The Series Project: James Bond (Part 2)

 

Welcome back, agents. I trust you have all your secret documents in order. And I see you’re all wearing your magnetic laser watches with the secret coil of garrote wire inside. It’s time for your further briefing. Stop flirting with Ms. Moneypenny, and we can talk.

I have now seen the first eight James Bond movies, dear readers, and I find myself entering a strange blissful place of ludicrous obsession. My mind is now fully in tune with the universe of agent 007, and rather than being bored by the repetitive stories and action film clichés, I find myself celebrating them. The clichés, after all (as I pointed out in the first part of The Series Project: James Bond) are the reason we keep going back to James Bond movies. I have found myself watching these increasingly ridiculous movies merely celebrating what the filmmakers are inventing, laughing at the WTF moments, and getting into the series’ groove.

I was arguing with a friend recently who said that he didn’t like James Bond movies because we never learn about James Bond, any of his nemesis, or really explore any kind of grand backstory, which would, in his eye, allow the series to transcend its clichés. As I indicated last week, however, the appeal of James Bond is not his backstory. The villains aren’t interesting because they’re complex beings that we can relate to. James Bond is a superhero. A fantasy man who is good at everything, always wins, and always lands the hot chick. He is not a complex character by any means, but we love watching him because we want to be him. The villains, likewise, should not be terribly complex. They are just there to provide a charismatic bad guy from Bond to fight, and to provide a hopelessly complex world domination scheme for MI-6 to undo.

Last week, I covered Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. This week, we’ll be looking at the final two films to feature Sean Connery as the superspy, the one film to feature George Lazenby, and the first of the Roger Moore films. There’s a lot of ups and downs in this small stretch. I think I have also discovered a pattern in the James Bond films as of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which I’ll get to summarily.

When we last left James, he had just spent a good deal of time underwater in Thunderball. Let’s see him go to Japan now in…

 

YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)
Directed by: Lewis Gilbert

BOND: Sean Connery

GADGETS: The Gyrocopter “Little Nellie,” rocket bullets, a gun hidden in a cigarette, a suction-cup wall-walking suit.

THE BABE: Aki, played by Akiko Wakabayashi and Kissy, played by Mie Hama

THE BAD GUY: Mr. Osato, played by Teru Shimada and Blofeld, played by Donald Pleasance

LOCATION(S): Tokyo

THEME SONG: Sung by Nancy Sinatra

BOND DIRECTLY KILLS: Three helicopter pilots, shoots a thug with his cigarette gun, and blows up an enemy satellite, killing everyone on board.

WTF MOMENTS: That gyrocopter is pretty weird. There is a Tholian-style spaceship that eats American satellites. James Bond fakes his death. James Bond is fired bodily out of a torpedo tube. To disguise himself at one point, James Bond is given really fake-looking slanty-eyed makeup. Yeep.
 

We’re not quite there yet, but You Only Live Twice is definitely a strong, strong tilt into the ultra-silly territory that would eventually mature during the Roger Moore years. For the first time, we’re dealing with an evil scheme that couldn’t possibly work in any sane universe, we have technologies that couldn’t ever exist, and we have a villain who officially becomes cartoonish. I think people tend to like the Connery Bond films because of their charm and their old-world 1960s Cold War palpability. Those same people hate the Moore Bond films because of their silliness and frank dismissal of any sort of real-world physics or logic. I think the best Bond films are real-looking and grounded in their execution, but fantastical in their content. But still reigning in on the goofy. You Only Live Twice is way fun, but ups the goof quotient even over Thunderball. In comparison, though, it’s more tightly paced, and more entertaining.

The film follows James Bond to Japan to investigate who has been using a spaceship to hijack American astronauts directly from space. Seriously. Like the nose of the Evil ship opens up and swallows the astronauts’ ship, taking them back to Earth in a Japanese volcano. Wouldn’t it be easier to wait until the ship returns to Earth to steal it? Nothing doing.

Bond meets his contact in Japan, the head of the Japanese secret service, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba). Unlike its predecessors, You Only Live Twice revels in its locales, showing us all manner of local color. We get to see a sumo match, a Japanese office, a Japanese bath, a bunch of ninjas in training, and some hot geisha girls. It’s not exactly a holistic look at Japanese culture, but – in terms of cultural accuracy – is way better than the gypsy catfights in From Russia with Love. Indeed, once you know the clichés, and you’re looking for the common elements in James Bond films, the only real differentiation after a while is the exotic locale. As far as locales go, Japan does nicely.

