Monday, February 20, 2017
Better In Your Head?--ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE
"You love them dearly, dearly, dearly. You love all chickens."
The second of the so-called "Blofeld Trilogy," On Her Majesty's Secret Service was also the first Bond novel published after Dr. No hit screens (not to mention the follow-up to that ill-advised experiment The Spy Who Loved Me).
A year into "Operation Bedlam," still no sign of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The futility leads to frustration, which leads to James Bond penning a resignation letter. Delivery must wait, since he's in northern France, headed back to the Casino Royale. En route to a hotel, a Lancia driven by a woman wrapped in a pink scarf blows by his trusty Bentley. When he sees the same car--and woman-entering the hotel, Bond finagles her name from the manager: Countess Teresa di Vincenzo.
Her recklessness on the road is matched by her recklessness at the Banco table, as she loses money she doesn't have. Bond chivalrously covers the debt. Blandly, the woman who much prefers to be called "Tracy" orders 007 to her room to collect his due reward. The morning after goes less well, with Bond "feeling, for the first time in his life, inadequate."
Feeling the need to keep an eye on Tracy, and upset that his penis doesn't hold a Bachelor's in Psychology, Bond rents a car and follows her to the beach, unaware that he himself is being followed by men who work for Tracy's father. After Bond stops her from walking into the grave, said goonies force them onto a boat headed for the temporary HQ of Marc-Ange Draco, head of the Unione Corse, Europe's premier crime syndicate. Bond gets some one-on-one time with the big cheese. He has watched his daughter go from a well-loved child to a self-immolating socialite. But, perhaps she is not so broken that the love of a good man could not fix her?
Despite a fondness for the girl (and Draco's promise of a million dollar dowry), Bond refuses to court the Countess. Still grateful for Bond's palliative presence, Draco offers his services. Find Blofeld? No problem. He's in Switzerland. Somewhere. (Hey, the guy didn't claim to be a genie.)
Station Z of MI6 works the case for two months, little headway made, until Bond receives orders to visit London's College of Arms. Recently, the COA received a letter from Zurich-based solicitors on behalf of a client seeking recognition of the "rightful" title of Comte Balthazard de Bleuville. With no birth certificate or baptism record, the going has proved rough. The man's claim that he shares a genetic trait of the de Bleuville line--no earlobes--will need to be verified in person by a COA representative.
Acting as Sir Hilary Bray (and carrying no weaponry or gadgetry), Bond is taken to Blofeld's lair in the Swiss Alps, the Piz Gloria. Before meeting the would-be Count, he meets his secretary, a German woman of Klebbian comportment named Irma Bunt. She introduces him to ten other women, far younger and more beguiling, special guests of the Count, hailing from all over the United Kingdom. One named Ruby is especially grateful to have such a smart, sexy man in the proximity.
To 007's chagrin, Blofeld's look has changed much from the widely-circulated physical description: long white hair rather than a dark crew-cut, at least 100 pounds lighter, and ah oh--the man's got himself no earlobes. Still, Bray/Bond secures a week-long stay.
The booty-call with Ruby is followed by an immensely odd post-coital soundtrack, including Blofeld speaking airily about the importance of defending the common chicken.
The next meeting between the two B's goes swimmingly. Blofeld speaks pridefully of his work at the on-site clinic, where he treats allergies. The girls are especially indebted to his efforts, seeing as they suffer "agricultural allergies" that have made their lives in the British countryside problematic. Wanting to speed up the process, Blofeld offers a bribe. A fine time for a Station Z agent to break up the conversation with his battered body. Bond maintains his cover…but just barely.
Wary of the swinging anvil, 007 decides to do the best he can with the information he has. Packing some makeshift weapons, he decides to carpe noctem and hits the slopes. His escape is narrow and harrowing, from the mountains to a skating rink packed with party people. Among them--Tracy di Vincenzo.
She is a sight for sore everything; her kindness vivifies the wearied secret agent man. Her resourcefulness saves both of their lives.
At the table of an airport restaurant. That is where James Bond proposes. Hey, when you find that one-of-one who also yearns to be your one, any place is the ideal place. Tracy is beauty and bravery, a damaged soul healing dramatically by the day, a woman who wants to give all the love she takes.
