On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

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Jul 192017
 

How Good Is It?

I’m always struck by how odd On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is. It’s not just that this is George Lazenby’s sole outing as Bond, or the bizarre clinic at Piz Gloria, or the awkward way the film’s two stories bang into each other. The movie consistently feels like it’s trying to do two things at once, and usually fumbling both.

Lazenby is part of the problem, in part because of his own shortcomings and in part because the movie just doesn’t know how to deal with his not being Sean Connery. At times there’s an effort to be flippant about the recasting, most obviously in the quip at the end of the opening scene. At other times the movie seems almost desperate to convince us that yes this really is that same James Bond that was in all the other films please believe us. Lazenby himself doesn’t help, because he can’t play menacing at all and can barely play anything else. The charisma of Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas buoys the film but both of them practically blow Lazenby off the screen in their scenes together.

Lazenby at least handles the action well enough, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has a lot of it, although it’s not all well-staged. The opening fistfight features a lot of men punching each other amongst the waves but little continuity, and the bobsled chase and fight at the end gets a bit jumbled, but in between there’s quite a bit of good stuff. The NASCAR fan in me is particularly fond of the ice race that turns into a demolition derby, though the ski chase, ending in an avalanche, is more influential.

In between, the film finds enough time to create some nice high-tension sequences and also a love story. It’s here that the film’s core problem lies, though. The sell here is that Bond is really smitten with Tracey, and it’s tough to swallow not only because Bond sleeps around atrociously up at Piz Gloria but also because he does nothing with Tracey that he wouldn’t (or doesn’t!) do out of duty in other films. Lazenby at least plays it broadly enough to seem plausible; Connery probably couldn’t have sold the story at all without completely revamping his approach to the character.

Even in the main plot, the film can’t seem to decide what it is. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service lays off the gadgets for the most part in an effort to focus on more “realistic” forms of espionage but it just can’t help itself. There is a secretive clinic (that has taken over a world-famous restaurant on a mountaintop!) where an obscenely rich, uncatchable criminal (who is risking all to lay claim to a minor noble title!) is hypnotizing girls from all nations (to deliver a toxin that will destroy all crops!), whose plans are thwarted by a secret agent (who teams up with the Corsican Mob for a helicopter assault!). There is a clear effort here to make a more “grounded” film but the draw of absurdity is just too strong.

All of this makes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service one of the more interesting Bond films but not, really, one of the better ones.

How Gross Is It?

The whole plot with Draco and Tracey is deeply retrograde, a marriage arrangement with a small but crucial piece of information for a dowry. It is perhaps made right by the blossoming of true love from inauspicious beginnings, but that plot culminates just in time for Tracey to receive an unceremonious fridging. Tracey at least gets to hold her own and contribute a great deal to the plot up until then, but I couldn’t help but notice that she is hit by both of the men who supposedly love her (knocked out by her own father!). Diana Rigg deserved better; I would happily watch a whole movie of this character getting the better of various men.

How’s The Song?

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service doesn’t have a title song, and instead has a droning, threatening instrumental theme that ranks among the series’ best. Allegedly the musical team couldn’t come up with a way to incorporate “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” as a lyric unless they went for some kind of Gilbert and Sullivan tune. As much as I like the theme music here, we must regard the choice not to go for a musical-theater-style title song as one of film history’s great tragedies. The film’s romantic tune, “We Have All the Time in the World”, is a serviceable use of Louis Armstrong’s voice but not otherwise memorable.

You Only Live Twice

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Jul 102017
 

How Good Is It?

If Goldfinger was the point when Eon Productions realized they could succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams by just completely ignoring the Cold War in their spy films, You Only Live Twice was the point when they realized they could actually get away with ignoring all bounds of reality. Roald Dahl wrote the script for this movie and it is, unsurprisingly, absolutely batshit. I mean, what other word can describe a film about a plot to foment nuclear war by kidnapping astronauts from space, being run from a secret base hidden inside a volcano, defeated by a walking libido in bad yellowface and a bunch of goddamn ninjas. At one point the villain uses a collapsing bridge to dump a disappointing subordinate into a pool full of piranhas, and that barely cracks the top ten of most outlandish things in this movie.

