Film Review: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Release Date: December 18th, 1969 (London premiere)
Directed by: Peter R. Hunt
Written by: Richard Maibaum
Based on: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
Music by: John Barry
Cast: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Ilse Steppat, Gabriele Ferzetti, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn

Eon Productions, United Artists, 140 Minutes

Review:

“Merry Christmas, 007.” – Ernst Stavro Blofeld

Is it weird that my favorite James Bond film of all-time stars my least favorite James Bond actor? Granted, he only did this one picture so there isn’t much to judge George Lazenby on but this was the finest picture in the franchise. But the reasons for that are many and Lazenby’s version of Bond was just sort of there for the ride.

To put it bluntly, this is the perfect James Bond movie. Now it isn’t a perfect film but it is as close as a 007 adventure has gotten. It has everything you want in a Bond film or at least, everything I want. It is less gadgety than other films in the franchise but I quite enjoyed that about this one. It was also the most serious film of its era. The stuff before it was getting a bit hokey and after it was Diamonds Are Forever, which is cheesy, albeit not in a bad way. Following that, we got the Roger Moore era, which was awesome but was also the most lighthearted and goofy string of films in the long franchise’s history. We actually wouldn’t get another serious feeling Bond film until twenty years later with the Timothy Dalton flick Licence to Kill, another one of my all-time favorites.

The thing that makes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service so unique is the fact that it does have some hokey moments but the serious tone of the picture balances things out. It is a best of both worlds scenario in regards to marrying the serious Bond and the lighthearted Bond.

Lazenby did a good job with the material but I think Sean Connery would have brought this script to a whole different level with added gravitas. I also feel that Lazenby was often times carried in scenes by the veteran Telly Savalas and Ilse Steppat. Also, Diana Rigg was the one that shined in her scenes together with Lazenby. Although, Lazenby could have probably been a fine Bond had he stuck around. Timothy Dalton didn’t nail the role in his first film but he became a really good Bond in his second.

Telly Savalas was the real star of the film though and for good reason. He took the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a guy who we had already seen in a half dozen different incarnations up to this point, and made him an exceptional villain.

While I love the work that Donald Pleasence did in the previous film, You Only Live Twice, it was this Blofeld that became the real foil in Bond’s life. Savalas played the roll more seriously and wasn’t just a villainous caricature. Also, he is the first villain to severely hurt 007, adding a level of hatred towards the character that had never been there previously. Unfortunately, he and Lazenby never returned and we never got to see justice served in a satisfying manner following this film’s ending.

The Bond Girls have always been an important part of this franchise and this film features the most ladies, by far. Granted, James Bond still only sleeps with two of them but he had a huge group of women to explore in this chapter in the series. Also, he does end up in bed with the evil Irma Bunt but it’s a trap.

The Swiss location was another element of this film that made it great. While Bond seems to do less traveling in this picture and spends the majority of his time in the Swiss Alps, it actually keeps the picture really grounded. The geography is amazing and the tone of the film is enhanced by the cold surroundings. I feel that revisiting this area in Daniel Craig’s most recent Bond outing, Spectre, was an homage to this picture and tried to tap into the magic it bestowed on the franchise.

The icy stock car race is also one of the best action sequences in the entire Bond franchise. It was well shot, the action well handled and it made a Bond Girl come off as bad ass and not just some damsel in distress like most of them are. There is a reason why Bond wants to marry this particular girl and it is because she saves his ass and can hold her own alongside him.

The fight choreography was a bit different in this chapter. In fact, it was heavily edited with quick cuts and fast movement. It made these scenes feel more gritty and realistic. I liked the director’s approach to these moments but the series would revert back to a more traditional style of shooting these sequences, after this picture.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the finest film in the James Bond oeuvre. While many will probably disagree with me, I think it is because a lot of people just aren’t as interested in a film with a James Bond actor that isn’t as established as Sean Connery or Roger Moore. It is a weird film wedged between two Connery chapters and then the Moore era starts just after that. I think that a lot of fans just sort of forget about this movie. It certainly doesn’t get the play on cable television whenever networks do their big week long Bond marathons. At least when compared to the amount of play of those Connery and Moore films get.

This is an odd installment for the film series that kind of exists on its own and unfortunately, never got a proper followup. It was the one film that needed a proper followup, though. Get to that ending and you’ll see why. I’m still kind of pissed at Telly Savalas and Ilse Steppat.