A pace-choking meeting in M's office lays out Blofeld's master plan (cripple the world's economy via biological warfare carried out by the women "treated" at his clinic). Bond looks to his future dad-in-law for help in bringing Blofeld down. The Piz Gloria is destroyed, but Blofeld escapes.
Ah well, Bond has a wedding to attend! He and Tracy join their frayed ropes at the British Consul General's drawing room, then take off in her Lancia. Before long, Bond asks her to pull over so he can de-ribbon the vehicle. Once finished, it's back on the road. No hurry at all. "We have all the time in the world," Bond reminds his wife.
The occupants of the red Maserati behind them are not so carefree; the flashy vehicle zooms towards the Lancia, then past, with Bond catching a glimpse of the two people inside before losing consciousness. He awakens, mostly unharmed, save for what will surely be a nasty bump on the head. Mrs. Bond...not so lucky.
Having to compete with picture shows, Ian Fleming gave the prose extra zip and zing, from one exclamation point to the next. (He didn't include sketches of explosions, but I wouldn't have been shocked.) The main plot is admirably unique (read: improbable), but it's Fleming's deft touch with the subplot that leaves the deepest impression.
After the Vesper Lynd affair, Bond once more handing his heart over to a woman seemed unlikely. But he did! Mein Gott! Fleming's decision to return to that well, and fill the bucket to the brim, is as commendable as his execution. He softened Bond without weakening Bond. Still, could the outcome have ever been in doubt? A married James Bond would have been a better fictional person, but a much worse fictional character. Near the end of Diamonds Are Forever, he told Tiffany Case, "Most marriages don't add two people together. They subtract one from the other." Easy to be cynical when you're surfeited with expendable pleasures. Which is, honestly, as James Bond was intended.
Knowing he would crush his readers hearts, Fleming allowed himself some cutesy moments: Bond reveals his father was a Scot; Ursula Andress is name-dropped. Nothing egregious, though, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service plays now as it did then--a welcome return to form.
"I have taught you to love chickens."
When "Screw You, Pay Me" goes wrong.
Fine, there were other compelling reasons for Sean Connery to stomp away from the role that made him an international superstar: pigeonholing, boredom, being Scottish. End of it all, he left The Salty Broccoli team in need of a new James Bond. Many names were considered (including a baby-faced Timothy Dalton), but ultimately the role went to 30-year-old Aussie George Lazenby, a man with no prior acting experience outside of adverts. He looked the part, however, which is much more than half the battle. Eon offered the lucky schlub a seven-film contract, but Lazenby's agent convinced his client that the character of James Bond would soon be a relic. Lazenby then announced to the media that he was one-and-done, making his time on the movie set rather uncomfortable.
Somehow, a top five all-time Bond flick was born.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the closest adaptation of a Fleming work, by design; director Peter Hunt even carried around a copy of the novel on set. Nearly all of the incidents in the book appear in the film, and the most indelible scene is lifted wholesale. Quite the opposite approach from You Only Live Twice.
There are differences, of course, the most significant being:
--The legendary montage, set to Louis Armstrong's "We Have All the Time In the World," of the elegant Countess and the charismatic spy falling in love.
--The College of Arms' involvement is condensed so's to permit scenes of Bond doing actual espionage work.
--Blofeld's broads number a dozen, and have been christened "The Angels of Death." I mean, I get that they're manipulated instruments of worldwide catastrophe but you can't beat that for a crew name. Unless it's "Super Bitch Ninjas In Defense of Kim Gordon." Further, they boast international flavor: English, Irish, Australian, Scandinavian, Hungarian, Joanna Lumley.
--Blofeld's look is quite different, as is the ancestral name he claims ("Beauchamp," which translates as "fair and lovely field"). The baldy makes him seem like a reasonably-altered version of Donald Pleasance's Blofeld from You Only Live Twice, at least. Book Blofeld sounds vaguely Veela.
--Bond doesn't so much escape in the book as he attempts to sneak away. The movie puts him in a much more precarious position, necessitating a much more suspenseful escape.
