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Tuesday, August 06, 2002

James Bond Redux, part II.

...continuing my capsule reviews of all the James Bond films, in order of their release...

(Part one: Dr. No through Thunderball)

:: You Only Live Twice. In this film, feminist critics of the James Bond series will find some of their most potent ammunition -- this is a film where Tanaka, the head of Japanese Intelligence, tells Bond: "In Japan, men always come first. Women come second." (To which Bond replies, "I may retire here.") There is a lot of woman-as-object in this film, and Bond's thoughts never seem to be far from the bedroom. Whenever he has a free moment, he is looking for, well, some "action". That's one of my biggest complaints with this film. The other is the villain: we get our first sight of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but he is unfortunately played in spectacularly unmenacing fashion by Donald Pleasance. No Bond villain should sound whiny, as Pleasance does when he orders one of his lackeys to "Kill Bond! Now!", and certainly Blofeld -- Bond's archenemy -- should never sound thus. The film also suffers from bad special effects (probably unavoidable in a 1967 film, but there it is) and in the general unbelievability of the plot. The film's strengths are in its gorgeous photography of the Japanese locales, John Barry's sparkling score, and the film's zippy pace (a welcome change after the lugubrious Thunderball). (The Gadgets: Bond has a safe-cracking device, an area where Q-Branch seems to be constantly devoting its efforts, as Bond uses nifty safe-crackers a lot. He also has cigarettes that fire explosive darts, and most notably a collapsible one-man helicopter that is armed to the teeth.)

:: On Her Majesty's Secret Service. For years -- pretty much ever since its release in 1969 -- OHMSS has been something of an "unloved child" amongst the James Bond films, for a number of reasons. It is the longest of the films; it has the series's only downbeat ending (actually, it's a tragic ending); and it's the first film to not feature Sean Connery as Bond. Connery had left the role after You Only Live Twice, and the producers hired a complete unknown with no acting experience, George Lazenby, which would have been a risky move in any event but given the nature of the film's story was potential for unmitigated disaster. Were those fears realized? In a word, NO. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is not a disaster. Quite the opposite: this is the best James Bond film yet made. Yes, I said "best".

Where so many Bond films a faux-epics, mistaking huge sets and massive battles for grandeur, OHMSS gets it right by telling an epic story. The sense of sweep in this film has never stopped amazing me; it amazes me to this day. The film opens with Bond becoming intrigued by an encounter with a beautiful heiress who is also suicidal; his concern for her leads him to an unexpected opportunity to find Ernst Stavro Blofeld, for whom he has been searching for two years. Every development in the story leads on to the next development perfectly; this film exhibits storytelling logic that is often wanting in Bond films (and, in the worst films, completely absent). Because nothing in the story is wasted, the film's lengthy running time (142 minutes) seems much shorter than it really is. Richard Maibaum's screenplay contains the best writing in the series, and it would be another six films -- not until For Your Eyes Only -- before the scripts would approach this level of quality again.

There are many to this day who don't care for George Lazenby's performance as Bond. I am not one of them. Lazenby has, to my mind, only a handful of wooden line readings; for the most part his performance is solid and in certain scenes it is almost perfect. He handles an early scene with Diana Rigg very well, conveying that he is more intrigued with this particular woman than with most "mere" beautiful girls, and there is another scene later on -- when Bond realizes that he has fallen in love, and that this is more important to him than his job as an agent for Her Majesty -- that Lazenby absolutely nails. In every scene that demands the most from Lazenby, he delivers. He is also a very athletic actor, which shows in his action sequences. He also displays good comic timing with his early line, "This never happened to the other fellow."

The other performances are wonderful. Diana Rigg is still my favorite Bond heroine; she is beautiful, intelligent, and three-dimensional. Telly Savalas is Blofeld this time, a welcome change over Donald Pleasance. (He also has the film's best line, suring a ski chase: "All right, we'll head him off at the precipice.") There isn't a single weak link in the supporting cast.

The music for OHMSS is the best in the series, with John Barry's wonderful main theme (the only time in the series that an instrumental was used for the main credits) and the love theme based on Louis Armstrong's "We Have All the Time In the World". The photography is outstanding; if you can watch this film and afterwards not want to immediately book a trip to the Swiss Alps, then you weren't looking at the screen at all. The action sequences are first-rate, most notably a ski chase that is still the best in the series. A common refrain about OHMSS is, "If only they'd made it with Connery...." Well, they didn't. They made it with George Lazenby, and they have never since made one better. (The Gadget: The focus in OHMSS is on human abilities; gadgets are not much in evidence. Q describes, in the film's opening scene, research into radioactive lint, which slipped into an opponent's pockets would make him easier to track. There is another nifty safecracker machine that is also a photocopier, and Bond has a miniature camera. That's about it.)

:: Diamonds Are Forever. For reasons passing understanding, George Lazenby quit the Bond role after his one film, and Sean Connery was convinced to return. After doing this film, Connery left for good, and Roger Moore took over the role. Moore has often been blamed for the shift into self-parody that the Bond films undertook in the 1970s, but in reality that shift began with Diamonds Are Forever. (This also ilustrates a theory of mine, that actors are often blamed for things that are really faults of writing. I'll have more to say about that in later reviews.) Diamonds Are Forever is a decent film on its own; the story -- involving a particularly nasty smuggling ring, where each link in the chain is murdered as the diamonds are moved along -- is interesting. Jill St. John is an interesting Bond heroine, playing a criminal who ends up being Bond's reluctant ally. Sadly, the film turns her into a bumbling bimbo in the third act -- and the film as a whole pretty much collapses in its climactic scenes. The final battle against Blofeld and his minions is unexciting, and we are cheated of a "final confrontation" between Bond and his archenemy. That, really, is the biggest failing of Diamonds Are Forever: it makes no reference at all to the events of OHMSS, choosing to tell a stand-alone story rather than the gripping revenge story that one might have expected. Blofeld, remember, murdered Bond's wife -- and yet this is not mentioned at all. There should be personal hatred, but the Bond-Blofeld dynamic here is firmly along the lines of "the cop versus the bad guy he's never been able to put away". Imagine if, in Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader never fight each other, and when they meet face-to-face no mention at all is made of Vader's revelation in The Empire Strikes Back. That's the feeling here. There are also a number of ludicrous moments, such as a chase scene involving Bond and seemingly the entire Las Vegas police department that goes on far too long and a scene that depicts Blofeld dressed in drag. Diamonds Are Forever is enjoyable until the climax, but it is also a missed opportunity of staggering proportions. (The Gadgets: Bond fools a fingerprinting machine by wearing false fingerprints; he has a gun which fires pitons and ropes for climbing purposes -- very useful for getting into a Las Vegas hotel's forbidden penthouse; and there is some gizmo that changes people's voices. Q also demonstrates a gadget that causes slot machines to come up Jackpot. The gadgets are fairly pedestrian.)

To be continued....



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