Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Unless One Can Set Up The Target
It’s safe to say that I’ve probably seen ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE way too many times by now. I’m not sure when it all started but at a certain point in my life I began to feel particularly attracted to this rogue entry, the one to star George Lazenby in his only performance as James Bond, and as time has gone on my feelings for it have only deepened. At first it was due to the certain interest that I’ve long had in Diana Rigg—well, you have noticed the title of this blog, haven’t you? But as time has gone on the dislike for the movie in the mainstream has made less and less sense to me. Yes, I wasn’t around in ’69 to get a feel for how both the film and its star were received at the time which led to Lazenby’s name becoming a sort of catch-all punchline. And, for the record, yes, I love Sean Connery in the role as much as anyone and it’s safe to say that until Daniel Craig turned up as far as the world was concerned he truly was James Bond. But would this particular film have been better with Connery in the lead? Tough to say. For one thing, it’s generally well known by now that the star was fed up with everything surrounding the role by the time of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, the previous film in the series. Really, you can’t expect a guy who doesn’t want to act to act and you definitely can’t just assume he’ll invest himself in the material if he doesn’t have the interest. The development of SPECTRE and Blofeld as the primary antagonist to Bond probably could have been developed more carefully over the course of the sixties to allow things to deliberately build to the point where it made story sense for the first meeting between Bond and the heretofore unseen villain to take place. As it is, the epic scale of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE always feels a little tossed away to me at times—the location footage of Japan is beautiful, that giant volcano set is jaw-dropping and John Barry’s lyrical score captures every ounce of this beauty needed but the way scenes are photographed feels kind of random and the character of Bond is so incidental to everything that happens, more so than ever before, that you can understand the actor being unable to stay engaged. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is of course all about the character of James Bond and what sort of person he becomes due to what he does so its impressive fidelity to the original Ian Fleming novel, something that means there are no major action scenes to speak of for well over an hour of screen time, seems flat out radical now.
Considering how much has been written on it already whatever I offer can’t be the definitive look at the film. It can’t even be my own definitive look at the film, just what it means to me right now at this point in my life. I’m not even sure how many times I’ve seen the film over the years. On my birthday in ’98 it actually played at the Nuart in L.A. on a double bill with THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU (that other pairing of the famous romantic team of Telly Savalas and Diana Rigg) and I was there. Right around Christmas ’01, not one of my favorite periods, I sat down to watch it one night thinking it would be appropriate for the season. Seeing it right then struck me in such a way that I wound up watching the entire thing again several nights later from start to finish. Ever since, I’ve made it kind of a tradition to watch the film on Christmas Eve, or as close to it as I was able to. We’re far away from that date but it was close enough to my birthday that when it was announced that it would be showing at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood with none other than George Lazenby himself in person after the movie, I knew I had to be there. It wasn’t easy—my day went later than expected and I had to fight the traffic from Burbank but once I cleared the hill everything seemed to go perfect and five minutes before the lights went down I was in a seat, ready to see this film I had seen many times before. And I still loved it almost more than I expected to. I can’t make any kind of grand statement like it’s the best James Bond film because I’m very aware how much individuals react to this series, each person in their own way because of their own experiences, because of how they first encountered the films when they were young. But, by now, it is my favorite. I have my reasons. For me, much of it is exactly what I want these films to be.
While off in Portugal, presumably on the trail of Blofeld and staying out of the watchful eye of Universal Exports, James Bond (George Lazenby) encounters a beautiful woman (Diana Rigg) on a beach who may be trying to kill herself. He prevents this but out of nowhere several men attack him. He defeats them and the girl gets away but he soon encounters her again, learning that she is the notorious Countess Teresa di Vicenzo, or simply Tracy as she likes to be called. After spending the night with her Bond is abducted but the reasons are more benign than he first thought and he is brought to Tracy’s father who turns out to be crimelord Marc Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) who offers Bond a dowry of one million pounds if he will marry his daughter and take care of her. Bond, no surprise, is more interested in the whereabouts of Blofeld and Draco seems willing to help with certain conditions, but when Bond returns to London he is informed by M that he is being removed from the case. Bond makes a stab at resigning but the interference of Miss Moneypenny turns it into a leave of absence. He takes off, interested in what Draco can tell him, but his relationship with Tracy begins to deepen at the same time. He makes his way back into active duty with information on a mysterious individual (Telly Savalas) attempting to claim the title 'Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp' from the College of Arms. Suspecting this may be none other than Blofeld himself, Bond arranges to impersonate one of their genealogists in the guise of investigating his claim but as Bond travels to meet the man in question (Telly Savalas) at an allergy research clinic high up in the Alps, getting closer to the truth he places himself in greater danger and there may be only one person to help him get away. It all leads to one of the most unexpectedly romantic gestures ever seen in a James Bond film, culminating in an ending where…well, if you haven’t seen it yet, I probably shouldn’t say anything.
