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James Bond and the Specter of SPECTRE

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James Bond #24 officially hits U.S. theaters this Friday and old-school Bond fans are chomping at the bit. For starters, the end of 2012’s “Skyfall” essentially brought the old band back together. It reunited everyone’s favorite oversexed, functionally alcoholic spy/professional assassin with a new M (Ralph Fiennes, stepping into Bernard Lee and Judy Dench’s shoes), a younger Moneypenny (Naomie Harris, stepping into the very big pumps of the great Lois Maxwell), and a vastly younger Q (in reality, super-youthful 35-year-old Ben Whishaw, taking the part that once belonged to Desmond Llewelyn, who was pretty much born craggy).

All that’s missing is just the right super-nemesis, but never fear: “Spectre” will be our first chance to see the reassembled team in action against its most famous opponent, a stateless organization bent on world domination for profit and for the sheer fun of being really, really evil.

The Face of Evil

But what will today’s SPECTRE be like? The original Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion and it’s leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, was alluded to in the first Bond movie, “Dr. No” (1962), and haunted the series for years afterward. Even so, at first, Blofeld was just a disembodied voice and a hand stroking an unusually compliant white cat. It wasn’t until 1967’s “You Only Live Twice” that we finally saw the face of the man behind the international organization dedicated to world domination at any cost.

That face changed considerably as he was played three times by three very different actors, beginning with the diminutive, creepy and bald Donald Pleasance as the original Dr. Evil. He would morph into the much more testosterone-driven Telly Savalas (later TV’s “Kojak”) in 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and would then grow a full head of hair to be played by the imposing Charles Gray in 1971’s “Diamonds are Forever.” As much as this might be an artifact of the lack of concern with continuity that was standard before the comic book geek takeover of Hollywood, it actually lines up somewhat with the Blofeld of Ian Fleming’s original novels, who lost and gained large amounts of weight and underwent major plastic surgery to elude detection.

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007 One by One: Live and Let Die

Bullz-Eye continues its look back at every James Bond film, 007 One by One, as part of our James Bond Fan Hub that we’ve created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film.

Pimpmobiles. Alligators. A trip through Harlem. Voodoo. Cigars. Blaxploitation. George Martin. Bourbon and water. Tarot Cards. Snakes. The City of New Orleans. Paul McCartney and Wings.

“That’s just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” – 007 in “Goldfinger”

Somebody’s out to prove Roger Moore ain’t your daddy’s James Bond.

On the calendar, 007 entered the ‘70s with Sean Connery’s last official entry, “Diamonds are Forever”, but it wasn’t until two years later in 1973 that the shift of the decade really affected cinema’s most popular secret agent.

The Plot: Three MI6 agents are killed – one each in New York, New Orleans, and the fictitious Caribbean island of San Monique. M (Bernard Lee) assigns Bond (Moore) to the case. He follows the trail of bodies, only to discover an elaborate heroin producing, smuggling and selling operation, masterminded by the ruthless San Monique dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), who operates under heavy makeup stateside as Mr. Big, where the goods are dispersed through a chain of soul food restaurant/bars called Fillet of Soul. But faux voodoo and mysticism surround Bond from the word go, as does the hypnotic spell cast over him by Kananga’s delicately beautiful reader of cards and seer of visions, Solitaire (Jane Seymour).

The Girls: Nabbing the role of lead Bond girl must seem exciting for an unknown actress, but as has been proven repeatedly, it rarely leads to a big time career. Seymour is one of a handful of actresses to buck that trend and with good reason: Solitaire ranks high on the list of Bond’s classiest ladies, and her story is arguably the heart of the picture. The character isn’t necessarily written with a huge amount of depth, yet that very simplicity makes her complex. In a movie full of charlatanistic voodoo, she stands out as the lone figure possessing the psychic ability to see into the future. Additionally, she differs from the Bond girl flock by sporting ornate, body-covering costumes that contrast with the oft-expected “Bond girl in a bikini” mold. And she’s a virgin, until James enters her, um, life.

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Also on hand is Gloria Hendry’s Rosie Carver (see photo above), marking Bond’s first filmic foray into the wilds of jungle fever. Unfortunately for double-agent Carver, that’s about all she was good for, as she not only betrays James, but also does little more than scream until somebody shuts her up. At the start of the movie, there’s the adorable Miss Caruso (Madeline Smith), an Italian agent James worked with in an offscreen adventure, and is now bedding back home in his flat.

