Saturday, March 26, 2016

You Dreamed You Could Hold Back Death (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)

fig. 1: Not Bond Villains
That George Lazenby is considered the weakest James Bond is something of a back formation. After all, he only did one. That must make him the weakest link, yeah? In truth, however, the leaving was Lazenby's decision. After the runaway success of Easy Rider, released the same year, Lazenby thought there wasn't a future for a suit-and-tie Government Agent, every inch the Reactionary Right Hand of the Man. While it's easy to point out the shortsightedness of this, something I suspect Lazenby himself has done many times in the last forty-seven years, in a way he was right. The "Spy-fi" genre that Dr. No birthed into life in 1962, and which spawned dozens of imitators, homages, and spoofs, was on the way out. There would be plenty of movies in the coming decades to play with international intrigue, though only Bond would outlive his descendants.

Watching On Her Majesty's Secret Service, I wondered a bit at what the George Lazenby Era of the franchise might have looked like, had he stayed on for the bulk of his contract. Though he has his charms, Lazenby doesn't have the ironic distance of Moore, or the subtle menace of Connery. He's earnest, more than anything, a quality that seems ill-suited for an international spy. This is, famously, the only film in which James Bond (nearly) cries. And, sure, it's after the brutal murder of his wife, but it's hard to imagine Daniel Craig or Timothy Dalton, the two other actors in the franchise who have been written in a more humanistic way, reacting with anything other than smoldering rage at the whole business. Craig gets off a clipped "the bitch is dead" at the demise of Vesper Lynd, a line that's verbatim from the Casino Royale novel, and saved only by Craig's repressed-tough-guy delivery, and some exposition by Judy Dench.

Speaking of Craig, OHMSS is the movie where James Bond falls in love, and, as such, it's a first in an every-other-Bond series of attempts to position the character as a more straightforward romantic lead, and to humanize him. You can infer that Bond falls in love with whomever he ends up stranded on some raft with by the end of a given picture, but with a few exceptions, that's not really text on screen. He's generally understood to be in it for less straightforwardly-romantic reasons. As a movie where Bond meets the great love of his life, this film draws quite a few obvious parallels to 2006's Casino Royale, as well as Spectre, in the latter's wintry Alpine setting and female lead, Lea Seydoux's Madeline Swann, with whom it's inferred Craig's Bond walks off into the sunset. Although, if this is the film that positions James Bond as a romantic lead, it of course goes about it in a very James Bond sort of way, which is to say he still has time (and inclination) in the middle act of this film to fuck his way through a harem of would-be assassins brainwashed by his nemesis to be delivery systems for his crop-destroying mega-virus.

Like you do.

Tracy Bond (nee Countess Teresa di Vicenzo) casts a long shadow over the franchise. Or, at least, her death does. Of all the Bond Girls with the exception of Vesper, she's the most complicated. She's suicidal, suffering from depression, a divorcee who lost a child, prickly, and a daredevil behind the wheel. In the film as well as the novel, she challenges Bond, remains an enigma to him. It's a pity, then, that she's reduced to "the one that died." Perhaps as an inevitable consequence of the film's emotional investment in her when it still has an eye on the next sequel, Tracy's number was always going to be up, though I would have vastly preferred that her legacy to the franchise be for slightly more nuanced female characters, going forward.

fig. 2: Lady Olenna in her hey day.
Of course, Tracy died in the original novel as well, the second in a three-part trilogy that began with Thunderball and ended with You Only Live Twice. The franchise was meant to follow the book order, but couldn't secure its Swiss locations in time for production, so OHMSS was pushed back and YOLT forward. This both robs the latter film of much of its urgency (which wasn't so much a problem, they mainly threw the plot out the window) and brings up the question of why Blofeld can't recognize Bond by face when he at least already knows who he is by name. Bond shows up at Blofeld's Alpine HQ under the guise of a British Heraldry expert, here to authenticate the latter man's claim to be a Count.

Blofeld's status as a Count hangs on his (lack of) earlobes, a congenital defect apparently shared by members of the Bleauchamp family, the sort of crumbling European dynasty where these sorts of things tend to crop up. Bond states that Blofeld had his ears fixed, making his the first physical quirk actively sought out by a character in a franchise full of an obsession with deformity and physical weirdness. He's played here by Telly Savalas, continuing a tradition of one-and-done Blofelds. Savalas not only switches faces from the previous installment's Donald Pleasance, but nationalities as well, making no attempt at hiding his American accent. This makes him, by default, the first American supervillain in the series, and another American overly invested in a purported connection to European royalty.

fig. 3: It happens.

This royalty idea is how he defines himself. He even makes it one of the conditions of his latest ransom of the world, that he be recognized as the person he says he is. It's easy to draw a parallel between his character here and the one we get in Spectre. As part of that film's shoehorned retcon, its reborn Ernst Stavro Blofeld was, once upon a time, lil' Franz Oberhauser, winter sports enthusiast and sorta-brother to James Bond. It's a silly misdirect, in the vein of the latest Star Trek film trying to lampshade that series' most iconic villain behind a name change, but it has the effect of making the identity that Spectre's Blofeld carves for himself similar to the one in OHMSS: built out of the scraps of another history. Chosen, rather than given.

What happens at the edges, then, of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, is a duel of identities. Blofeld's pretension to nobility. Bond's "bachelor's taste for freedom" undermined for the first time. Even the recasting of the character lends the movie the feel of answering the question of who James Bond is. For the first time, the answer isn't Sean Connery.

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