Thursday, 18 October 2012

Countdown To 007: Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service

In the second round of revisiting the classic Bonds for this Countdown To 007 feature, I take a look at three fairly contentious movies in the series: I like all of them, but many find Thunderball boring, You Only Live Twice excessive, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service too... Lazenby. In my opinion, Lazenby gave a fine performance in his sole outing as 007 and his movie is one of the series' most touching. Let me know what you think in the comments.

These write-ups have been republished from Flixist's ongoing Across The Bond feature, where fellow Bond nerd Matthew Razak and I go through the series one by one. There'll be more Bond celebration to come on this blog. We have all the time in the world, after all...

I enjoy Thunderball, although still consider it the series' first noticeable stumble. It comprises a huge number of memorable scenes, has the most gorgeous set of girls to date (Claudine Auger in revealing swimwear was everything a young boy could ask for) and a wonderfully sleazy villain in the eyepatched Largo, but the pacing feels slightly off and parts of the movie drag as a result. There's not much momentum to the plot, especially since Bond spends so much time investigating Largo when the audience already knows he's responsible, and the early scenes at the health spa aren't particularly clear for anyone unfamiliar with the plot. The underwater fights, while a terrific technical achievement, also go on far too long. Bond's missile-firing underwater propulsion thingy is mighty cool, but probably responsible for killing every Bahamian reef for miles around.

There's still a huge amount to enjoy in the movie: the pre-credits sequence is a hoot, with Bond's fight against Colonel Bouvard (who had marvellous legs while disguised as a widow, it must be said) one of the young series' most ambitious, followed by the famous, if totally nonsensical, jetpack escape. The hijacking of the NATO jet is also terrific - and a very original and scary plot for the time - as is Largo's swimming pool full of sharks, the chase through the Junkanoo, Bond's dismayed reaction to Q's appearance (his 'oh no' gets me every time) and the brilliant rebreather, a gadget so cool even the British Army Engineers wanted to find out whether it really worked. It didn't.

Having Domino execute the coup de grâce against Largo is an intelligently played twist, giving retribution to the woman who has really suffered at the villain's hands. Not sure Largo's torture methods were up to much though - ice cubes? What was he planning on doing, drizzling chilly water down her spine? Bond also gets some terrific one-liners, from his muttered response to Domino's flirtatious comment about his sharp eyes ('Wait 'til you get to my teeth') and ice-cold quip when depositing the corpse of Fiona Volpe at a table of partying tourists ('Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She's just dead!'). Thunderball has its issues and is overshadowed by Goldfinger's imposing legacy, but remains terrifically watchable.

Fleming's book is identical in every noteworthy way bar the absence of jetpacks and Fiona Volpe, although due to the complicated circumstances surrounding the movie's pre-production, technically counts as the first novelisation. A few years prior to Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman getting the series started with Dr. No, Fleming had been in talks with Ivar Bryce and screenwriter Kevin McClory about developing a Bond movie of their own. Thunderball (originally titled Longitude 78 West) was the script they came up with. In 1961, with the movie still being touted around, Fleming wrote a novel based on the script without permission from his partners. The novel was released, but McClory twice pursued legal action against the author, first in 1961, a case he lost, and again in 1963, where an out-of-court settlement granted him the movie rights, hence his prominent position among the Thunderball movie credits and later independent remake, the abysmal Never Say Never Again. Fleming, meanwhile, suffered his first heart attack under the pressures of the trial, and died just under a year after it was settled.


I remembered not being a particularly big fan of You Only Live Twice, finding it little more than a succession of action sequences lacking the coherence and edge of Connery's earlier movies. That's true, but I'd forgotten how ridiculously entertaining it is. The plot isn't deep but provides plenty of excuses for gorgeous visuals, with the Japanese setting used prominently enough to give the movie a distinct exotic flavour without becoming overkill. Lewis Gilbert shoots with great flair, offering something new to see every couple of minutes. A delightfully eccentric undercurrent - Henderson's fusion of Japanese and Western decor, Tiger's ridiculously great living arrangements (he's got an office with a slide, a private train, AND a bath-house run entirely by gorgeous women!), Connery's hysterically terrible 'surgery' to turn him Japanese - gives the movie its sense of humour. Nancy Sinatra's title song, as Mad Men fans will know, is among the series' most best, even if it reflects the novel's pensive tone better than it does the movie's whizz-bang-whallop approach.

It's entries like You Only Live Twice that show how perfect the Bond formula can be when surrounded by striking enough aesthetics. While Thunderball suffered from slightly lethargic pacing, Gilbert's movie is more or less non-stop action, but made compelling through the richness and variety of its ideas. Roald Dahl's script has the purest grasp to date of what a Bond movie 'is', but this early in the game, doesn't rest on its laurels in the way the most uninspired Roger Moore movies do.Bond being introduced by a sex pun has become cliché ('Our man in Hong Kong is working on it now', cut to Bond shagging an Asian lass while making sensationally inappropriate comments about Peking Duck), as has the set of character types (one main villain, one sub-villain, one henchman, one male ally, one female victim, one female survivor) which became standard for most of the series' entries from here on in.

Fortunately, scenes like the opening sequence with an astronaut left floating through space after his vessel is devoured by SPECTRE's rocket (what a way to go), Bond's funeral at sea and submarine debriefing, the meeting with Aki (the stunning Akiko Wakabayashi) at the sumo arena, the Little Nellie dogfight, and Ken Adam's still jaw-dropping volcano set, are so singularly enjoyable that the familiarity of the underlying structure doesn't matter a jot. It's frivolous, but in the most appealing way possible. If there's anyone alive who can't get excited about Bondleading a ninja assault on a volcano rocket base, I weep for the future of humanity.