It’s always seemed obvious to me that those in charge inserted an opening scene involving familiar characters “M”, “Q” and Miss Moneypenny as if to assure people that even with Connery gone this was still very much a James Bond film set in the world everyone was familiar with, not Matt Helm, not Derek Flint and certainly not some kind of cheapjack offshoot like OPERATION KID BROTHER which starred Connery’s brother Neil and actually featured a few of these familiar faces from the official Fleming series in sizable roles. And, really, there’s no way to reconcile how Bond and Blofeld already met in the previous entry but don’t recognize each other here for the sake of continuity—this wasn’t a problem in the book since the order they came in was different so maybe we should just accept this entry as a proper Ian Fleming adaptation (screenplay by Richard Maibaum, with “additional dialogue” by Simon Raven), orbiting the other films all by itself, no matter how many ways it connects with everything otherwise. But once we’ve past the ‘never happened to the other fella’ in joke we hit that opening title sequence with that it becomes its own film unlike anything else in the series, even with that sequence moving back through the hourglass of highlights of what has been seen before. From the deadly-serious-yet-ultra-cool feel to the John Barry theme (not a song) that I could listen to endlessly there’s a decidedly different feel to this entry through every scene with an opening section in that luxury casino hotel in Portugal which displays it’s own kind of glamour with a baccarat sequence involving a batch of extras who seem cast not because they’re glamorous but that they seem interesting, something I was put to mind of when observing the fellow poker players in the ’06 CASINO ROYALE, all very much a pulp fantasy world actually populated by adults. When Bond and Tracy face off with each other in his hotel room, as he grabs her wrist holding that pistol on him, the scene is played in electric fashion between the two but when things calm down momentarily and Lazenby tries to be open with her there’s a gentleness seen in the manner of how the actor plays things, a quality almost never seen in the character before or since. There’s a similar feeling later on when he beds Angela Scoular’s Ruby Bartlett at Piz Gloria--Lazenby actually seems interested in her, whereas it’s easy to imagine Connery playing it as his Bond being annoyed by this girl from the English countryside with a downscale accent. Connery could have played the material if he had done the film, and we obviously know how good an actor he always was, but I almost wonder if he’d still be sort of lording over the Countess who insists on being called Tracy (it’s still one of the great tragedies that Connery and Rigg never played opposite each other, in Bond or otherwise). Lazenby, faced with the one and only Mrs. Emma Peel, seems open to being on the same level with her as an equal—it’s as if this revelation is what makes him fall in love with her once and for all—and maybe there’s something about how the movie yearns for this to take place is one of those things that attracts me to OHMSS as much as anything.
But since I brought it up, why do I have such an interest in this particular James Bond film? I can watch any movie from the series anytime, anywhere, no matter which one it is. There’s just something special about this one that has to be a combination of elements coming into place or maybe it was the right people working on the right kind of material, inspired by the chance to make this one something special. For what the series was presumably aspiring to at its best, its biggest, it’s most epic, all of the elements seem right here, even down to what plays as flat-out weird on context, like the allergy clinic’s treatment of one patient with a certain fear of chickens. Making his directorial debut after serving as editor (as well as a key creative force) on the films in the series up to this point, Peter Hunt approaches every single scene in a genuinely cinematic way, utilizing the frame and everything that happens within it as much as possible along with an attention to color in Michael Reed’s cinematography, particularly the recurring use of purple which add to the particularly sumptuous feel that completely pops off the screen in 35mm. Hunt really does seem intent on bringing everything he’s learned about filmmaking up to that point to the table as well as his own take on the Bond universe (there are nods to Bond lore in general, such as learning how the motto on the Bond family crest is indeed “The World Is Not Enough”). Maybe there’s a case to be made that a director of a James Bond film should have an interest in those aspects of that world and approach those elements with a modicum of seriousness, as if he’s examining his own fantasy of the world being like this. Peter Hunt did. Terence Young, responsible for more of the cinematic version of the character than has ever been fully appreciated, did. John Glen did (Glen, this film’s editor and second unit director, brought a similar seriousness when he made his directorial debut with FOR YOUR EYES ONLY but not the same degree of style). I can believe Martin Campbell did in making CASINO ROYALE. Guy Hamilton and Lewis Gilbert, I’m not so sure about which may be why I never respond to their films the way some people do. Somebody like QUANTUM OF SOLACE director Marc Forster seemed to approach it all as little more than a glum action movie that had to continually race forward to the next scene with not very much interest in those elements which I’m still convinced seriously damaged that film.