Almost nothing that happens in You Only Live Twice could stand up to a moment’s scrutiny and it is absolutely fantastic (in multiple senses of the word). It’s one of the rare Bond films that I always want to watch again immediately after it ends. It’s a marvel of this film that despite its outrageous excess it never seems campy. It’s just earnestly telling a story that discards any pretense of making all its pieces fit, like a 10-year-old coming up with a preposterous narrative to explain why the Lego knights, astronauts, and ninjas are all in some scenario together (this is undoubtedly Dahl’s influence). The film goes from a private organization launching rockets out of a volcano to a vertibird stashed in four suitcases to a swordfight using classic Toho samurai choreography and somehow this all just seems perfectly reasonable at the time.

The acting is mostly workmanlike. Donald Pleasance does a wonderful “calm psychopath” voice while wearing an absurd scar (and thus dooming Telly Savalas and Christoph Walz to the same fate). Connery, who was about to check out of the series for the first time, does an uneven job. At one point Bond claims he “took a first in Oriental Languages at Cambridge”, but Connery’s delivery (e.g. “I like sackee”) turns that into a bit of a running joke. Whoever built the sets had real dedication, though. The volcano lair has rightfully etched itself into humanity’s collective cultural understanding.

After the interminable mishmash of Thunderball’s underwater shenanigans the action in this one is cleanly shot and the editing makes it possible to follow most of what happens even when the events themselves are ludicrous. The one real sin here is the helicopter fight, which is a bit tough to follow and runs long. Something about those helicopters also feels a bit prosaic against the grandiose preposterousness of the larger plot. What are helicopters to a movie where the villain self-destructs his secret dormant-volcano base so hard it actually erupts? God, I love this film.

How Gross Is It?

That will really depend on how well you put up with the “exotic” treatment of Japan, though to be honest this movie is less bad in that regard than, say, Lost in Translation. As for its handling of women, You Only Live Twice makes death the price of sleeping with Bond (thus, Kissy is the smartest woman in the film). Aki’s death in particular is kind of crappy, since she basically just bites it from rolling over in bed. However, the film does allow its female characters a degree of agency and heroism lacking in the previous few films, and Bond doesn’t kiss anyone against her will, so it’s relatively not so bad. It’s also good fun that Tanaka regularly takes the piss out of Bond over his raging libido.

How’s The Song?

The second motif in “You Only Live Twice” sounds like the most tryhard white-person-writing-“Oriental”-music crap you can imagine but everything else about this song is amazing. The sweeping string flourish to begin draws you right in so that Nancy Sinatra’s voice can put you under a spell. Definitely a top 5 Bond tune, and one of the prime contenders for the top spot.

Thunderball

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Jul 062017
 

How Good Is It?

I am consistently unable to remember the existence of Thunderball. Unless I have recently seen it, if asked to list the Connery Bond films I will omit it and it will take me hours or days to figure out what the missing one is. Due to an unusual rights situation it is the only Bond movie to have been remade (as Never Say Never Again) and a second remake (as Warhead 2000 or some such) was in the works as late as the mid-2000s. Needless to say, Thunderball isn’t really interesting enough to deserve it.

The overall plot is based on the recurrent Cold War worry of an elaborate theft of a nuclear warhead (nowadays, of course, we worry more that someone will just sell a warhead for a nice dacha and a pack of cigs). The execution of the theft is nicely laid out and chilling, but unflatteringly set against a semi-comic episode of Bond hanging out in a rehab facility and antagonizing a criminal aristocrat. The group responsible for the warhead theft is SPECTRE, still regularly killing off its high-ranking members.

Thanks to the absurd coincidence of his earlier encounter, Bond decides to follow up on the sister of the dead man he saw by accident. Incredibly, this works out to his advantage and he quickly finds the villainous Largo, who is the brains behind the scheme. The whole story is like this, and seems to have no impetus other than coincidence. Neither Bond nor anyone else seems to exert any real control over events.