Film Review: The Third Man (1949)

Release Date: September 2nd, 1949 (UK)
Directed by: Carol Reed
Written by: Graham Greene
Music by: Anton Karas
Cast: Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli (credited as Valli), Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee

London Films, British Lion Film Corporation, Selznick Releasing Organization, 108 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.” – Harry Lime

It is sad to say that I really didn’t know much about The Third Man until a friend recently told me about it. Having now watched it, I remember seeing a trailer for it long ago and I had the intention of seeing it but never did. I clearly remembered the visual of the Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna’s famous giant Ferris wheel.

That being said, the visuals throughout the entire film are captivating and mesmerizing. The picture captures the film-noir aesthetic and emphasizes a high contrast. Between the streets of post-War Vienna, the famous landmarks and the cavernous and ominous sewer system, the director and cinematographer turned Vienna into the main character of the picture. There is just a mysterious allure that draws you in and doesn’t release you until the film fades to black after 108 minutes.

The film re-teams the duo of Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, who first worked together on CBS Radio’s The American School of the Air and would be most known for staring together in Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane. The two would go on to have a great working relationship in several films. Both men are studious actors who have both reached legendary status and for good reason. Their ability to play off of one another is magnificent and each brings out the best in the other. This film showcases what the duo can do when put together. Not to say that both men weren’t great on their own.

The cast also features Alida Valli (credited as just Valli). She was a great Italian actress who was in more than a hundred films. I grew to appreciate her work in films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno. She was also featured in a lot of giallo pictures by Mario Bava and Argento, as well as Italian horror films throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

There is also the appearance of Bernard Lee as a British police sergeant. He is probably best known as the original version of M in the James Bond franchise.

The Third Man is written by accomplished novelist Graham Greene and directed by auteur Carol Reed, who would later win an Oscar for Oliver! and who also directed the classics Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol. This is probably Reed’s best work however, even though it didn’t capture the Academy Award for Best Director. It did win for Best Cinematography, however, which went to Robert Krasker, whose work can also be seen in Odd Man Out, as well as Brief Encounter and Another Man’s Poison.

As the story beings, we learn that the main character, a novelist named Holly Martins (Cotton), has arrived in Vienna at the invitation of his dear friend Harry Lime (Welles). However, we soon discover that Lime has died. As the plot rolls on, Martins comes to learn that Lime may be alive, probably faked his own death and there is a big mystery that needs to be solved.

The film’s plot is very layered but it plays out like a standard noir plot structure, even though it doesn’t follow the traditional subject matter of a noir and is missing some key elements. While Valli is quite the beautiful accompaniment to the men in the film, she isn’t a traditional femme fatale and the film breaks from the noir norm in other aspects too. However, The Third Man still encompasses the noir style and spirit but it is the product of a natural evolution within the genre and thus, isn’t a stale or derivative picture by any means. It is very much its own thing while giving a proper nod to its inspirations.

From a musical standpoint, the picture utilizes zither music. It really sets the narrative in the proper time and place and gives the movie a sense of authenticity and a sort of exotic charm.

The Third Man is a masterpiece. While not quite Citizen Kane, it is just about perfect in every way. Being a Welles fan, I wish he was in it a bit more but the scenes we get are of the highest quality. Plus, the big crescendo, as Welles’ Harry Lime runs through the labyrinth of Vienna’s sewers in an effort to escape a massive police force, is probably my favorite motion picture moment that involves Welles. It is a stupendous climax that has great suspense and looks stunning on the screen.

Films don’t get much better than this and The Third Man completely encapsulates the term “movie magic”. It isn’t often that a film feels like a living, breathing intelligent being of its own. The Third Man is one of these motion pictures. It is truly exceptional and may be in my personal top twenty of all-time.

Film Review: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Release Date: July 7th, 1977 (London premiere)
Directed by: Lewis Gilbert
Written by: Christopher Wood, Richard Maibaum
Based on: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
Music by: Marvin Hamlisch
Cast: Roger Moore, Barbara Bach, Curd Jürgens, Richard Kiel, Caroline Munro, Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn, Lois Maxwell

Eon Productions, United Artists, 125 Minutes

Review:

“Mmm, maybe I misjudged Stromberg. Any man who drinks Dom Perignon ’52 can’t be all bad.” – James Bond

It has been a really long time since I’ve seen this particular James Bond movie, which is why I wanted to pop it into the DVD player. My memories of it weren’t spectacular but I really enjoyed it this time around and I now rank it really high in the Roger Moore era.