Hunt’s work here is so striking, so confident that if you look at the style of THUNDERBALL and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, the two previous films in the series, it’s almost as if by a certain point the directors (Terence Young and Lewis Gilbert, neither one of which were hacks) just gave up on lending any sort of style to productions of this magnitude, resorting to standard, uninspired coverage and mass amounts of footage shot by the second unit. In contrast, Hunt always seems to know where to put his camera to keep scenes active whether framing the most intimate scenes between Bond and Tracy or the journey via helicopter to Piz Gloria in which we stay with him the entire time, viewing the travelogue footage of the various nearby ski resorts from his perspective. And the editor-turned-director also displays his skill in assembling sequences like the Hitchcockian suspense of the sequence in the lawyer Gumbold’s office—I’ve always been impressed by the rising tension in John Barry’s score here and like much of Barry’s work the composition is based on repeating one musical phrase over and over again. The score affects our own feeling of tension as Gumbold begins to return and how that is undercut by Lazenby forcefully but unhurriedly tossing that photocopier into the waiting container, as if the movie was worried for him but Bond isn’t worried at all. The way the music elevates this scene has always stood out to me but, really, Barry’s entire score is phenomenal, one of the very best achievements of the late composer’s career, Bond or otherwise. There’s a true sense of—pardon the word—majesty to what Barry accomplishes here, a genuinely epic feel as if for once he was inspired by what the film actually was as opposed to what it was supposed to be based on whatever the title song said it was. Forgoing any lyrics under the opening credits couldn’t be more rousing, “We Have All The Time in The World” is heartbreakingly beautiful whether in its instrumental version or sung by Louis Armstrong with lyrics by Hal David. Also appearing in the score during the Piz Gloria section in an intriguing fashion the source track “Do you Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?” is credited as sung by “Nina” who is actually Nina van Pallandt, later of THE LONG GOODBYE. Some of my favorite films always seem to meld with each other somehow.
A valid complaint might be that Bond is up on that mountaintop investigating Blofeld for too long a stretch at the expense of any action, not to mention how much of a mistake it is to keep Diana Rigg offscreen for such a lengthy amount of time, but I just love luxuriating in the vibe exuded from that location unlike any you ever see in a movie. The way it evokes its own jet-set style with the scenes at Piz Gloria, one of those locations I always dream of visiting in real life and even the oddity of these beautiful girls there for reasons that aren’t clear right away provides just enough off-kilter strangeness to keep the mystery going. And when the action finally comes it really is astounding to watch, particularly on that huge Egyptian screen, with Bond’s nighttime escape from Piz Gloria reminding me how evocative day-for-night can look when done in a certain way. The nighttime car chase with Tracy at the wheel is rousing in its excitement and the daytime ski pursuit moves from unbelievably romantic to thrilling all within moments. It’s also a true example of being left wanting more—storywise I suppose the chase doesn’t need to be longer but it’s still so unspeakably beautiful and thrilling all at once that I always wish we cold get a few more moments of those helicopter shots combined with that John Barry score. I can think of few other action films that ever reach such a level for me. You never know how certain films are going to play at the Egyptian and a fair amount of people did in fact raise their hands when asked during introductions if they hadn’t seen the film. But it seemed to play for the packed house, with the audience laughing at all the right places and during the final moment of the film….well, you could hear a pin drop. That’s all I really know. And, yes, it me as hard as it always does and once again I cried. I guess I always will. I love this film like few others.
