On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (James Bond #6)

OHMSSOn Her Majesty’s Secret Service
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The dual announcements that Sean Connery would retire from the role of James Bond and that the franchise would continue brought speculation as to who would play 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  The film based on the tenth novel written by Ian Fleming, the most faithful of any adaptation in the franchise, is George Lazerby’s sole outing as the famous British agent.

James Bond saves a woman, later identified as Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, from committing suicide by drowning off the coast of Portugal then later meets in a casino. Through a series of fights and kidnappings with bodyguards sent by her father, Bond learns Tracy is the only daughter of Marc-Ange Draco head of a European crime syndicate. In exchange for romancing Tracy, Bond asks Draco to find out where Ernst Stavro Blofeld is. After returning to London and having an argument with M, Bond travels to Portugal and romances Tracy then later learns through Draco to investigate a law firm in Bern, Switzerland. Bond finds out that Blofeld is looking to claim a noble title and corresponding with a member of the College of Arms, Sir Hilary Bray. Posing as Bray, Bond infiltrates Blofeld allergy research clinic in Switzerland where he is brainwashing young woman to be bacteriological warfare carries throughout the world. Bond, as Bray, attempts to persuade Blofeld to leave the country only to be discovered as an imposter which results in a ski chase and leading to Bond finding Tracy. After a car chase results in a few hours respite, Bond proposes to Tracy who accepts. The next morning as the chase ensues once again on skis; Blofeld sets off an avalanche and captures Tracy while Bond is briefly buried. Hearing from London, Bond learns that Blofeld is prepared to hold the world ransom and that it would be paid and directly orders him not to interfere. Bond then enlists his future father-in-law to mount a rescue attempt of Tracy and destroy Blofeld’s facility. After successfully rescuing Tracy, Bond chases Blofeld via bobsleigh until the SPECTRE mastermind is snared in a tree branch injuring his next. The film ends with the new Mr. and Mrs. Bond leaving their wedding and while stopped on the side of the road to remove flowers from their car, Blofeld drive by and kill Tracy in a hail of bullets with the film ending with a distraught Bond cradling Tracy in his arms.

From the beginning of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service there were two arcs of the plot, Bond romancing Tracy and Bond continuing his pursuit of Blofeld from You Only Live Twice, which were both independent and interwoven creating well-crafted story. With a new actor playing the main, producers wanted a film with plot over gadgetry to highlight this was the same character even with a new face. However this created a plot hole with the Bond-as-Bray infiltration of Blofeld’s clinic as while Blofeld had had plastic surgery, the film had gone to great lengths with references early in the film that the James Bond on screen was also the same in the previous five films which meant Blofeld should have instantly recognized Bond. Along with a new face as Bond and a return to plot, the stale formulas were either scrapped or toned down even in an attempt to let the new main man show his chops. George Lazerby’s sole outing as James Bond is very good, his portrayal was not perfect by any means especially in some of the more action and confrontational scenes but when it came to the love story with Tracy and the emotional ending he was excellent and better than Connery would have been. Diana Rigg’s Tracy is one of—if not—the best women in the franchise given the era when the film was produced and the actress portraying her. Telly Savalas’ Blofeld was a major improvement from the portrayal by Donald Pleasence in the previous film and frankly the Savalas Blofeld is to me is one of the best Bond villains.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the best film in the Bond franchise, while Goldfinger might be more iconic, Lazerby’s sole installment is slightly better. While it would have been interesting to see Lazerby’s continued portrayal of James Bond, his dissatisfaction over the film and later pay would result in the return for one last go around for the man who made the character famous.

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You Only Live Twice (James Bond #5)

YOLTYou Only Live Twice
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

After four consecutive films in as many years, there was a two year wait before You Only Live Twice arrived in theaters. While sharing the title with the eleventh novel written by Ian Fleming, this film was the first to diverge completely from the written material mainly because one of the main storylines of the book could not be covered because it had not occurred in any previous film.