As a piece of visual media, a major problem with Thunderball is that so much of it takes place underwater. This provides a few striking visuals, particularly the underwater commandos descending in formation to attack Largo’s men, but the fights beneath the waves have serious problems. The close-in scrums are impossible to follow, all bubbles and black rubber thrashing around, while the larger battle at the climax of the film is repetitive and never seems to end. That final battle is particularly poorly edited, to boot, so one never gets a sense of which way the fight is turning. At one point it seems to just end by directorial fiat. With a little restraint this stuff might have turned out okay but it just goes on and on well past the point when Bond’s teensy little rebreather should have given out.

Several of the fights outside of the water break down in a jumble too. Bond’s escape from Palmyra is silly (nobody stayed up at the shark pool?), and the final fight on the yacht’s bridge is just a mess. The film’s logic also breaks down in the case of Bond’s leg injury, which is a big deal in the Junkanoo scene and then simply gone for the rest of the film. Especially considering the hyperspliced jittercam bullshit that’s taken over the genre, Thunderball is not a terrible action film, but it’s not shot anywhere near as well as Goldfinger.

How Gross Is It?

Early in Thunderball Bond kisses a nurse against her will and then blackmails her into a sexual encounter. Per the spirit of the times, she is later a willing sexual partner. Two women get tortured, one onscreen and the other committing suicide. At least Fiona Volpe calls Bond out on his shit later. Too bad that speech had to come from a villain. Anyway the overall treatment of women is really terrible in this film, a theme that will be recurring.

How’s The Song?

Despite having a pretty decent fanfare, “Thunderball” the song has a lumpy, stentorian tune and the lyrics are junk. It’s a shameful waste of Tom Jones.

Goldfinger

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Jun 262017
 

How Good Is It?

Goldfinger shaped nearly every Bond filmed that followed for more than 50 years, and if you want to know why, consider this: on a budget of $3 million, it returned $125 million. In 2017 dollars that’s almost $1 billion in box-office revenue. If modern movie executives could make blockbuster bucks on the kind of budget you’d normally see for an awards-season dramedy ($24 million in today’s money) they’d try to make 40 of them too.

Thus the Goldfinger model emerged. Bond’s villains would mostly be megalomaniacs with no direct Cold War stake, setting up outrageous plots for world domination that Bond would foil using elaborate gadgets whilst inadvertently getting at least one beautiful woman killed. And, while these elements mostly range from silly to offensive, the formula stuck because it worked.

The action prologue works: it serves a featurette to quickly establish character and tone. The death of Jill Masterson works: it establishes Auric Goldfinger as a depraved, vengeful danger. The visit to Q branch works: it sets Chekhov’s Gadget on the table, setting up the anticipation of wondering how Bond will use that. Even Goldfinger’s cartoonish megalomania and absurd plot work because they make just enough sense to be threatening for the length of the movie, even as the script’s comedic aspects reassure that the hero will in fact save the day.

Goldfinger also works because it’s just a well-made film. Consider the seemingly absurd sequence where Bond crashes his Aston Martin because he saw headlights in a mirror. The film builds the logic of that moment clearly – his vision is obscured by the shattered glass, he is driving extremely fast, the layout of the plant is very confusing. There are many individual shots that establish the logic of how he is fooled by a mirror. It’s just solid work, and Guy Hamilton had, in this film at least, an eye for striking images. Jill Masterson on the bed is the most famous, but Bond’s spread-eagled imprisonment and tuxedo-beneath-wetsuit also quickly spring to mind. Of course, the importance of Harold Sakata’s marvelous turn as the villainous henchman Oddjob can hardly be overstated.

So, while the structural features of the film were consistently emulated, the core of its success is due to the quality of the script and direction. Even as Goldfinger’s plans spiral into ever-greater absurdity, the characters take action that makes sense for them (with the exception of the scene mentioned below), and the physical logic of every scene is perfectly clear. Goldfinger’s success is not a fluke; it’s a legitimately masterful film.

How Gross Is It?