James Bond beds a hot Japanese agent named Aki (Wakabayashi), whose dialogue is dubbed. She’ll be killed by accident partway through the film, and will be replaced by a character named Kissy (Hama), who will marry James Bond in a mock Shinto ceremony, and will spend the bulk of her screen time in a bikini. Oh yes, James Bond marries her. But don’t worry. He didn’t use his real name. They intend to infiltrate the bad guys’ lair as a married couple, you see. They even give James Bond some Japanese makeup to make him look Asian. Let me repeat that. James Bond is given effing slant-eye makeup to make him look Japanese. This is so deliciously offensive. He wears the eye makeup, but still looks like a towering 6’3” Scotsman with a hairy chest. Those little bits of eye makeup wouldn’t fool anyone.

I love the gyrocopter in this film. It’s a little motorcycle-sized contraption carried to Japan by Q (still Desmond Llewellyn). It has a smoke screen and other weapons, and Bond kills some helicopters with it. I want one of those. A little, quiet helicopter to buzz around in. It’s nicknamed “Little Nellie.”

Eventually Kissy and James infiltrate the bad guy’s volcano hideout. The businessman they’ve been following (Shimada) was actually in the employ of Blofeld this whole time. This is the first film in which we see Blofeld’s face, and he is played by Donald Pleasance. Blofeld used to be a shadowy figure with mysterious connections to the world’s ultra-criminals. The specter of SPECTRE used to be kind of real. Now it’s just silly. Donald Pleasance does try to make Blofeld scary, but the Persian cat and evil scar is now so clichéd that he only comes across as a comic book villain. I understand the appeal of the James Bond films is their cartoonishness, but, if I may be allowed to repeat myself, they’re best when they at least tip their hat to reality. Blofeld is stealing satellites in order to raise the temperature between the U.S. and the Soviets, precipitating a nuclear strike. He says something about rising from the ashes. That’s a dumb plan.

I can’t wait for the Blofeld stuff to end. I prefer the idea that James Bond is a free agent, who can take care of many different kinds of problems. This arch-nemesis stuff is mildly unbecoming. We’ll see plenty of Blofeld, however, in the sixth James Bond film, the first with a new leading man.


 

ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969)
Directed by: Peter R. Hunt

BOND: George Lazenby

GADGETS: Radioactive lint (who I hear is playing Coachella this year), an automatic safe-cracker.

THE BABE: Tracy DiVincenzo, played by Diana Rigg

THE BAD GUY: Draco, played by Gabriele Ferzetti. Blofeld, played by Telly Savalas

LOCATION(S): Spain, Bern

THEME SONG: “All the Time in the World” sung by Louis Armstrong, but not over the opening credits.

BOND DIRECTLY KILLS: A thug on the beach by drowning him in a foot of water. He kills two thugs on skis, one by shredding him in a snow blower. Chunky shredded thug.

WTF MOMENTS: In the opening scene, George Lazenby turns to the camera and actually says, “This never happened to the other fella!” There’s an amusing thug who only grunts. James Bond resigns from MI-6 just to get what he wants from M. There’s a really weird random scene where a guy in a bear suit laughs at James Bond while taking his picture. There’s a room full of teenage hotties with allergies.
 

I don't know why Sean Connery left the franchise. Maybe he felt the James Bond films were getting tired. Maybe the producers wanted new blood. But whatever the reason, an Australian actor named George Lazenby, largely unknown, signed a seven-picture deal to play James Bond, and was said to be the new face of the hero. Magazines started touting him as the next big thing. I recall seeing a magazine cover that touted “Lazenby is Bond, and here's here to stay!” This is chuckle-worthy as we know now that Lazenby would only play Bond this once.

So how does he stack up against Connery? Well, Lazenby is younger and more lithe than Connery (in 1969, Connery was 39, Lazenby 29). He has a cute face and youthful energy, whereas Connery was more cosmopolitan and adult. He's still a charmer, but Connery was definitely more sexual. Despite his usual habit of bedding numerous sexy women, Lazenby seems kind of chaste in the role. Word has it that the producers didn't like this youthful version.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is largely frowned upon by the Bond community at large. It stars an unknown, it's really long (it's 146 minutes, which is actually slightly shorter than the 2006 Casino Royale), and it tries to shake up the James Bond formula a little bit by giving him a legitimate love interest that he will actually marry. This is the only film to date wherein James Bond has said “I love you.” It ends on an extremely depressing note, which none of the other films will. It abandoned the song-over-the-titles tradition. The film was a huge success, but is considered today to be a lesser James Bond film. Probably the least James Bond film.