An American spacecraft is hijacked from orbit by a SPECTRE spacecraft resulting in the United States accusing the Soviets, who deny it. The British suspect Japanese involvement since the unidentified craft landed in the Sea of Japan. Upon faking his death, James arrives in Japan to investigate meeting with Aki, the MI6 station chief, and then Aki’s boss Japanese secret service chief Tiger Tanaka. Bond identifies Osato Chemicals as being a part of the plot, meeting with Mr. Osato and his security Helga Brandt, and identifying a suspicious cargo ship owned by Osato. After a failed investigation of the cargo ship, Bond almost killed by Brandt but is able to escapes death but results in Brandt being killed by the head of SPECTRE who orders Osato to kill Bond. Then SPECTRE hijacks a Soviet spacecraft resulting in the Soviet Union to blame the Americans as tensions rise. While investigating an island the cargo ship had passed, Bond battles helicopters confirming the island’s importance. Tanaka develops a plan to crash train Bond as a ninja, disguise him as a Japanese fisherman to be married to a local woman, and search for the base so Tanaka can attack with a force of 100 ninjas. During the process, an Osato henchman kills Aki making things personal for Bond. Bond proceeds with Tanaka’s plan and with his “wife” Kissy discover the SPECTRE base, Kissy goes to inform Tanaka while Bond infiltrates the base. Discovering the missing Astronaut and Cosmonauts, Bond attempts to get on board the SPECTRE spacecraft but is spotted by SPECTRE’s mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld. While meeting Blofeld, Tanaka’s forces attack the base and a timely intervention by Bond allows some into the base. Blofeld retreats killing Osato and orders a henchman to kill Bond. Bond defeats the henchman and is able to destroy the SPECTRE spacecraft before it can hijack another American spacecraft. Blofeld’s sets off the base’s self-destruct forcing Bond and Tanaka’s forces to escape through a former lava tunnel to be rescued by Japanese and British maritime units.

Unlike the previous installment, You Only Live Twice set a narrative pace that was steady throughout the film keeping the viewer engaged in the film. Setting the film nearly all the scenes in and around Japan was a departure from previous Bond films, however it helped keep the film focused while still giving spectacular background visuals throughout the film. Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay with collaboration from director Lewis Gilbert, resulting in a singular vision of the film that helped the overall product. Yet the film isn’t without some flaws, some unfortunate and others detrimental. The most unfortunate is the running time, which could have been cut in several places including some action sequences that ran just a tad too long. The other was the reliance an formulas, some of which Dahl commented on in later interviews that he was told to include while being given free rein over the rest of the story, that over the course of five films were getting stale. But the biggest flaw was Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who made his debut as a little, scarred, bald man played by Donald Pleasence. With three of the previous four Bond films having involved SPECTRE, the reveal of Blofeld is somewhat of a letdown considering that both Dr. No and Emilio Largo were both more intimidating and overall more impressive antagonists for Bond to faceoff with. What does not help is that Pleasence’s Blofeld is the go to megalomaniacal villain that parodies of all Bond and spy genre films go for.

You Only Live Twice is a fun, good paced film but when compared to the previous four films of the Connery era there are problems that an observant viewer can pick out. Although this was meant to be Connery’s swansong as the titular character, he didn’t call-in his performance but there are issues that hurt the overall product that were out of his control. Overall it’s a nice film, nothing better or worse.

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Thunderball (James Bond #4)

ThunderballThunderball
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Coming off the huge success of Goldfinger, the fourth Bond film had the unenviable task of following it a year later with high expectations.  Based upon the eighth Bond novel by Ian Fleming which was itself a novelization of a unfilmed screenplay, Thunderball was a mixture quality action sequences and slow pacing that created just a bit of a letdown from the franchise’s previous installment.

After killing a high ranking SPECTRE operative, James Bond is recuperating at sanitarium where he unknowingly interactions with SPECTRE agents that are beginning the organization’s latest project of stealing two atomic bombs and ransoming NATO.  After the successful theft of the bombs, Bond is called to London for an emergency 00 conference and after looking at the dossier, convinces M to send him to Nassau.  Soon after his arrival, Bond meets SPECTRE’s Number Two Emilio Largo who masterminded the operation and arouses Bond’s suspicions.  Bond joined by Felix Leiter and MI6 agents in the Bahamas begins searching for the missing NATO plane while also playing a cat-and-mouse game with Largo and various SPECTRE agents.  Upon finding the missing plane and confirming Largo has them, Bond along with U.S. Coast Guard divers battle SPECTRE off the shore of Miami to secure one bomb.  Then infiltrating Largo’s ship, Bond is able to stop the man’s attempt to get away with the last bomb.