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The Nemeses: If a Bond movie is only as strong as its villains, then “Live and Let Die” is one of the strongest, with a half a dozen characters worthy of mention. Yaphet Kotto’s double act of Kananga & Mr. Big was quite a departure for a Bond baddie — after a decade of destruction by SMERSH, SPECTRE and Blofeld, here’s a guy who isn’t out to take over the world, only to keep his vast opium operation afloat whilst continuing his duties as dictator of San Monique. His fatal flaw is his mistaken belief in Solitaire’s ultimate devotion, and when the issue sidetracks his attention, it costs him his life.

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007 One by One: “Diamonds are Forever”

Bullz-Eye continues its look back at every James Bond film, 007 One by One, as part of our James Bond Fan Hub that we’ve created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film.

It’s Vegas, baby, for James Bond, and he’s played by Sean Connery for the last time (until 1983). The jokiest and the most violent of the Bond films up to that point, it’s no one’s favorite 007 entry – and it’s a lot of people’s least favorite – but we still think it’s got way more panache than many of the films that followed. It’s…

“Diamonds are Forever” (1971)

The Plot

Diamond smuggling turns out to be, naturally, only the tip of the iceberg as a graying Bond (Sean Connery) unravels a chain of deception that leads him to a Las Vegas-based ultra-reclusive mega-tycoon (Jimmy Dean), and then onto 007’s not-actually-dead arch nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Charles Gray). It turns out that killing Bond’s wife simply isn’t enough for the social climbing super-villain; he’s once again making 007’s life hellish while also having the bad manners to peddle thermonuclear supremacy on the world market. Bond, meanwhile, is nearly wearing out his license to kill.

The Backstory

Though it’s an underrated film and beloved of many serious Bond fans, 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” with George Lazenby was deemed insufficient as a blockbuster. It did well enough abroad, but it’s all-important American grosses was about half that of earlier Bond entries. By 1970, Lazenby was already one for the “where are they now?” columns.

A replacement was needed, and so was a big hit. Stolid American heartthrob John Gavin (“Psycho“) had been contracted as a fall-back Bond, but moguls Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman set their sights on the one actor alive least interested in stepping into the very big shoes of Sean Connery – Sean Connery. While the Scottish unknown-turned-superstar has always insisted he was very grateful for his Bond stardom, to all appearances, Connery was over James Bond — now and forever.

On the other hand, we all have our price. Connery’s was £1.2 million – quite a lot of money in 1970 and enough cash for the actor to start his own charity, the Scottish International Education Trust. To sweeten the deal, United Artists also allowed Connery the chance to take the creative lead on two of his own movies. The understanding was, however, very clear that Connery would never again play Bond…for the Broccoli and Saltzman’s EON team, at least, that turned out to be true.

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007 One by One: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Bullz-Eye continues its look back at every James Bond film, 007 One by One, as part of our James Bond Fan Hub that we’ve created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film.

You’ve seen “Skyfall,” now how about taking a look at the other best James Bond movie you’ve never seen?

Ask a hardcore Bond aficionado what his favorite 007 entry is, and there’s a very good chance the answer will be “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

We don’t necessarily want to make bold claims as to what the best Bond movie is, as it differs from person to person, but “Majesty’s” should be Top Five material for any die-hard fan of the franchise. The film is littered with all kinds of “firsts” and “onlys” — both in front of and behind the camera — but the most obvious is of course its lead, George Lazenby, and it’s with Lazenby that, for better or worse, most talk of the film begins (but should by no means end).

In the year 2013, we take for granted the changing of the lead actor within the Bond series, as we’ve now had a half a dozen different 007s, but back in the late sixties there was only one James Bond, and his name was Sean Connery. During the production of “You Only Live Twice,” Connery decided to exit the franchise that made him a household name (though as we now know today, he’d return to the character not once, but twice), however, quite understandably, the producers of the series weren’t finished telling their stories, and the public seemed far from tired of 007’s adventures.

So there was really only one option and that was to recast. The search was extensive, but in the end Bond producers decided on a complete unknown – Lazenby – a model with virtually zero acting experience. Regardless, Albert Broccoli was certain he could transform the man into his new James Bond.

The debate has raged for over 40 years as to whether or not the recasting was successful, with many schools of thought on the matter. Having viewed “Majesty’s” numerous times, we feel confident in saying that it’s a shame Lazenby didn’t give it at least one more go in the part (the decision to not return was, amazingly, his own), because as it stands, he cannot help but be somewhat swallowed up by the richness of his surroundings. One thing is for certain: Lazenby in no way ruins it, or keeps “Majesty’s” from being the best film it can be. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is a fine, fine movie, and one that deserves to stand on its own, away from the greater picture of the whole franchise, and Lazenby – as any lead would be – is at least partly responsible for its artistic success.

