Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 6: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

This one is definitely the odd man out in the Bond film series. Connery, having become sick of playing 007, hung up his Walther PPK and producers began casting about for a replacement. They tried Timothy Dalton, who would later portray Bond, but at the time he was 22 years old and felt he was too young for the role. Producers also talked to many established actors of the day, including John Richardson, Hans de Vries, Anthony Rogers, and Jeremy Brett (who would later have a great run as Sherlock Holmes). But despite the fact that all of those guys were name actors, it was a relative unknown, George Lazenby, who got the role. Producer Albert Broccolli later said it was Lazenby's "charm, arrogance, the ability to portray aggression" that won him the role.

Say what you will about Lazenby - he's got to be one of the bravest actors in film history. Stepping into Connery's shoes couldn't have been easy. Critics were not kind to him. That being said, the producers offered him a whopping seven picture deal, but halfway through filming this movie he said he'd only sign on for one. He felt that Bond would fade from popularity in the 1970s. He was wrong. The point is, they were going to give him the chance to build an audience, and I think he would have been accepted over time, but for whatever reason he gave it all up. Maybe he just chickened out, but he quit during filming, long before the bad reviews came in. Who knows? The truth is, though, I kinda like Lazenby as Bond.

Watching this movie after a solid run of Connery films, I can see why audiences were taken aback. Lazenby doesn't move like Connery. He's lankier, and walks with a bit of a bounce, entering the room with a bemused smile. Connery, on the other hand, coasted into a room like a shark or a panther or some other predator. But I still think folks would have gotten used to Lazenby over time. The truth is, about 20 minutes into this movie, I felt like I was watching James Bond. And the producers were right about his ability to display aggression: the fight scenes in this one are among the best ever put into a Bond film, and have a violence and intensity not seen again until bruiser Daniel Craig was given the role.

Another reason this one turned folks off (even though it made as much money as the other Bond films of the era) is that the producers decided to take a new direction with the tone of the movies. The producers decided to follow the novel very closely on this one, making it more realistic and serious compared to its predecessors, and the ending is a big fat bummer (spoiler alert: James Bond gets married and his wife gets shot in the head on their way to the honeymoon). That kind of a bring-down of an ending couldn't have helped.

But there is much to recommend this movie, and when I rank all of the Bond films at the end of this series, it will be nowhere near the last on the list. Let's jump into the categories:

Synopsis: Blofeld of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is at it again. This time he plans to poison the world's food supply by sending out his "Angels of Death," girls from all over the world who have been brainwashed in his fake allergy care facility in the Alps. Meanwhile, Bond is offered $1 million to marry the daughter of a crime lord (Bond saves her from committing suicide in the pre-title action sequence). He refuses, but romances her as long as the crime boss helps him track down Blofeld. He does, goes undercover in Blofeld's camp, and foils the plot. He falls in love with the girl and marries her - only to learn that you don't get to mess with S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and live happily ever after.

The Villain: It's Blofeld again, only this time he's played by Telly Savalas (who, incidentally, started off as a sports announcer). They replaced Donald Pleasance because in this film, Blofeld does some skiing, some shooting, and fisticuffs and it was felt Savalas was better-suited for the physicality of the role. He's pretty good as Blofeld, if a little forgetful (he just met Bond in the previous film, but in this one doesn't recognize Bond despite a very flimsy disguise). In this one, he's holding the world's food supply for ransom so that he can be granted immunity for his crimes in the previous films and be formally recognized as nobility. Bond poses as a gay heraldry expert who is going to help prove Blofeld's noble credentials - that's how he sneaks into Blofeld's fortress, anyway. During that whole time, by the way, Lazenby's voice is dubbed by the actor who played the character he's supposed to be impersonating, which gives Lazenby the impression of having bad vocal timing here and there.