But what’s not to like?

You have Roger Moore, who is Roger friggin’ Moore. Then you have Barbara Bach as the female Soviet equivalent to Bond. This film also introduces Jaws, played by my favorite giant (after Peter Mayhew), Richard Kiel. Plus Curd Jürgens’ Karl Stromberg is one of the best non-SPECTRE villains in the entire Bond franchise. And I certainly can’t forget the apple of my eye, Caroline Munro.

One thing that also makes this entry into the massive Bond franchise so great is the locations. I loved all the stuff that was filmed in Egypt. The scene with Bond and Amasova tracking Jaws through the giant pillars is one of the best sequences in the entire film series. Also, the scene during the pyramid light show has some of the coolest shots and cinematography in the franchise.

Additionally, the set of Stromberg’s underwater fortress was well built and designed. The place looked sinister as hell and had a very brooding vibe, as it sprouted from the ocean surface.

This film, looking at it now, features the best tandem of Bond girls, in my opinion. Bach is perfect in her role as Major Anya Amasova a.k.a. Agent XXX. She owned the part and was much more than just a pretty face needing to be rescued. Of course, she did need to be rescued in the end. Caroline Munro, who is incredibly stunning, looked like she was having a blast as the helicopter pilot trying to kill Bond and Amasova. She had the right mix of sexual allure and sadism. I just wish she had more time to shine in the picture.

The fights between Bond and Jaws were well executed and the fisticuffs played out well. I was glad that they created Jaws as this unstoppable character that survives the craziest situations only to stand and fight, again and again. I was really glad to see him return for this film’s direct sequel Moonraker.

My memories of this movie weren’t great but this is one of the Bond films I have seen the least. I’m glad that my memory was wrong and that I got to see this in a different light. Or maybe I’ve been watching so much crap lately, that anything with a semblance of quality would’ve made me happy.

Film Review: Dr. No (1962)

Release Date: October 5th, 1962 (London premiere)
Directed by: Terence Young
Written by: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkely Mather
Based on: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
Music by: Monty Norman
Cast: Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord

Eon Productions, United Artists, 109 Minutes

Review:

“The successful criminal brain is always superior. It has to be.” – Dr. Julius No

James Bond had to start somewhere and Dr. No is just that, his cinematic debut.

Granted, he appeared in Ian Fleming’s novels and they were the inspiration for pretty much all the Bond films, even to this day. However, the world didn’t have the love for the character until he hit the big screen.

When I did my ranking of the movies in the James Bond film franchise (see here), I ranked this third. Only On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and From Russia With Love are ranked higher.

What makes Dr. No so great, is that it exists in a world without any other Bond film before it. It wasn’t as refined and as playful as the pictures that would come after it. It had a genuine grittiness to it, even if it showcased decadence and opulence within the sets and the world it was set in. Dr. No was less gadgety and more balls to the wall. It also featured less location jumping and just told a great story. Plus, the Jamaican scenery was beautiful and added to this picture’s mystique and allure.

Additionally, the film introduced the world to Sean Connery, who is still most people’s favorite James Bond. He was mesmerizing and bad ass in the role and he made it his own. In fact, the character was so uniquely Connery’s that every actor after him, had to put their own spin on the character and not try to replicate Connery’s interpretation.

The picture also introduces us to the evil organization SPECTRE. While many great Bond films have come and gone, there is just something about the weight that a picture featuring SPECTRE has compared to all the other chapters in the franchise.

While Joseph Wiseman’s Dr. No is not as much of a threat as later SPECTRE members would be for Bond, he was a great introduction to that organization and what it was all about. I love the Dr. No character but for a film titled after him, he needed some extra meat. Regardless, as a character, he still accomplishes what he was set out to do and opens up the James Bond mythos for the Connery (and Lazenby) run of films.

Dr. No is a hell of a lot of fun and a great start to a mostly great film franchise. The masses must have agreed, as it has spawned two dozen sequels, more sequels to come and now there’s talk of an expanded cinematic universe for this franchise.