Monday, September 3, 2012

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

Director: Peter R. Hunt
Producers: Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman
Writer: Richard Maibaum
Cinematographer: Michael Reed
Composer: John Barry
Editor: John Glen
Theme Song:"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" by John Barry
James Bond (George Lazenby) rescues a suicidal woman from drowning, only to discover she is Tracy Di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), the daughter of Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), the leader of Union Corse, a major European crime syndicate.
Sensing that Bond's presence is having a positive impact on Tracy, Draco offers to pay Bond £1 million pounds to marry her. In return, Draco agrees to help Bond find Blofeld (Telly Savalas), now posing as a French Count running an Allergy Research Institute in the Swiss Alps, where he is brainwashing a group of ten young women, whom he dubs the Angels of Death, into spreading a bacteriological weapon throughout the world.
Initially one of the most hated films in the series and now one of the most beloved, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a solid entry in the franchise, but it falls short of being great, primarily due to first-time director issues. While former series editor Peter R. Hunt's visuals and locations are excellent, his stylistic choices in the action scenes and the mixture of footage with real skiers and the actors in obvious bluescreen are far too jarring to ignore and, more importantly, the pacing drags often in the second half; at 2 hours and 22 minutes, this is the second longest Bond film and it shows in the scenes with Bond posing as gay genealogist Sir Hilary Bray and bedding Blofeld's Angels of Death.
Fortunately, minor technical issues and a lagging second act are the only real flaws, for everything else makes for a damn fine film. Richard Maibaum, the series regular writer, does some of his best work here, developing a great spy adventure that emphasizes intellect and deduction over gadgets and fisticuffs while also giving the characters genuine personality and dimension beyond the typical Bond stereotypes. Maibaum also tones down the humor, relying more on sly remarks that outright jokes. Furthermore, Blofeld's plot, while it seems smaller in scope, is actually quite clever and his use of the Angels of Death is an inspired, twisted idea.
In addition to a great story, the film also boasts two incredible performances from Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas. Rigg, best known as Emma Peel from The Avengers, is a captivating presence not only because she's attractive, but because she's a worthy woman for Bond and showcases tremendous range, perfectly capturing Tracy's emotional arc and her relationship with Bond, while also keeping her smart and resourceful. As for Savalas, his Blofeld lacks the creepy menace Donald Pleasance gave him, but he makes up for it by imbuing the character with an understated intellect and sly, witty menace that makes him every bit as dangerous. Special mention also goes to series regulars Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn and Lois Maxwell for taking full advantage of their expanded roles.
Then there's George Lazenby, the Australian model infamous for this one-time portrayal of Bond, which continues to inspire heated debate amongst fans. For myself, I can say without doubt that Lazenby has been severely underrated; yes, he lacks Sean Connery's sexual charisma and machismo and he has his moments of stiffness. But for the most part, Lazenby is quite charming and confident as Bond, with good line delivery and a sly sense of humor. Lazenby is helped immensely by the fact that, for the first time in the series, Bond is written as a real human being, one who is vulnerable and capable of feeling doubt, fear and love; this is best expressed in the final scene, where Lazenby's delivery of the line "we have all the time in the world," combined with his facial expressions, are heartbreaking and make you wish that Lazenby got another shot at Bond. 
Despite its initial reputation, On Her Majesty's Secret Service has rightfully taken its place as one of the best films in the series. While it lacks some of the frills Bond fans are accustomed to and suffers from an elongated running time, it's more than made up for by Hunt's stellar direction, Maibaum's elegant, character-driven script and a trio of strong performances by Lazenby, Rigg and Savalas, not to mention the best ending to any Bond film.



Saturday, September 1, 2012

You Only Live Twice (1967)

Director: Lewis Gilbert
Producers: Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman
Writer: Roald Dahl
Cinematographer: Freddie Young
Composer: John Barry
Editors: Peter R. Hunt, Robert Richardson 
Theme: "You Only Live Twice" by Nancy Sinatra
James Bond (Sean Connery), believed to have been killed in Hong Kong, fakes his death and travels to Japan with a new mission from MI6; to investigate the disappearance of an American spacecraft, which the U.S. blames on Russia.
Arriving in Japan, Bond begins working with Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), the head of Japan's Secret Service, and his agents Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). Trained as a Ninja and going undercover as a Japanese fisherman, Bond's investigation leads him to the Sea of Japan, where the American spacecraft and a captured Russian spacecraft are being held by SPECTRE leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) in an attempt to ignite nuclear war.
The first truly epic Bond film, You Only Live Twice is a strong balance between the straight, classy tone of From Russia With Love and the kitschy, camp tone of Goldfinger and comes close to equaling both films in quality and entertainment value. Much of the credit can go to the creative team of Lewis Gilbert and Roald Dahl; despite no experience with big-budget spectacles, this writer-director team give this fifth Bond film massive action sequences, but also likeable characters and competent storytelling.
Story wise, Dahl keeps the story moving, delivering a nice balance between character moments and action set pieces, while also building up a good mystery; from Bond's staged death to Blofeld's reveal, the mystery and fun characters anchor the more outlandish elements and gives the plot genuine weight and stakes not seen since From Russia With Love. As for Gilbert, his handling of the action sequences, particularly the final battle with Bond and Tanaka's Ninjas versus SPECTRE and the Little Nellie chase sequence, are phenomenal and his visuals boast some of the most gorgeous and iconic shots in the entire franchise, not to mention great use of lighting and composition by his cinematographer Freddie Young and Ken Adam's wonderful sets, especially Blofeld's underground Volcano lair, arguably one of the best sets in film history.
As thrilling as these action scenes are, Gilbert's expertise is in character dramas and, while by no means three-dimensional, it's the characters in You Only Live Twice that really shine. Whether it's Bond and Kissy's honeymoon, Brandt's interrogation of Bond, Blofeld's constant need to kill his failing henchmen, or Bond and Tanaka's growing friendship, it's great fun to watch the character interactions, but unlike Thunderball, these character moments are in service of the story and give all the principal actors some great material to work with.
Connery is still fun to watch as Bond, though you can't help but sense his growing disinterest in the role. As Tiger Tanaka, Tetsuro Tamba makes his mark as one of Bond's best allies and is one of the few who seems just as dangerous as Bond. Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi are unique Bond girls and act well off of Connery, but are unmemorable and don't contribute much to the story. Fortunately, Karin Dor makes up for it as the deliciously villainous Helga Brandt. But the real star here is Donald Pleasance, who gives Blofeld a creepy, strange delivery and body language that instantly makes him worthy of his title as Bond's archnemesis.
Like From Russia With Love and Goldfinger before it, You Only Live Twice is one of those rare Bond films that's both a good Bond film, with fantastic action scenes, an awesome gadget in Little Nellie and creepy villains, and a good film, with a strong screenplay, solid performances, great directing and lighting and amazing sets. It slows down a bit in the middle and lacks memorable Bond girls, but You Only Live Twice is definitely one of the franchises' brightest moments.