rick- As will become clear several films from now, my two favorite Bond Girls, by an enormous margin, are also the two actresses that I think gave the best performances. So I'm 100% on board with you there.

Franklin- Could be. But I try to be fair.

Michael- Welcome! Glad to have one of Neil's readers come over. I have been following his marathon at a lengthy remove; don't want any of his reviews to influence my own, plagiarism and all that.

redwood said...

Agreed when it comes to your points on the film's imperfections - especially the continuity issue (that one never did jibe right with me). Nevertheless, I came into really liking this one years ago and, now, may even call it my favorite. Perhaps, Lazenby isn't perfect, if compared to certain "Bondisms" from the other films, but on his own ... I like him. My wife and I even thought his "cute wink" in the pre-title sequence worked, in its own way (I mean, this isn't exactly "The Third Man" or "Spy Who Came in From the Cold"). Since we're watching these in order, I'll just leave this as my numero uno, unless I end up finding a competitor down the line.