I intuit, though, that this may have been a calculation. Every five or six films, James Bond seems to need a shake-up that is, perhaps, intended to be less popular than its peer group. The filmmakers, after all, can only get away with the familiar Bond formula so many times before people begin to tire of it. The producers will then invent some new conceit for James Bond, and try to take him in a new direction. The people will react negatively, and the producers will return in the following film with the old formula again. James Bond will then be back on track for another five or six films. Call it the Coke Classic approach.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is actually a really fun film, and contains a corker of a chase scene. Indeed, the chase scene is so long that the characters have to stop for the night in the middle of it. James Bond must escape from a mountaintop resort, down a ski slope, down to a ski club, into a car, and across a country, all in one long, long chase sequence. It's expertly handled. The story follows Bond's effort to find Blofeld once and for all. He has been on the case for a long time, and MI-6 threatens to take him off of it. Bond actually retires from MI-6 in order to prove his point. M hires him back summarily, but it's odd to think that it might have happened so easily. Bond decides to pose as a genealogist (his own family motto? “The World is Not Enough.” Keep that in mind until 1999) interested in tracking Blofeld's ancestry. They've met before. Wouldn't Blofeld recognize him? Well, Bond is now a different actor, and Blofeld is now Telly Savalas, so maybe they can't recognize one another anymore.

The genealogy thing leads Bond high into the Swiss Alps to a mysterious allergy study complex populated entirely by hot, international teenage girls, and run by Blofeld. I know, I know, that's weird. Bond wears a kilt, and all the women seem to steam from their underpants every time he walks by. One of them writes the number 8 on his inner thigh in lipstick under the dinner table. Yes, the size of James Bond's penis is brought directly to mind. The allusions are becoming thinner. The hot ladies have all been assembled partly to cure them of allergies, but also to secretly brainwash them, and have them commit acts of terrorism. Blofeld's plan is given so little screen time, it's barely worth having in the film at all. He may as well just be really interested in allergies.

James Bond does indeed have a real love interest. Not just a floozy, but someone he's actually into. A Spanish mob guy named Draco wants Bond to woo his daughter Tracy, played by the awesomely pretty Diana Rigg. Bond agrees to do so, and they fall in love during the film's song. Louis Armstrong croons. Yes, by the film's end, they will wed.

I theorized that the longer Bond films are weaker. On Her Majesty's Secret Service could have been tighter, but it doesn't ever drag, mostly because of how well that chase sequence lasted. Also, that the token floozy is actually an interesting and complex character helps. Maybe the scene that could have been cut was the silly-ass bobsled chase near the end. Blofeld tries to escape in a bobsled. Wacky. He actually does get away, too.

Bond and Tracy wed. Moneypenny (still Lois Maxwell) and M (still Bernard Lee) are there. Moneypenny seems very sad. Do you think James Bond lords over her the fact that they've never actually dated? Is he cruel?

In a horrible twist ending, however, Blofeld makes a brief reappearance just so he can stage a drive-by shooting. Yes, just as James and Tracy are moving off into wedded bliss, Blofeld breezes by and shoots her in the head(!). Bond looks over and sees her body. “We have all the time in the world…” he tragically intones. He hugs her corpse. Roll credits. Yikes. James Bond movies should not end so tragically sad. Either the screenwriters were trying to add some real character depth to James Bond (which is my suspicion), or producers felt that a ladies' man like James Bond should not ever marry (the suspicion of cynics). Either way, we're going out on a sad note.

Despite the film's success, Lazenby left, and for the next film, we'll bring back Sean Connery for one last (canonical) hurrah.

 

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971)
Directed by: Guy Hamilton

BOND: Sean Connery

GADGETS: Rubber fingerprints, a voice-changing telephone, a floating human-sized hamster ball.

THE BABE: Tiffany Case, played by Jill St. John

THE BAD GUY: Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint, played by Putter Smith and Bruce Glover. Blofeld, played by Charles Grey

LOCATION(S): Las Vegas

THEME SONG: Sung by Shirley Bassey

BOND DIRECTLY KILLS: Two people whom he drowns in mud. A thug in an elevator.