While Thunderball was the most financially successful Bond film until Live and Let Die, comparing it to earlier films and looking at it critically there were significant issues that affected the overall presentation.  The first and most importantly was the pacing at the beginning of the film, especially when Bond was in the sanitarium.  The slow beginning could have been tightened in numerous ways while not losing important plot developments.  The second were the numerous underwater sequences, save the battle off Miami, which simply took too much time each without equal story development.  Connery’s performances was once again top notch, Adolfo Celi’s Emilio Largo was an impressive villain, and Luciana Paluzzi’s femme fatale Fiona Volpe were stand out performances throughout the film.  But the highlight and most memorable part of the film was the climatic underwater battle, which was skillfully choreographed.

Thunderball, while not close to mediocre, doesn’t not compare to its predecessor.  While unfortunately dragged down by a slow beginning, the great acting and a fantastic climactic battle makes this a solidly good film.

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Goldfinger (James Bond #3)

GoldfingerGoldfinger
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Goldfinger, the third film of the Sean Connery era truly changed the James Bond franchise.  Based on the seventh novel by Ian Fleming of the same name, this film built up on the momentum of the previous two and added the final motifs related to the franchise in becoming the quintessential James Bond film.

James Bond begins an investigation of bullion dealer Auric Goldfinger in Miami, at first observing and then upsetting his cheating scheme at a game of gin rummy which has deadly consequences for a recently met love interest.  Back in London, Bond learns that Goldfinger is suspected of smuggling gold internationally and is task to figure out how he does it.  After playing (and defeating) Goldfinger in a game of golf, Bond follows Goldfinger and his henchman Oddjob to Switzerland where he discovers how Goldfinger smuggles his gold as well as a meeting with a Chinese agent.  However, Bond is captured and set up to be cut in half by a industrial laser but saves himself by lying about MI6 knowing about his plan with the Chinese agent.  Goldfinger brings Bond to Kentucky, where on the surface he is setting up an operation to steal all the gold in Fort Knox but in fact it is to make it radioactive by setting off a dirty bomb.  Bond “persuades” Goldfinger’s personal pilot, Pussy Galore, to notify the FBI and Army about the attack and interrupt it through Bond is locked in the vault with the bomb and Oddjob.  Bond is able to electrocute Oddjob then struggled to disarm the bomb only for a nuclear specialist to arrive and turn it off.  The film ends with Bond on a flight to Washington when Goldfinger comes out of the cockpit, but the resulting gun battle sees Goldfinger sucked out of plane due to explosive decompression while Bond and Pussy parachute safety to some secluded woods.

Though my synopsis of the plot is pretty basic, Goldfinger’s was clearly the best of these early Bond films.  With a mix of action, espionage, and various locations, the plot was tight allowing both Connery and Gert Frobe (playing the titular Goldfinger) to deliver great performances with the latter’s becoming the standard future Bond villains would be measured.  This film completed the motifs that would define the franchise: the Bond theme songs introduced over the title sequence began with the classic “Goldfinger” sung by Shirley Bassey, the Bond quote “Shaken, not stirred” was first spoken in this film, and Bond’s heavy reliance on technology.

Goldfinger is considered the classic installment of the franchise, in fact because of its huge success in 1964 that its script would be the template for films to come as well the reliance on technology that would be overused in installments to come.  However, neither of those factors takes away the luster of his film which is always in discussion for the best in the entire franchise even 50+ years later.

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From Russia with Love (James Bond #2)

RussiaFrom Russia with Love
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The tremendous success of Dr. No instantly demanded a follow-up leading to Sean Connery returning as James Bond in From Russia with Love a year later. The film, based on another Ian Fleming novel of the same name, continued to create elements that would define Bond film franchise for the next 50 years.