--The attack on Piz Gloria is expanded, letting Tracy show her mettle. Also, she's not abducted in the book.
--Bond in a barn, with the hay below him and the "heeey" above him, pops the question. Looks better than an airport restaurant, but probably smelled worse.
--Lazenby's so good at fake fistfights, the script added two of them!
--The ending is trimmed for effect: Bond's still snatching all the showy crap from his beloved Aston Martin as Blofeld and Bunt speed by and shatter his world to sad little bits.
After such a stellar job editing the first five Bond films, Peter Hunt was promoted to the big boy chair. The romantic montage is but one example of how he shook up convention. Shot for shot, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is to this day the most visually stirring installment in the series.
But then, Hunt's direction was never what non-fans found so displeasing. George Lazenby received massive vitriol over the years from viewers turned off by his "wooden" performance, a criticism I never quite comprehended. He's…good. Above average with his mouth closed, average when he opens his mouth, below average when he opens his mouth and someone else's voice is heard. His flippancy might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it fits right in with a film defined by its "otherness." (Given reports of the contentious relationship between lead actor and director, Lazenby's performance being anything but nightmarish is a minor miracle.)
Long considered a commercial and artistic disappointment, OHMSS has nevertheless accrued a great deal of acclaim over the last two decades. Engrossing story, mesmerizing soundtrack, masterful cinematography, and the best ending in any Bond film.* Bonus, we get the best possible Bond girl in the bewitching form of Tracy.
Wait, what? Vesper Lynd? You mean the traitor? I don't wanna hear about "Oh b-but, she fell in love, such an untenable position, the guilt!" Bond could never have trusted Vesper Lynd. Tracy, on the other hand, was down to ride, quite literally. Throw a guy into ornamental wall spikes first, ask questions later.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
I prefer Fleming's version of how Bond meets his future wife, which is actually at the Casino Royale soon after she's busted out at cards. The beach rescue occurs the very next day. However, Fleming uses flashbacks, so the novel actually begins with Bond watching Tracy on the beach. Such a technique isn't limited to the literary medium, of course, but not even Peter Hunt dared enough to eschew linear storytelling.
Further, the meeting occurs in Portugal instead of France. Doesn't affect my enjoyment of the film, but having 007 find the second great love of his life in the very same place he found the first is pretty fantastic.
Book Bond tended to avoid sartorial trend-chasing. Because Fleming might have allowed his creation to fall in love, but he would never have let him suffer the indignity of a ruffled dress shirt.
Does Bond have doubts about his decision to share his life? Sure does. Would it have been possible to show that in the movie? Imagine so, but it would have seemed an awful odd digression. Just another way books rule.
The fate of the Station Z agent is much better via Fleming. He damn near blows the whole gig, and sends Bond into a paranoia that hastens his grand exit from the Piz Gloria. The movie drags it out unnecessarily.
Well, the movie does also spare us those two dreadfully dull guys in M's office. Oh, but there's that cutesy walk down memory lane after Bond thinks he's turned in his resignation. Raspberry, no sherbet.
While Fleming blessed readers with a chapter titled "Bloody Snow," the line from the film you're almost certainly thinking of is absent. The chase sequences on the Alps did nothing for my feelings on skiing, but I'm pretty sure my relationship with snow went from friendly to smitten the first time I saw them. To this day I will punch the air, yank my collar and exclaim in tongues, at length. Imagine a grenade detonating in the rain…'bout as thrilling as sand between yer toes.
George Lazenby's turn as James Bond, which I keep is insisting is good, suffers nonetheless from several factors which were beyond his control.
For starters, he's outshone (unsurprisingly!) by two far more experienced actors. Telly Savalas would go on to great fame in the TV cop drama Kojak, but damned if he didn't make for a verminous Ernst, so much so that I unabashedly claim him as my favorite in the role (followed by Donald Pleasance, Christoph Waltz, burning orphanage, and Charles Gray). He uses his hands for much more than just making pussy happy, you know.