WTF MOMENTS: James Bond strangles a woman with her own bikini top. James Bond keeps a mousetrap in his pocket that snaps on the fingers of a bad guy who is searching him. James Bond hides from a thug by pulling that “making out with yourself” trick you used to do when you were 12. A woman turns into a gorilla. An elephant uses a slot machine. There's a Henny Youngman-type comedian for some reason. Blofeld dresses in drag.
 

In the film's intro, we see James Bond still seeking revenge on Blofeld. While Tracy is never mentioned, Bond is clearly after revenge. But since it's Connery, and he's back in his full-tilt flip attitude, there's nothing dark about this. It feels like his old antics. Blofeld is now played by Charles Grey (from The Rocky Horror Picture Show), which is weird for two reasons. One, he is not bald and looks nothing like his previous two incarnations. Two, Charles Grey actually had a small role in You Only Live Twice as “Not Blofeld.”This will be the last film, I suspect, to bring up Blofeld in any capacity, and SPECTRE will be left behind. The Moore era is coming…

Anyway, Bond kills Blofeld even before the credits, allowing us to get on with the film proper. James Bond finds himself embroiled in a diamond-smuggling ring perpetrated by a mysterious mastermind, and perpetuated by the ditzy, busty redhead Tiffany Case. Jill St. John is a good-looking lady, and can rock a bikini with the best of them, but she's not much of an actress. We still get to see a lot of her ample cleavage anyway.

Diamonds are Forever is the only James Bond film in my memory that actually has any nudity. We'll see plenty of half-naked women, and in the Maurice Binder title sequences, we'll see hints of nipples, but James Bond movies can be frustratingly nudity-free. Except for this one. This one has many, many see-through tops and clear nipple shots. No actual full-on bare breasts or anything, but plenty to look at. I'll stop right now before I start to sound like Mr. Skin. I mean more like Mr. Skin.

This film was shot in the 1970s, and it shows. All the Las Vegas interiors are of that disgusting orange-and-brown palate that made the entire decade so butt-ugly. What's more, all the cars are those gigantic 1970s land boats that take up three parking spots. The hairdos are tightly coiffed. Sean Connery is 41. He's still strong, but is clearly not the spring chicken he once was. The entire film smells of spilled booze and stale cigarettes. Part of the film takes place in Circus Circus, the infamous Las Vegas hotel and casino, which has remained largely unchanged and equally chintzy since the film was shot. You can go in there today, and still expect to see Raoul Duke stumbling past you.

Anyway. Bond tracks the movement of the diamonds over borders, he hides them inside the alimentary canal of a dead body, finds a secret Nevada base with nuclear materials in it, and has to track down the whereabouts of a reclusive Howard Hughes-type hotel tycoon. He does battle with two comely ladies calling themselves Bambi and Thumper. They beat him up using gymnastics fighting. Gymkata? James Bond escapes some pursuing cops by tipping his car on its side. Tiffany Case is a bit of a ditz, sleeps with Bond, and vacillates between being a good guy and a bad guy.

There is a pair of thugs lurking about doing most of the killings. They are named Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wist, and look like David Crosby and Terry Gilliam respectively. They are grinning maniacs, and I liked them a lot. It's implied that these two are lovers, as they hold hands in one scene, and say things like “She's not bad-looking… for a girl.” If they are gay men, they'd be the only relatively open homosexuals in all the James Bond movies. I prefer to think they are lovers. Some gay visibility is always a good thing. Even if they're evil villains whom Bond will eventually kill.

It eventually comes out that the diamonds are indeed being smuggled by Blofeld, who is still alive. He has decoys, you see. Groan. The diamonds are being put in a satellite laser, and Blofeld is using it to destroy nuclear weapons. He makes a brief comment about actually wanting world peace and nuclear disarmament. This doesn't seem so evil to me. Bond eventually catches up to him on his offshore oil platform, woos Jill St. John back, and swings Blofeld's escape submarine (with Blofeld in it) on the end of a crane, bashing it into his evil base. It's unclear if Blofeld is dead or not. Revenge is never mentioned, and Bond takes his usual amount of professional glee in the moment, but nothing more. The end.

I liked the '70s chintziness of Diamonds are Forever, but I couldn't shake the feeling that the producers were using this whole film as a means to recover from the bad reputation of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. We are, however, about to enter a new era. The final stop on this week's trip will be the launching of Roger Moore and his gooftastic seven-film cycle.


 

LIVE AND LET DIE (1973)
Directed by: Guy Hamilton

BOND: Roger Moore

GADGETS: A rearview mirror gun that fires sideways. A bug detector. A watch with a power magnet in it. It's also a buzzsaw. It's also a digital watch sometimes.