The Plot: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” relies heavily on Ian Fleming’s original text, the last Bond film to really do so until 2006’s “Casino Royale.” The story is two in one: the first is about Bond’s hunting for and eventual finding of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and the second is about Bond falling in love and getting married (yes, you read that right) to an initially suicidal young woman named Tracy. Her father, Draco, runs a crime syndicate, and has info about Blofeld’s whereabouts, which James requires. Turns out Blofeld is posing as a high-profile allergist in Switzerland. Bond tracks him there, and infiltrates his organization by posing as a genealogist. Once the jig is up, all hell breaks loose, and Bond finds himself on the run, and only one person can help him…

The Girls: Blofeld’s mountaintop Swiss hideaway, Piz Gloria, stockpiles quite the cache of babe-alicious flesh – including a very young Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”) as well as the lovely Catherine Schell (“The Return of the Pink Panther”). Odd then that James zeroes in on the homeliest looking one of the bunch, Ruby Bartlett (Angela Scoular). But then again, this is also that unique Bond flick wherein James falls in love, and perhaps going for runt of the litter was the only way for him to rationalize cheating on his beloved Tracy.

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Yes, the only real Bond girl in “Majesty’s” is Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo –Tracy for short — played by Emma Peel herself, Diana Rigg. If James Bond is going to fall in love, it had damn well better be someone like Diana Rigg. One can picture producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman sitting around saying variations on, “We need to get someone like Diana Rigg for the part”…until finally realizing they’d better just get Diana Rigg. Tracy steals Bond’s heart in the film’s first 45 minutes and then disappears for the next hour, only to come out of nowhere and heroically rescues James from his predicament high up in the Swiss Alps, at which point he realizes that she’s “the one.” When she finally “Peels” out, it’s the moment every “Avengers” fan has waited for the entire film. [SPOILER ALERT] And when she’s murdered moments after trading “I do’s” with 007, it’s heartbreaking to see James cradle her lifeless body in his arms. One wonders what kind of shock this must have been for fans back in 1969.

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The Nemeses: Of the three major Blofelds to appear onscreen in the official franchise, Telly Savalas (like the rest of the movie) is often forgotten. He’s also the only one of the three to deliver a remotely realistic performance, which may be part of the reason he doesn’t resonate in the public consciousness. We like our villains larger than life, do we not? His look is not as iconic as Donald Pleasance, nor is his portrayal as camp as Charles Gray. Yet what he brings to Ernst is cold and calculating — the true essence of villainy. His plan is not to blow up the world, but to hypnotize his 12 patients into releasing a bacterial agent into the world’s agricultural supply unless he’s given amnesty for his past crimes. This makes something of a nice change from holding the world hostage for one-meellion dollars.

Blofeld’s biggest blunder here is his initial inability to recognize Bond. Yes, Bond has a new face — but Bond recognizes Blofeld, even though he too has a new face. Neither is supposed to have a new face within the storyline itself, though it’s stated that Blofeld has had some minor plastic surgery done to his earlobes (of all things). The conundrum is actually a result of adhering so closely to the original novel, which preceded the novel of “You Only Live Twice” – an order which was flipped in the film series. Come “Diamonds are Forever,” the whole “getting a new face” thing is weaved into the plot, yet they can both recognize one another, despite one having a new face and the other having gone back to his old face.

Blofeld isn’t the movie’s only villain. His henchwoman, Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat), is a nasty piece of work, and possibly a thinly veiled lesbian caricature, though that assertion could and should be debated. She owes a lot to Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb in “From Russia with Love,” but lacks her jolly sense of humor. And she pulls the trigger that kills Tracy. What a bitch.

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The Gadgets: It was a conscious move on the part of director Peter R. Hunt to move away from the gadgets in this film, so they are few. Early in the picture Q shows off to M something he calls radioactive lint, but it’s never used as part of the plot. The only real gadget Bond uses in this film is a cumbersome dual safecracker/photocopier. The former aspect of the gimmick remains cool even today. While the latter is extremely mundane by today’s standards, the fact that it’s packaged with a safecracker keeps it vaguely cool.

The Cars: The Aston Martin DBS – different than the iconic DB5 from “Goldfinger” – features as Bond’s new car in this movie. Tracy’s ride, a red Mercury Cougar XR7 Convertible, sees far more action in the movie than Bond’s Aston Martin, by playing a big part on the film’s third act. Blofeld’s henchmen chase Bond and Tracy in a Mercedes 220S, while their boss, alongside Irma Bunt, drives a silver Mercedes-Benz 600 in the final moments of the film. Draco drives a 1968 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow Convertible.