Book Tracy is an enigma wrapped in a pink scarf. On the surface, she's a fundamentally decent sort at the mercy of a stubborn indecency. Truthfully, Fleming's Tracy is actually not one of his more well-developed female characters; Tiffany Case, Viv Michel, even Honeychile Rider are all more fleshed-out than Bond's one and only bride. We see her through the eyes of the men in her life, and that's sufficient, since ultimately OHMSS is a spy thriller and not a grand romance, but Diana Rigg takes her to a new level.
Her legendary turn as Emma Peel on The Avengers made Rigg the only real "name" of the cast, and also served her well as a believably kick-ass Bond Girl. Throw in gorgeous looks and a daunting dignity that's practically visible even on a broken iPad screen, and it's safe to say this movie belongs to Tracy/Diana. She is utterly irreducible, utterly irreplaceable.
This is not to downplay Bond. His trajectory over two-plus hours feels very real. Throw in the events of the books, and it becomes more so. In his life, James has become enraptured by two women whose souls he desperately wanted to save. One, he did not; one, he did. Both, he lost regardless.
The ultimate tragedy is not that a lifelong bachelor spy is spectacularly unlucky in love, but that both of those women were taken from him so cruelly. Vesper Lynd crashed under the weight of her own treachery, unwilling to face the consequences of her actions. Tracy Bond was killed--murdered, by a stomach with arms--just after finding a future she'd long given up on. The fraudulent Count triumphed over the genuine Countess. Grim.
Finally, the decision to overdub Lazenby's voice with that of another actor for the scenes where he's pretending to be Hilary Bray isn't as unfortunate as slide whistles or triple-take birds, but it's one of the few things keeping the movie from making my top 3. Georgie Boy had no time to work on a passable brogue? The actor who played the real Hilary Bray absolutely had to be the voice?
Ultimately I'm partial to the book, despite my high regard for the film. The real tipper for me just happens to be the biggest continuity issue in the entire film series. Having come face-to-face in You Only Live Twice (you know, the one just before OHMSS), why don't Bond and Blofeld recognize one another? Blofeld is easily explained--reconstructive surgery. But Bond didn't alter himself beyond affecting a Scottish accent. The original script did have Bond undergoing plastic surgery, but clearly that idea was dumb. So, again, Blofeld had to know Sir Hilary Bray was in fact James Bond, and he just strung him along.
See the perils of such faithfulness to source material?
MIND THE GAP
Blofeld taught the poor afflicted angels to love chickens, but not in the way my uncle did as a horny teen on the family farm. Or tried to, rather. Moving on! An allergy is not a feeling. An allergy is a reaction of the immune system. Hypnosis will not help treat an allergy.
Ruby was easily the least attractive of the AOD. Bitch shampooed with mud, conditioned with clay and dried with bird nest.
Bond has a new secretary! Mary Goodnight, who is not a blonde imbecile but still apparently quite the blazing booty.
I don't think it's possible to smile like a box, but Ian Fleming sure did.
The movie Marc-Ange Draco is a real cool customer. Gregarious, generous. As with Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love, the scriptwriter smoothed out the rough edges to endear the character to movie-goers.
Here's Draco, in the novel, telling Bond about meeting Tracy's mother: "She had come to Corsica to look for bandits….She explained to me later that she must have been possessed by a subconscious desire to be raped. Well…she found me in the mountains and she was raped--by me."
I am pretty sure there were/are actual rapists who never obsessed over the subject of rape as much as the creator of James Bond, a man who, by all accounts, never actually raped anyone. So glad Richard Maibaum replaced such eye-glazing dialogue with, well, what's a good example…
"What she needs is a man to dominate her!"
Yeeeep, Draco in the movie is still pretty dickish. Fleming must have felt a twinge or twenty of writerly envy watching him punch out his own daughter.
Wait, there's a character in the book whose last name is "Draco" and another one whose last name is "Basilisk"? And they're both supposed to be good guys?
Chapter 27: "All the Time In the World." Haha, piss off.
Q Branch can't hook a groom up with a bulletproof windshield?
I wonder if James ever tried to make it 3-for-3 at Casino Royale.
TRAPPER JENN MD WILL RETURN IN...'YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE'
*Despite a befuddling soundtrack choice that I can only imagine was an attempt to jolt Tracy back to life.