And just seconds after that silence at the end George Lazenby himself appeared and was greeted with a standing ovation from the packed Egyptian Theatre. We were warned ahead of time that his talk with Bond expert Steven Jay Rubin might be hampered due to a sore throat and though his hoarse voice was apparent that didn’t seem to stop him one bit during the enjoyable, lengthy discussion. Simply put, George Lazenby seems like a man who has proudly spent his life drinking, fighting and screwing and the full transcript of the talk only gives a taste of what he was like. He wasted no time in telling some of these stories like his relationship with Diana Rigg during production (“Diana and I would have been good friends except she wanted a deal where I don’t muck around with any of the other girls. And I couldn’t keep it.”) as well as his claim that after a falling out on the first day of filming which he won’t discuss Peter Hunt never spoke to him again. He also discussed his reasons for not continuing in the role which, whether it’s the full story or not, he basically pins on himself. And that’s really just the tip of it all. I’m sure he’s told many of these stories before but it was a joy to hear it from this too often unjustly maligned star of this film.
Much of what’s said about Lazenby’s performance is how he comes off as a more human Bond and this is ultimately very true. He manages to seem human and vulnerable while also projecting his physical strength and it shouldn’t be ignored just how fantastic he comes off in the fight scenes as well, displaying a total ruthlessness at times. Yes, the occasional one-liners really aren’t his best moments but by the end he turns this performance into a look at this character which remains unique, valid and could have been built on if he had gone on to play it in other films. Matched up against him, if I haven’t made it clear just how jaw-droppingly amazing in this role I think Diana Rigg is here I’ll say it again. Whether projecting her uncaring manner at the start with utmost coolness (the deliberately flat reading of “You’re hurting me” says so much) or the complete turnaround from that evident in her behavior later in the film, beautifully shown in that tilt up to her smiling face which I’ve written about before, one of those moments which remind me there are good things in this world. She's spellbinding here. Telly Savalas, holding his cigarettes (and, I suspect, pouring champagne) the way he does in all the other films he was making around this time, oozes this wealthy trashiness unlike any other Bond villain—certainly different from the likes of Donald Pleasance and Dr. Evil—and he does a dynamic job, continually adding a slight layer of menace to even casual conversation. Gabriele Ferzetti (dubbed by David de Keyser) as Draco and Ilse Steppat (who died just days after the film was released) as Irma Bunt offer intense support while Hunt gives both Bernard Lee as “M” and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny slightly stronger moments than they sometimes get although Desmond Llewelyn’s appearance as “Q” is pretty quick this time. Angela Scoular is a memorable delight as Ruby Bartlett (“Number 8”), Joanna Lumley and THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER’s Catherine Schell are a few of the other allergy clinic patients and George Baker as Sir Hilary Bray also dubs Lazenby as that character during the Piz Gloria segment, which always seems an odd choice but the mood the film already captures is so strong that it never seems damaging. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it by now.
I watch the final scene with a haunting sound of a blowing wind mixed onto the soundtrack and I wonder, does the place where the final scene was filmed still exist? It has to, right? Do people make pilgrimages there? Is there a plaque on the site marking its importance? The response to ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE not only led to Sean Connery returning to the part for one more official go-round but also to a much lighter approach courtesy of GOLDFINGER director Guy Hamilton meant to recall that films heightened larger-than-life tone, ultimately leading to where the series went during the Roger Moore 70s. But since OHMSS isn’t held captive to the context of its release or occasional airings on the ABC Sunday Night At The Movies anymore, hopefully its growing reputation has come from people seeking it out on their own, who grew up in a world where multiple actors known as James Bond isn’t such a strange concept and are open to what surprises can be found in some of them. Sure, I love some James Bond films more than others but I’ll gladly sit through any of them at a moment’s notice. This is just one James Bond film where its world isn’t presented as flimsy camp or transparent spectacle. Instead it means every bit of pulp in there that I can feel down to my bones, which may partly be some kind of Euro jetset 60s fantasy for me, partly a Diana Rigg fantasy and just an overall response to what this approach manages to achieve. And I look forward to continually returning to it through the years, on future Christmas Eves, on future birthdays, bringing me dreams of snowy wonderlands and Diana Rigg, a reminder how the love I have for this film is really the sort of love that adds to all my love of films. Maybe I’m going a little overboard on all this but I really do feel this way. “We Have All the Time In the World” is the name of its famous love theme, as well as being a phrase which comes direct from Ian Fleming’s original novel. I know that I really don’t and this was the sort of birthday that certainly made me aware of that. But sometimes what this film does is to remind me of just what that phrase really means, whether it’s about life, films, or that world I sometimes find myself residing in which falls somewhere in between. And it stays with me.