The criminal organization SPECTRE begins the film looking to get its hand on a Soviet cryptographic device, the Lektor, as well as get revenge on James Bond for his actions in Dr. No. Using the plan created by “Number Five” with personnel selected by “Number Three”, Bond is lured to Istanbul with full knowledge that he’s being set up. Followed by both Bulgarian and SPECTRE agents, Bond meets station chief Ali Kerim Bey before heading to his hotel. Afterwards, the SPECTRE agent Donald Grant kills one of the Bulgarians beginning a blood feud between the British and Soviet agents that Bond and Bey have to deal with before meeting with Tatiana Romanova. With Grant providing unknown aid, Bond and Romanova are able to plan and steal the Lektor then aided by Bey they board the Orient Express in an escape planned by Bey. Grant though kills Bey and a Soviet agent then a British agent in Belgrade taking his identity so as to kill Bond and take the Lektor. However, Bond is able to kill Grant then use the SPECTRE agent’s own escape plan to get Romanova and the Lektor to Venice only to face “Number Three” in one last fight to secure both the Lektor and the girl.

Though quickly written and filmed, the plot of From Russia with Love is actually better than its precursor. Though filled with more action than Dr. No, the story is tight and avoids any serious plot holes allowing Connery to expand his characterization of Bond. The film also showcases one of Bond’s most dangerous antagonists in Donald Grant that is played by the excellently cast Robert Shaw, who is probably best known as Quint in Jaws. As stated above, the film added more motifs to the franchise: a pre-title sequence, the Blofeld character (referred to as “Number One”, a secret-weapon gadget for Bond, a postscript action scene after the main climax, and a theme song with lyrics (though this film’s is at the end instead of the beginning like those going forward).

Given the quick time turnaround from the success of Dr. No to when From Russia with Love was released, it is surprising about how good the film is. Though it’s not perfect, it’s a tighter yet action-packed film that continued the slow build-up of the emerging James Bond film franchise. Whether or not you enjoyed Dr. No, From Russia with Love is a better all-around film.

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Dr. No (James Bond #1)

Dr. NoDr. No
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The film that launched the James Bond franchise, Dr. No, not only introduced the world to James Bond but also was the breakout role Sean Connery. Based on the sixth novel by Ian Fleming of the same name, this film created the motifs that would last throughout the franchise.

In brief, the plot of the film follows James Bond as he looks into the disappearance of the MI6 resident in Jamaica and his secretary, who were seen getting murdered at the beginning of the film. Upon his arrival on the island, Bond is followed by several agents of the titular Dr. No and Felix Leiter, a CIA agent working with the missing MI6 agent to investigate mysterious radio interference with NASA rockets. Through various clues, Bond realizes one of the last men to see his missing colleague in the employ of Dr. No and hid the fact that samples the MI6 agent asked for analysis were radioactive. Bond slips onto the Dr. No’s private island and finding Honey Ryder collecting seashells. Captured by the island’s security, Bond and No verbally square off before the Doctor has enough and has Bond put in a cell. Escaping the cell, Bond infiltrates No’s control center that contained a nuclear reactor that he overloads then throws No into the reactor pool. Finding Ryder, Bond escapes the island and is found by Leiter onboard a Royal Navy ship.

The film’s plot is serviceable though nothing spectacular. Yet, what makes the film click and smooth over the rough edges of the plot is Connery. Although today it’s cliché that Connery and Bond are synonymous, but honestly if any other actor were to have been on screen or delivered lines than it just feels that the faults of the plot would have become more glaring. The action sequences and some very good shots, especially in the relation to No’s ‘Three Blind Mice’ assassins in background shots following Bond in several scenes helped give the film some added tension. As I stated several motifs associated with the Bond franchise first appeared, namely the gun barrel opening, the stylized main title sequence, and the Bond’s signature introduction; but luckily the gadget motif that became fantastically elaborate as the franchise progressed was nowhere to be seen.

Honestly, I had a hard time on how to rate this Dr. No. It isn’t perfect and has some plot holes, most importantly how does a nuclear reactor play into radio jamming of rockets, so it would not be a 5-star film but because of its success it spawned a franchise that has spanned 24 films over 55 years it had to be better than 2 ½. And unlike Gojira, there was no nuance that could make up for the film’s faults. So I feel that 3 ½ is a good rating for the first Bond film given it’s imperfects and its influential significance.

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