Thursday, 30 June 2011

"This Never Happened to the Other Fellow"

This is the latest in a series of monthly pieces on the James Bond franchise, as part of The Incredible Suit's  Blogalongabond. For more info, check out here, and here. For my prior entries, click here.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service opens in a manner that seems somewhat restrained in light of the increasing bombast of the past five films. Events begin with M and Q querying the whereabouts of an AWOL Bond, a Bond who, it turns out, is trailing a rather melancholy young woman as she drives to the beach. A Bond who saves this woman from herself as she bounds into the arms of the sea. A Bond who engages in a rough and ready brawl, without too much of the superman about him, all the while his features obscured or rendered distant, the camera teasing us before the damsel flees without thanks. This veiled Bond is already so different the laws of the series are bending around him also, leading to the over the top meta-comment, “this never happened to the other fellow,” before the opening credits role, recapping scenes from the past five films – none of which show a certain Sean Connery. And so it is that, slap-bang in the middle of the so-called “Blofeld Trilogy”, the 007 franchise has its first major identity crisis in the form of George Lazenby.

In an odd way, the timing of this first shift in the series comes at a rather fortuitous time in the series’ narrative, presenting as it does a new side of Bond never before seen in the movies. For, on the one hand, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a fairly standard Bond tale; Bond continues to track down the elusive head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavros Blofeld, uncovering his latest scheme to get rich quick or kill loads trying, complete with an exotic hideaway, dodgy foreign heavies (hi Rosa Klebb – I mean Irma Bunt!) and shots of a well oiled bald head. On the other hand, however, and far more memorable, is the story of a formidable, if troubled, young woman who penetrates Bond’s cool composure and leaves him vulnerable to love, and eventually, marriage. If any woman was to break Bond, it would be Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, the headstrong daughter of crime-lord Marc-Ange Draco. Like Bond, she is impulsive and dangerous – though it no doubt helps that she carries the stunning looks of Diana Rigg; if there was ever a Bond girl to fall for, it is she.

Lazenby’s Bond is more of a straight man than Connery’s; he packs the charm, the smarts, and the strength, but he doesn’t have that edge of calculated aggression that marked Connery’s take on the character, and as such his slightly more earnest rendition of Bond gels far better with the lover’s tragedy at work in this film in a way that I struggle to see Connery working with quite so well. Everything in the film, from the narrative, through the meta references to the past films, and the re-arranged score, conspires to suggest that we’ve entered a transition phase; that Bond has moved on. The result of course, is that OHMSS has become something of an anomaly in the Bond canon; Connery returned one more time to the EON productions with Diamonds Are Forever, before Moore took over the reins and the series became something else entirely in order to stay relevant in the more liberal 70s. Lazenby will forever been known as “the weaker Bond” as a result of this, and I feel it’s an unfair judgement – in this instance, the shift in Bond is something of an evolution rather than a reboot, presenting a facet to the character that complements what came before.

It help that OHMSS is, regardless of its own marked individualities, a stand-up Bond film within the series’ general formula. Shirking gadgets and clumsy plot turns in favour of something streamlined and focused, characters are allowed to breathe a little more; even the device of Blofeld is allowed to become an actual character in the hands of Telly Savalas, wiping the floor with the dodgy remains of Emilio Largo and – dare I say it – the “iconic” take of the character in the form of Pleasance. With consistent pacing throughout, OHMSS feels like a refreshing new direction in the series, one it unfortunately didn’t follow. As it stands, OHMSS offers the first, highly compressed, example of the more general identity crisis of the series as a whole – a sort of shoe in that people unfairly forget. If more Bond films had followed in the steps planted here, perhaps things might have turned out a little differently later on.

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