Sunday, June 12, 2011

Not what you were expecting: On Her Majesty's Secret Service and The Italian Job

It's 1996. I'm sat in a beer garden in Oxford, listening to some overbearing chap telling his friends what a rubbish Bond George Lazenby made. The thrust of his argument seemed to be that Gorgeous George was Australian. Conformist knob-end: he seemed quite happy with a Scottish Bond, or the previous year's Irish Bond, or the seemingly-octagenarian Roger Moore, a Bond that felt like an old soak from the British Legion clubhouse from the first moment he walked onto a set.

George Lazenby and On Her Majesty's Secret Service has always been an easy target: one Bond film which nobody is meant to like, an aberration amongst the cheery, cool, gadget filled masterpieces that make up the rest of the series.

Except ... except On Her Majesty's Secret Service is actually one of the better Bond films. Here's why:

It's not afraid of being self-aware: whether it's Lazenby complaining that "this never happened to the other guy" when the woman he rescues deserts him on the beach, or the dwarf janitor at Draco's office, whistling the theme from Goldfinger, or the way it taunts our expectations of what we expect - Blofeld's lawyer goes for lunch, and then goes back to his office to catch Bond at work, except he doesn't, this is significantly more sophisticated than previous efforts.

There's no stupid gadgets: apart from the radioactive pocket lint that Q demonstrates and then never gets used, the only Bond gadgets we see are the junk from previous films, discarded as Bond empties his desk. Spectre are the ones with gadgets (radio-receiving make up sets) and that doesn't get them very far. Ok, Bond does use a crane at one point, but that's a large item of machinery, which is fine, rather than a pair of exploding wellington boots, which is embarassing.

There are no evil Chinese/Japanese/Koreans/anonymous Asian types. A real departure from the previous five films...

... However, there is some consistency: once again, there's an evil lady with red hair (although I think Bunt is being played by John Actor from the Fast Show) and we see on-screen confirmation of my theory from earlier films, that women who ride in vehicles with Commander Bond are not long for this world.

It also has some of the finest dialogue of the films to date, whether it's Bond's quips, the back-and-forth with Diana Rigg, or the eminently quotable Blofeld:

"I have taught you to love chickens"

I'll say no more about that.

Bond gets an assistant, who dies ignominously. This is a Good Thing: better than boring old Felix Leiter and his wandering in and out in previous films. In fact, I think this is Bond's first assistant to be killed since Quarrel in Dr No - happily, the tradition of Bond's helper dying is now firmly established.

There's another departure for Bond: a heartwarming romance.

Between Bond and M, as James struggles to cope with rejection, decides to break up and then is rescued from loneliness by Moneypenny refusing to let him end his relationship with M - er, what sort of film was this?

The montage between Bond and Teresa early on is very different to Bond's seduction in other movies, but that actually makes for a nice change, rather than a clanging inconsistency in tone. And Bond does slap her in the face before getting her into bed, which should keep the wifebeating misogynists happy even if he does display too much emotion for them later on.

Actually, poor old Diana Rigg gets quite a bit of physical abuse: Draco belts her one 'for her own good' before stuffing her into a helicopter, and that's after she's spent five minutes with a prat in a left-over Olympic tracksuit trying to strangle her. Her dad might tell Bond she needs "a man to dominate her" but it seems more like he wants a man to batter her.

And Bond could be that guy: capable both of putting Blofeld in a neck brace and using a big geezer to smash up a hotel room, you start to wonder if Draco was checking to make sure he'd have no troubles physically disciplining his wife.

A few things that aren't so great: the product placement. I don't know how Hugh Hefner pulled it off1 but we see Bond settling down to relax with a copy of Playboy. I don't want the protector of Western society to be having a bit of gentleman's relaxation with a jazzmag when he's cracking a safe.

The hotel manager we meet early on is called Manuel. I started to wonder if he gave up on Portugal and moved to work for Basil Fawlty a few years later.

Was I not paying attention properly, or is Bond descended from the Earl of Peckham? That doesn't sound right at all. Speaking of things that don't sound right at all, there was the mind-numbingly dull speech Bond gives to the ladies at the clinic. It may have been a work of genius, showing how the women were so desperate for male company that they'd put up with hours of droning on about heraldry, but the director didn't have to make us put up with hours of droning too, did they?

I can't decide if Telly Savalas is playing an evil Dr Atkins (look at Ruby trying to make sexyface while chomping on a chicken) or Vin Diesel: they're both bald, they both have deep voices... I'm not sure Vin Diesel would have rocked the neck-brace like Telly does in the finale, though.

And although I said I was happy with the sparsity of the gadgets, it might have been nice if there was a better way for Bond to contact HQ than take a drive to the nearest post office to use the phone outside. Maybe give him a carrier pigeon next time to stuff down his trousers.