THE BABE: Solitaire, played by Jane Seymour

THE BAD GUY: Mr. Kananga, played Yaphet Kotto

LOCATION(S): New York City, New Orleans

THEME SONG: Sung by Paul McCartney and Wings

BOND DIRECTLY KILLS: James Bond throws gasoline on a boater and the boat crashes, blowing him up. Does that count? Bond shoots a voodoo priest, and another voodoo guy. He pushes a second priest into a coffin full of poisonous snakes. He pushes a robot-arm thug off a train. He kills Kananga in an odd way (see below).

WTF MOMENTS: Bond kills Kananga using a small, pressurized air tank, inflating him. Kananga floats up to the ceiling and pops like a balloon. It's kind of gross. A character uses the world “pimpmobile” in a James Bond movie. James Bond uses a stacked tarot deck to extort sex from a woman. There's a few Bubba redneck cops. James Bond escapes a crocodile pit by running across their backs like in Pitfall. This is the only James Bond film to use the word “sh*t.” Not one but two ancillary spies are killed by an entire marching band.
 

First off: How does Roger Moore shape up? Well, Moore is a much more genial Bond than Connery or Lazenby. He seems the most amused by what's going on, and the most baffled by the weird stuff. There is no protracted intro (or re-intro). Moore slips into the role with a great deal of ease. He's not as sexy as Connery, but he's way more willing to chuckle at his seduction skills. Moore kind of codifies what James Bond is for many people, i.e. over the top. He doesn't ever overact, but he winks a lot.

This film is also of the 1970s, as it focuses – perhaps a little too tightly – on the notion of the American Black Power movement. Aside from Bond and Solitaire and Felix Leiter (who has actually been in almost all the films to date, each time played by a different actor) the entire cast is black. We have James Bond trekking into Harlem in this film, which is kind of an odd notion in itself. There are scads of wicked voodoo cults and murderous mobs in Live and Let Die, and it's tempting to accuse the film of racism; doesn't it look, ever so briefly, like all black people are part of an international conspiracy to kill “Whitey?”

Yaphet Kotto plays a vaguely defined politician of an unnamed African republic who is secretly harvesting heroin (using an alias) for distribution. Not to any end, really. Just to get the world hooked on it. 'Cause he's an evil motherf*cker. In his employ he has a mystic named Solitaire (who loses her far-seeing powers when James boinks her), a man with a robot arm, a fat guy with a raspy voice, and a flamboyant voodoo priest in a top hat. His name is Kananga when he's in politician mode, and Mr. Big when he's in street hustler mode. If you have a secret drug operation, why the codename?

The chase leads James to New Orleans and then deep into the southern Louisiana bayou, where there's the alligator pit scene, and an extended boat chase. The boats in the boat chase speed over the water, and skip bodily over stretches of land. I found myself shouting “Fitzcarrraldo!” each time it happened. James Bond is chased by some stupid redneck cops. I assumed these characters were ripped off from Smokey and the Bandit, but that film didn't come out until 1977. I guess redneck cops were just hot when Live and Let Die came out.

A few notable things: Q is not in this film. We see James Bond's house for the first time in this film, and it's not as much of a bachelor pad as you'd assume. He does, however, have an espresso machine in his kitchen, which is surprisingly forward thinking for 1973.

Like You Only Live Twice before it, Live and Let Die is largely about local atmosphere. I liked its use of the national geist. Its inclusion of so many African-Americans was probably a response to accusations of racism by certain black fans (there had, after all, been surprisingly few black people in any of the previous films). It's also a clear grab at topicality. Isn't that cute? James Bond is trying to be topical. You'll find that whenever Bond films attempt a comment on current events, it always feels a bit out-of-place. Bond himself is, after all, kind of timeless. Why tie him to real history? I also like Moore's take on the character, and the kind of earnest explosion of wacky that this film marks. From what I understand, all of the Moore films will have a kind of wacky tone that the previous films did not have.

 


 

This is where we're going to leave it this week, poised at Roger Moore's doorstep, and prepared to take a headlong dive into Moore's wholly entertaining, openly nuttier, and somewhat controversial reign in the role. Be sure to join me for four Roger Moor films: The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker (which has laser guns!), and For Your Eyes Only. And in two weeks, I'll be reviewing a mainstream action film that was actually called Octopussy. Seriously, dude. Octopussy. Stay tuned, agents.