That said, I think some modern audiences will find Goldfinger a bit hard to stomach. This isn’t a matter of pervasive awfulness, although the film arguably serves up two fridgings. Most of the film is perfectly acceptable, but the climactic scene between Bond and Pussy Galore is odious. It starts with the two characters judo-throwing each other in a decidedly non-flirty way, after which Bond crawls on top of Galore and, forcing her arms out of the way, kisses her without her consent. Connery’s body language screams sexual assault (which is, after all, what the scene depicts), and that’s not in the least moderated by Galore’s apparent willingness to continue the kiss once it’s initiated. It’s almost incomprehensible to me that this scene this could ever have been considered acceptable, much less romantic, and its stomach-turning nastiness really spoils the film’s final act.

How’s The Song?

Goldfinger marked the first time the theme was sung over the opening credits and it worked really well. The song “Goldfinger” regularly comes in #1 in top ten lists of Bond themes even today. This is remarkable because it’s not really that good of a song. I couldn’t imagine enjoying it separate from the film, which is a standard “From Russia With Love” meets easily. The big fanfare hits hard, and Shirley Bassey sells the hell out of it, so it’s not a loss. Still, the melody feels kind of dopey and the lyrics are, at best, a bit on the nose. The credits sequence, projecting moments from the film (and From Russia With Love) on gold-covered bodies, helps set the tone and sell the song. I can see why it worked, especially at the time, but “Goldfinger” doesn’t do it for me.

From Russia With Love

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Jun 202017
 

How Good Is It?

From Russia With Love is among the best Bond movies and pretty high up among spy movies, period. It’s unusually grounded for a Bond film, featuring a sensible Cold War espionage goal (obtaining a decoding device), a conventional means of getting it (turning a member of the embassy staff), and a reasonable complication (it’s a trap). Almost to the end of the film Bond thinks he’s facing a Russian op, and if that were true (rather than SPECTRE being behind it) the film would be an almost plausible tale of Cold War chicanery. Even the gadgets (this is the first film with Desmond Llewelyn as Q) all seem like something spies might actually have.

The concept also plays out quite well on the screen, with the exception of a fairly bad interlude in a Roma camp. Connery had a handle on Bond in this film and had figured out how to play him as an actual human being. Robert Shaw does the film a huge favor with his portrayal of SPECTRE assassin Don Grant, playing equally well as a silent threat and a huckster barely keeping his grift going. The fighting and gunplay are suitably inelegant although the action scenes start to go a little over the top towards the end.

An improved budget (double what Dr. No had) results in a better overall product with only a few moments of obvious fakery. As a result of all this From Russia With Love feels at once plausible and dreamlike, an early example of the “heightened reality” that would eventually animate superhero films.

One can imagine an interesting trajectory for the Bond films following on from this story, one where the focus is on small espionage coups of one kind or another that he facilitates or prevents. In this world he performs almost-plausible spy work in almost-plausible ways. It was not to be, however, as the runaway success of Goldfinger would shape the narrative of almost all Bond films for the next 50 years.

How Gross Is It?

From the moment the credits start showing up on the bare skin of belly-dancing ladies, you know Bond is about to get pretty gross. For all that it’s more grounded than its predecessor, From Russia With Love also treats its ladies worse. Sylvia Trench gets barely more than a moment, and Tatiana barely plays any role in the espionage op that’s centered on her. Her change of loyalty from the USSR to Bond receives no play, and she spends a good deal of the film absent or unconscious. Notably the film makes an early effort to elicit sympathy for her by portraying Rosa Klebb as a threatening lesbian, and letting Tatiana kill Klebb is the only agency the film really allows her.

At one point two women have a vicious catfight that is presented as the “traditional gypsy way” of settling disputes, which should tell you a lot about the movie’s implicit politics.

How’s The Song?

Although Goldfinger gets the credit as being first, From Russia With Love does have a theme song, but only an instrumental version plays over those cheesecake credits. The song eventually plays diegetically (in the scene with Trench) and over the closing credits. It’s a competent romance tune, performed by the guy who did Born Free, and does a competent job of evoking a feeling of nostalgic fondness. If the romance were really the centerpiece of the story, as opposed to just a plot strand, I might think more highly of it, but the song doesn’t really capture the essence of the film.