YOLT sets a less encouraging precedent as the first movie to throw out more or less everything in Ian Fleming's novel, bar the Japanese location and, very briefly, Bond's stay with Kissy Suzuki among the Ama fishing community. It's understandable, because the source material is among Fleming's more unusual, a self-reflective slow-burner built entirely around Bond coming to terms with the events of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which had yet to occur in the movie canon. Fleming's health was in terminal decline by the time he finished the novel, and it was the last he managed to complete. There's much speculation over whether his posthumously released book, The Man With The Golden Gun, was only a first draft or possibly even completed by his friend Kingsley Amis.

It has a uniquely melancholy tone, revolving as much around the depressed Bond as with Britain's weakening position on the world stage, which is beautifully played out through the delicate otherness of the Japanese culture Fleming adored. It's one of my all-time favourite novels and the movie producers should be ashamed that the climactic showdown with Blofeld - or Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, as is his outstandingly overwrought pseudonym - in his 'garden of death' has not yet made it to the big screen. Despite sharing a name, the novel and movie could not be any more different, and while that became a problem more often than not further down the line, here it provides two fantastic experiences, marking the point at which the cinematic and literary Bonds diverged into very distinct creations.


I don't for a second buy into the idea that On Her Majesty's Secret Service would have been a better film had Sean Connery been involved. I can't imagine his Bond having any interest in settling down, and the thought of him proposing just seems weird. He was charismatic and dangerous, but there wasn't any emotional depth to the character he was playing, partly because there never needed to be any: his Bond is a killer with expensive tastes and a sardonic sense of humour, whom audiences could immediately get a handle on. The character got some lovely grace notes reflecting his attitude and how he went about his job - see the Dr No article - but in terms of interest in forming human connections, not a trace. Lazenby, in an underrated performance, played Bond with a little more openness, perhaps an ironic consequence of his being Australian rather than full of British reserve.

Connery's Bond was too hard-edged to ask Tracy what was wrong when she turned up in his hotel room. Lazenby's Bond beds her almost immediately, of course, and doesn't hold back on the domestic violence either, but surrenders just a glimmer of concern for this girl who has clearly gone off the rails. He's still a cold bastard - after all, despite his intention to marry Tracy, he still bonks his way through an entire clinic of women at Piz Gloria - but a more noticeably human one. Lazenby may struggle with his accent, at least for the parts of the movie where he isn't distractingly dubbed over, but leaves his mark on the character with excellent work with some potentially difficult scenes, and is an outstanding fighter to boot.

He's helped by co-star Diana Rigg, a wonderful and generous actress who fully conveys the tragic longing for intimacy behind Tracy's reckless wilfulness. Rigg came to the part from The Avengers, a classic British spy-fi series (and my all-time favourite television programme), where she played the martial artist, journalist, scientist and all 'round superwoman, Emma Peel. Though the two characters are very different, it's clear the intention was to cast someone who could be legitimately accepted as Bond's equal. Tracy may not karate chop as enthusiastically as Emma, but is able to stand up for herself and connects with Bond on the level of two fractured souls healing each other's wounds.

Their romance has a beautifully balanced arc across the movie, which gives so much weight to its sudden, cruel ending. For a few minutes, the pair discover the happiness which has eluded them their entire lives, only to have it snatched away because, well, Bond is Bond. The wound inflicted on him is deeper than any gunshot, and should anyone ever moan about Lazenby being substandard, the sight of him cradling his slaughtered wife in his arms, not quite able to believe or fully comprehend what has happened, emphatically proves otherwise. The movie is the most faithful adaptation of any Bond novel, but one of the series' biggest oversights is that subsequent movies made no effort to emulate the suffering the literary character goes through as a result.

(Another nice touch in the book, absent for obvious reason from the movie, is that Bond pays a visit to Vesper Lynd's grave, giving context to the emotional damage Tracy begins to repair in him).

There are things I could complain about, notably the slightly messy storytelling and inconsistent pacing, but the Bond-Tracy relationship works so well that none are anything but minor concerns. OHMSS is one of the richest Bond movies, packed with fully rounded characters. Marc-Ange Draco is devilishly gregarious on the outside, but inwardly despairing over what to do about his wayward daughter. (His conversation with M at the wedding, where they casually exchange pleasantries about the times their organisations came into conflict over the years, is a funny, giddy treat). Blofeld is not the one-dimensional megalomaniac from You Only Live Twice, but a secret snob longing for recognition from the establishment he purports to be ready to destroy.

The movie is so character-driven that its first half contains barely any action at all, at least between the beach fight - which feels weirdly random, seeming nothing more than a chance encounter - and Bond's escape from Piz Gloria, one of the series' greatest prolonged action sequences. It preys on Bond's vulnerability throughout, and his stress is clear as Blofeld's men relentlessly hunt him down. The fight in the bell hut, in addition to its fantastic sound design, is a great example of a situation going horribly, desperately wrong for Bond, who is trying to slip by unnoticed before getting in the loudest fight imaginable. Between its fantastic performances, possibly John Barry's greatest score (the credits track distills Bond into two minutes of instrumental perfection, and Louis Armstrong's song captures the movie's heart in the way only Satchmo could) and deep character work bolstering the action, OHMSS is unique in the Bond canon for being as moving as it is thrilling.



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