The Henchman: It's another female henchman this time, Irma, who wrangles the Angels of Death and helps Blofeld try to kill off Bond (she appears in numerous Bond novels but only one movie). It is she who actually pulls the trigger on the gun that kills Bond's wife. The actress, Ilsa Steppat, died only four days after the film was released.

The Bond Girl: Diana Rigg, who had been on TV's The Avengers, was chosen to play Tracy di Vincenzo, whose father is a crime lord who for some reason is friendly with the British Secret Service. She is depressed and suicidal at the beginning of the film. She tries to drown herself, and Bond saves her - only to get beaten up and watch her run away in his own car. Here, Lazenby brazenly breaks the "fourth wall," looking at the camera and saying, "That never happened to the other fella." Anyway, Bond slowly falls in love with Tracy, and even passes up the chance to have sex with her, preferring to wait until they are married. Unfortunately, she dies before that can happen, making Tracy the only Bond girl who Bond never slept with, and the only one he actually loved.

The Sidekick: There really isn't one, although Tracy's father, Marc-Ange Draco, helps out quite a bit, and Tracy herself is cast in a sidekick role after Bond's escape from Blofeld's mountain fortress.

Gadgets: In keeping with the movie's strong adherence to the novel, Bond doesn't really have any over-the-top wacky gadgets in this one. However, there is an interesting scene after he argues with M and decides to resign from the secret service where he cleans out his desk and packs away several gadgets from the previous movies, with the theme song from each film briefly swelling. It's a nice touch that presumably served to remind us all that this is the same character who had all those other adventures, even if it's a new actor.

Music: The producers again broke with tradition on this one and did not use a vocal pop song for the opening credits, instead using a pretty awesome spy-themed instrumental piece. The Louis Armstrong Orchestra was brought in with it's depressing-as-hell "All the Time in the World," the theme song for Bond and Tracy's doomed love that plays over a "dating 007" montage in the middle of the movie.

The Director: This time it's Peter Hunt, who worked on all the other films as an editor and who had long lobbied for a chance to direct. Here, he gets it. "I wanted it to be different than the any other Bond film would be," Hunt said. "It was my film, not anyone else's". The result is a fine Bond movie, despite its departure in tone from the previous ones. In fact, film critic Leonard Maltin said if this movie had starred Connery, it would have been the best film in the entire series. That being said, Hunt never worked on another Bond film.

Fun Facts: Much of this is covered in the introductory paragraphs that open this installment; however, it's also worth noting that in this movie, we hear specifically that Bond is actually Scottish, not British, even though he serves in the Royal Navy and British intelligence services, a fact made clear in the novels but never before (or again) on film. Also, here's a fun photo of Diana Rigg displaying the assets that made her a Bond girl.

Favorite Line: It's gotta be the afore-mentioned "That never happened to the other fella." Incidentally, Lazenby has an autobiography due out next year called "The Other Fella." Another funny line is when a girl touches Bond under the table at dinner in Blofeld's fortress, which arouses and surprises him. Irma, the henchman, asks him what's the matter and he says "It's just a slight stiffness coming on."

Other: The best parts in this movie is the sequences with M and Moneypenny. Bond actually quits the service in this one after M orders him off the hunt for Blofeld. Moneypenny doesn't write the memo that way, though, and instead requests two weeks' leave. There's a scene where Bond is cleaning out his desk (the only time we ever get to see Bond's office at Mi6) and the wedding scene is really sad for Moneypenny, and actress Lois Maxwell will break your heart with the look she gives Bond before he drives off with his wife.

All in all, I think this movie is better than a LOT of other Bond movies, some of which, are, frankly, stinkers (we'll get to some of those in the 1970s). Lazenby may not have Connery's style, but he could have pulled it off if anyone (including himself) had been willing to give him another film or two. I think his performance was fine, and he only suffers in comparison to Connery. It should be noted that Lazenby is still very well received by fans at Bond-related conventions, and over time, the fashion among critics is to give this movie, and Lazenby, a second chance.

So here's to the Other Fella.

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