Thursday, November 1, 2012
My Favorite Bond: On Her Majesty's Secret Service
In his recent review of Skyfall over at Hitfix, Drew McWeeny pointed out that part of what makes the Bond series great is the way that the movies perfectly reflect the cultural period in which they were made, from the British invasion coolness of Dr. No to the indulgent Star Wars thievery of Moonraker to the two-fisted, Joel Silver-inspired action of License to Kill. He's absolutely right. But one of the things I've always liked about Bond movies is that not only do they reflect back culture at large, but that they also have the ability to zoom in on each individual audience member and offer something different. There is such a breadth of material over the course of the series that the movies can offer something for everyone.
Because, ultimately, everyone wants different things from a James Bond movie -- and from James Bond himself. That's why when someone says that Roger Moore is their favorite Bond, I can't argue with that person. I DO NOT AGREE, but I can't fault that person for preferring Moore over the others (I can judge, quietly and to myself, but I do not argue). And every actor that has played 007 has brought something different and unique, creating his own version of the character. It's what gives him such longevity -- he's constantly being reinvented, even in small ways.
With 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- my favorite Bond movie -- it's not so much one-time-Bond George Lazenby that's reinventing the character as much as it is director Peter Hunt and screenwriter Richard Maibum reinventing him (yes, I know Ian Fleming wrote the material -- which I have not read -- but it's the way that material is interpreted that makes the movie special). There is a darkness and a weight to the story that hadn't really been present in past outings, and the movie finds Bond much more grounded in the real world, especially compared to the giant volcanoes and Japanese disguises of You Only Live Twice. Even the villain's plan this time around is pretty believable.
The movie finds Bond rescuing a woman (Diana Rigg) from committing suicide and eventually sleeping with her, only to be kidnapped by goons and brought to Marc-Ange Draco, the notorious head of a crime syndicate. It turns out he's the girl's father, and that she's the Contessa Theresa (Tracy) di Vincenzo. Draco offers Bond a dowry of a million pounds if he'll marry Tracy, which Bond refuses -- though he does agree to continue seeing Tracy if Draco will reveal the location of supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (this time played by Telly Savalas). As Bond and Tracy begin to fall in love for real, he heads to Switzerland posing as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray, who has been helping Blofeld claim the title of Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp.
Blofeld has established an allergy research clinic at which he's experimenting on a series of young and beautiful girls, all of whom take an interest in Sir Hilary/007. Upon further inspection, Bond learns that the girls are being hypnotized to go to their respective homes/countries and distribute deadly bacteria -- Blofeld is engaging in a kind of covert biological warfare. Eventually, Bond escapes the clinic (as Bond always does) and reunites with Tracy, but their romance hits more than a few roadblocks.
But On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a fantastic movie, and one that's only begun getting its due credit as it's being rediscovered in the last decade or so. How much do I like On Her Majesty's Secret Service? I like it so much that I can overlook the presence of George Lazenby in his only outing as Bond (he's not terrible, for the record, but he fails to make any real impression). Lazenby, a former model discovered by Albert Broccoli in a commercial for Fry's Chocolate Cream, was hired to basically be a clothes hanger, and that's pretty much what he is. His suit just happens to be the role of James Bond. He never shows any real interest in being 007 (which is meted out by the fact that he was offered a contract for SEVEN MORE MOVIES but didn't want it and left after just one), and it shows on screen: he's either still uncomfortable with acting or embarrassed by the material, and as a result tends to put distance between himself and the movie. There is James Bond being aloof and there is Lazenby being aloof. It's the latter here.
Luckily, he's compensated by the performance of Diana Rigg (the original Emma Peel on The Avengers), who is a fantastic, warm and human Bond girl who doesn't have a name like Holly Goodhead or Minnie Suxdix. If she doesn't work, the movie doesn't work. She works. I've also grown to appreciate Telly Savalas as Blofeld; he's been written off as being dull or ineffective in the role, but that's not entirely fair. No, he's not as colorful as Donald Pleasance (playing the original Dr. Evil), but that's because he's inhabiting a different universe than that incarnation of Blofeld did. Savalas isn't a larger than life villain. He's more subdued (some might say too subdued) because the movie is. There's something much more believably threatening about a Blofeld this matter-of-fact and unshakable -- but, again, that sounds like a knock against Pleasance in You Only Live Twice. It isn't. His performance matches the spirit of that movie, just as Savalas' matches the spirit of this one. I'll agree that Pleasance is more memorable, but the guy with the secret underground lair is always going to make the bigger impression.
Just imagine if Sean Connery had ended his run as Bond with On Her Majesty's Secret Service instead of Diamonds are Forever (I'm not really counting Never Say Never Again): not only would the movie have a better lead actor, but Connery would have brought along with him all the iconography of the character instead of Lazenby attempting to invent something new or imitate what came before. More importantly, the direction that this installment takes the character would have carried more weight if it had been one consistent actor all the way through -- our attachment isn't the same with Lazenby, because we're still adjusting to him in the role and trying to make our minds up about whether or not we like him. With Connery, the final few moments of OHMSS would be even more devastating than they already, and a perfect way for him to close out his run as Bond. His arc would be complete, in a way, leaving the character in a perfect position to be taken over by another actor. Had Connery done the movie, I don't think there would be any question about On Her Majesty's Secret Service being the best in the series.
The film's director, Peter Hunt, only made a handful of movies over the course of his career, and this is his only directorial entry in the Bond series (as opposed to guys like John Glen and Guy Hamilton, who directed a couple of times each). He had worked as an editor and second unit director during the Connery movies, though, and it shows in the way that the film's action is shot and cut. With the exception of the awful "Yakety Sax" fight that opens the movie, the action in OHMSS is fast and brutal -- it's some of the most grounded since Dr. No, and it would remain that way until some of the Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig entries. The ski chases are thrilling and feature some incredible stunt work (and some terrible rear projection photography, pretty much a staple of the series). More than anything, though, this is one of the few Bond movies that feels like the unique vision of a single filmmaker. Most are helmed by skilled journeymen -- directors for hire -- but Hunt manages to put his own stamp on the material. It's a movie that feels strangely both of its time and ahead of it.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service is interesting if for no other reason than for where it lies in the canon with the fans: half of them place it among the worst of the Bond movies, while the other half swear it's one of the best. It all comes down to what we want from 007. Some folks can't see past Lazenby, and I can't blame them. But some of those same people are writing the movie off because it has become fashionable to do so. Lazenby is an easy punchline -- the Pete Best of the Bond franchise. Other folks don't care for it because it doesn't have the things they want from a Bond movie. The gadgets. The cars. The quips (there are a few here, and they are awful). The meaningless sex. No, the romantic relationships in OHMSS mean something, and maybe people don't want that kind of gravity in their 007 adventures. For me it makes the movie. James Bond may have all the time in the world, but On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of his finest hours.
Favorite Bond: Daniel Craig
Favorite Bond Credit Song: "Nobody Does It Better," Carly Simon (runner-up: "You Only Live Twice")
Favorite Bond Girl: Pussy Galore (runners-up: Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies, Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) in The Man With the Golden Gun and Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye; yes, she had a terrible-but-hilarious character to play, but it's one of the first times in the history of the franchise [since Ursela Andress came out of the water] that a Bond girl made you sit up and say "Who is THAT?")
Underrated Bond Movie: The Living Daylights
Underrated Bond Credit Song: "Tomorrow Never Dies," Sheryl Crow
Bond Movie I Shouldn't Like But Do: The World is Not Enough
Least Favorite Bond Movie: Die Another Day