The Music: Since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was quite the mouthful, John Barry opted to compose an instrumental piece for the opening credits, and it’s a rousing bit of work. More famous than the title tune, however, is “We Have All the Time in the World,” sung by Louis Armstrong, and written by Barry with Hal David behind the lyrics. This little ditty, which plays over several scenes, may as well be called “James and Tracy’s Love Theme.” It would be the last piece of music Armstrong recorded, as he passed on soon afterwards, and it has gone on to have quite the life outside of the Bond film series, including as a popular choice of song to play at weddings (presumably only by couples who have not seen this film).

Final Musings: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” isn’t perfect, and in fact has one major flaw: For the lengthy stretch in which Bond infiltrates Blofeld’s lair, pretending to be Sir Hilary Bray, the decision was made to dub Lazenby’s voice with George Baker’s (the actor who played Bray earlier in the movie). We’ll never know what voice Lazenby used for all those scenes (Bond is, in fact, at his most talkative for this section of the movie), so we must assume that it was felt to not be up to par. The dubbing is painfully obvious, though if you’re as big a fan of this movie as we are, you’ll learn to overlook it.

Beyond that most bizarre of artistic decisions, the rest is about as ideal as a Bond movie can be. The cinematography from Michael Reed is exceptional and the direction from Peter Hunt precise. Much of the film takes place in the wintry world of Switzerland, and you’ll not find snow and ski scenes that are done this well in any other Bond picture. The final hour is packed with one inventive action sequence after another, culminating in an avalanche which swallows up Bond and his bride to be. Even later, Bond goes after Blofeld in an intense bobsled chase.

Then there’s the tragic love story, which itself makes the movie a unique, important entry in the James Bond series – a helpful key to understanding the central character (there would be numerous references to Bond’s ill-fated marriage in later films). Further, its story is imperative to the ongoing tale of Bond vs. Blofeld that was carefully woven throughout the ‘60s. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is one for the books. This isn’t your manly Connery of the ‘60s, your wisecracking Moore of the ‘70s & ‘80s, or your paint-by-numbers Brosnan of the ‘90s. The film almost exists in its own near-perfect little bubble, though from an emotional standpoint, it’s precisely the sort of fare the Daniel Craig movies are made of today, 40 some-odd years after its creation.

Stray Bullets:

The Bond family motto is revealed here to be “The World Is Not Enough,” which would years later be used as the title of Pierce Brosnan’s third James Bond outing.

The only movie in which Bond wears a kilt.

Bond doesn’t just read, but practically studies an issue of Playboy in one scene, including the centerfold.

Brigitte Bardot was the actress the Bond producers originally wanted for the part of Tracy.

In an effort to stress to viewers that these were the continuing adventures of the same man, the title sequence largely consists of a montage of clips from the previous Bond films.

In one scene, a midget janitor whistles the theme to “Goldfinger.”

Early in the film, during a sequence in which Bond threatens to resign from his job, we, for the first and currently only time in the series, sees Bond’s office. He roots through his desk, sifting through various bits of nostalgia from all the previous Bond movies.

The first film in which Bond skis.

The only Bond film directed by Peter Hunt, who’d worked on all the previous Bond films in various capacities. Unfortunately, he never worked on another Bond film after this one, in any capacity.

  

DVD REVIEW: Top Gear – 50 Years of Bond Cars

At first glance, this disc looks like a bit of throwaway fluff, but after watching it? If you are a Bond fan, you will love this 60 minute “Top Gear” special. Period. Host Richard Hammond – who so very clearly loves Bond as much as we do – takes viewers on a guided tour through Bond film history, packed with clips, stories and trivia. Now, I call myself a Bond freak, but there are probably a half-dozen different behind the scenes stories Hammond relates here that were entirely new to me. One involved the procuring of the iconic Aston Martin DB5 for use in “Goldfinger”; another detailed a stunt for “The Man with the Golden Gun” with the AMC Hornet that could have gone disastrously wrong.

A great deal of attention is paid to the DB5, but an equal amount of love is given to the Lotus Esprit from “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Surely you remember that one? It’s the sleek white job that turned into a submarine and made cinematic history. Though the tech of 1977 wouldn’t allow for the actual creation of such a vehicle, Hammond puts today’s technology to the test by attempting to make a fully functional Lotus submarine. You have got to see this. If that doesn’t do it for you (though how it couldn’t is baffling), there’s also his comical attempt at making an invisible car with the help of flatscreen TVs and cameras!

You can tell Hammond’s a take no prisoners fan, too. When the series starts to go to shit in the Brosnan era, he takes it to task for its failure to create proper vehicular thrills. The special also features Hammond chatting up directors Guy Hamilton and Vic Armstrong, Roger Moore, Daniel Craig, and producer Michael G. Wilson on the set of “Skyfall.” Speaking of “Skyfall,” if you’ve not yet ordered your copy from Amazon, this disc will nicely pad out your order so you can get free shipping.

  

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