But all in all, despite some frankly ridiculous plot holes (Tracy materalising at the ice rink, Blofeld's 8-track deck of Doom hypnotising the ladeez with the loudest voice you've ever heard, and Blofeld's uncanny ability to find the right outhouse when he's on the hunt), it's difficult to see why On Her Majesty's Secret Service has been made out to be such a disgrace to the series. Maybe that prick in the pub (like every other Bond 'expert' who believes Sean Connery to be The One True Bond) had conveniently forgotten about Thunderball. And You Only Live Twice. And Never Say Never Again ... but more of that later...

To finish off my journey to 1969, I watched The Italian Job. I'd only ever watched the opening credits and the last scene before, but I did watch the Marky Mark "remake"/"homage"/"butchery" a few years back - that was rubbish.

There are some immediate parallels: Matt Monro sings the song at the start - and just like From Russia With Love, it's a languid song that doesn't mesh very well with a man driving a Ferrari too fast into a bulldozer. Oh well.

The Sixties seem to have had lots of films where people come out of prison, although Bond never got locked up. (Perhaps lots more people used to get banged up, and that was who the filmmakers were catering to.) When Michael Caine wanders out of prison, he's a damn sight more cheery than Richard Burton was a few years ago in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Maybe that's because the whole thing is in colour.

It's odd that people often think Caine and Connery embody some form of Sixties cool, either as a suave spy, or a chap who says things like "You're a big man, but you're out of condition and I do this for a living", but forget that one played a man who gets ambushed when he goes into any bar in Jamaica, and that Get Carter is one of the gloomiest, most horrible films about Newcastle ever filmed. Still, Caine's character, Croker, is a lot like Lazenby's Bond: both end up in sexually exhausting circumstances. Bond has to wait half a film to find a mountaintop filled with naiive, sex-crazed women. Croker, on the other hand, just wanders blithely into a hotel room full of hotties, and when he's finished with them, gets it on with some Italian bloke's widow. Niiiiice.

Well, it is the Swinging Sixties, right? Bond, you'll have noticed, spends very little time in London, preferring the more fossilised social arrangements on the Continent, like bullfighting and brainwashing birds from Morecambe Bay. Although he's no longer making snide remarks about the Beatles and earmuffs, Bond is still harking after an earlier generation. He does have the advantage of better scenery though - while most of The Italian Job is in the frankly scruffy, overindustrialised setting of Turin, Bond gets to muck about in the Alps in winter, and it's hard to make snow not look beautiful. (Hell, I watched Dead Snow, and even a mountain full of zombie Nazis looks pretty alluring.)

The Italian Job also benefits from being a caper movie, where the tone doesn't change around much throughout - everything is cheerful, everything bounds along, even with faintly ridiculous dialogue like

Bill: Roger is having trouble with his differential
Croker: Tell him to hurry up
Bill: Hurry up!

whereas On Her Majesty's Secret Service has a much less even tone. Although the car chase in the latter is possibly better than the Italian Job - there's no feeling of danger as they drive their Minis through Turin, but I would be terrified to be in a stock-car race with Diana Rigg, even in the sensible and safe world of Switzerland.

While I was happy to see that Bond has moved on from his Orientalphobia, the main driver of The Italian Job is gold supplied by China - Peking is buying a factory from Fiat. So quite obliquely, fears of globalisation are being addressed in The Italian Job, and beyond that, there's further sociopolitical content that the film is freighted with. The Italian mafia feel that other nations shouldn't be able to interfere in their market ("Does Mr Bridger think he can take over Europe from his prison cell?"), yet the more efficient British are against this protectionism; maybe the message is that rehabilitation of criminals can work. Noel Coward's character may be locked up, but he's still an effective businessman, capable of supplying people and resources to the entrepeneurial Croker.

And as for Croker, he's an excellent manager, capable of motivating a large and diverse team of individuals. You begin to worry that at some point, The Italian Job must have turned up as part of an HR training scheme for middle managers in large corporations. (Although no thoughts of health and safety - just look at the conditions in Croker's car assembly area. No adequate ventilation, no safety goggles, a man who clearly can't drive, in control of a large bus...) Versus that, Bond is just titting about on holiday.

I never thought that I'd end up thinking The Italian Job was a quasi-serious commentary on the allure and difficulties of the European Common Market, or a example for managers of how to deal with a diverse and often recalcitrant workforce, or that On Her Majesty's Secret Service was a bit fluffy but sweet on the inside. But this is what happens if you watch both films with a stinking hangover, apparently. Less Martinis next month, I promise.

1 Fnarr fnarr.


filmrruss said...

I'm proud to say that I received the Marky Mark version of The Italian Job for Christmas several years ago, and it's still in its wrapper! Hopefully it will never escape.

Mr Cushtie said...

Film masochists would do what's known as The Double: Marky Mark's Italian Job, and then this

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