Retro Review: All the Time in the World: James Bond Hits a Crossroads High as The Plaza Theatre presents ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE

Posted on: Jul 4th, 2013 By:

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969); Dir. Peter Hunt; Starring George Lazenby, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas; Plaza Theatre; Saturday, July 6 @ 7:30 p.m.; Tickets here; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Throughout the month of July, the historic Plaza Theatre is paying tribute to 50 years of James Bond. And while much will be made of the many great entries starring Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, I’d like to focus some attention on one film you may have written off: 1969’s ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (OHMSS).

The tumult of the 1960s came to a head in that decade’s final year. The optimism of the Kennedy era and multi-national political intrigue had given birth to the cinematic Bond. But as the decade progressed and global politics came to be viewed in increasingly complex shades of grey, the Bond series changed as well. The films began departing freely from Ian Fleming’s novels and relying more and more on spectacular gadgetry and hyper-stylized set design, which reflected the culture’s growing fascination with pop art. The pairing of pop art and the burgeoning psychedelic art movement came to a head with 1967’s colorful and nearly cartoonish YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967, YOLT for short) [Ed. note: plays Friday July 5 at The Plaza]. And if the onset of the late ‘60s were when change really began to ramp up, this too was reflected in Bond: series stalwart Sean Connery announced during YOLT’s filming that he was retiring from the role.

Aesthetically speaking, 1968-69 was a time of pulling back. Music from The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Band reflected a retreat from the rococo excesses of psychedelia. Meanwhile, movies like BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) and THE WILD BUNCH (1969) inspired a newfound emphasis on realism in film. Politically speaking, the rise of the feminist movement and its influence offered a vocal critique of the seemingly disposable nature of the neverending series of “Bond girls” presented in the series thus far. Bond—with his fantastic toys and rampant womanizing—was rapidly becoming dangerously old-fashioned.

It was time to do something different.

“This never happened to the other fellow.” — James Bond, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE

Tracy (Diana Rigg) is every bit the equal of James Bond (George Lazenby) in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969).

After attempting to woo eventual Bond lead Roger Moore for an adaptation of THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, development on that title stalled and Moore returned to the TV series THE SAINT. Series producers Harry Saltzman and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, along with director Peter Hunt, then decided to revive earlier plans to adapt OHMSS. And for their new Bond, turned to a relative unknown: Australian commercial actor George Lazenby.

The pairing of Lazenby and Bond started off on a bad note. Lazenby had been offered a seven-picture deal by Broccoli, but his agent advised against signing. The times were changing, the agent reasoned, and predicted that Bond couldn’t continue into the ‘70s. To add to the problem, by all accounts Lazenby and co-star Diana Rigg didn’t get along, and the actor complained of a lack of communication and coaching (this being his first feature film) from director Hunt.

Despite the unsure footing of the new star, every effort was made to try to make this the definitive Bond picture. The creative team decided to make this film hew as closely as possible to Fleming’s original novel, to the point of having Telly Savalas’ Blofeld (who had already been introduced in YOLT) not recognize Bond upon meeting him—a result of the novel having predated the previously-adapted YOLT. The movie also stripped back Bond’s reliance on gadgetry and returned to a more realistic depiction (for Bond, anyway) of spy work. Most significantly, though, OHMSS reflected the changing sexual politics of the time and presented Bond with a “Bond girl” that was his equal; in return, Bond eschewed his promiscuity and devoted himself to her.

In an epic tale that reached from the beaches of Portugal to the Swiss Alps, Bond must join forces with Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), the head of a European crime syndicate, in order to track down Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of the international terrorist organization SPECTRE. In doing so, he went undercover to reveal a sinister plot at Blofeld’s clinical allergy-research institute, put his position as a 007 agent with MI6 at risk, and found that he was falling deeply in love with Draco’s daughter, the Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo.

Telly Sevalas’ malevolence as villain Ernst "Stavro" Blofeld shines through even his most subdued scenes.

In my eyes, the filmmakers succeeded at their task. This truly is the definitive Bond film. It presents a James Bond who is both confident and vulnerable. Unlike any Bond outing before, the character is allowed to show fear and express true love while simultaneously providing a no-nonsense and strong presence. If anything, his depicted vulnerabilities strengthen his resolution and character. Though these elements are present in Fleming’s novel, to allow them in the film was a brave turn by the Bond team.

Despite Lazenby’s lack of experience and occasional lack of finesse, his performance was solid. A formidable presence, he retained some of  Connery’s suavity while still offering a more serious and sinewy take on the character. Savalas’ Blofeld was allowed to be a truly physical threat, unlike Donald Pleasence’s “evil genius” take on the role, and Savalas’ malevolence shone through even his most subdued scenes. Finally THE AVENGERS star Diana Rigg was perfect as Tracy. Displaying a complexity that matched this complex movie, she delivered a Tracy in turns melancholy, witty, intelligent and joyous. She captured the emotional arc of the character pitch-perfectly.

And for all the film’s distance from by-that-point traditional Bondian high-tech wizardry, OHMSS didn’t skimp on action in the slightest. For its length (it’s the second-longest Bond title), it plays lean and muscular. While the film wasn’t received well upon its release and still divides critics more so than probably any other Bond film, it delivers everything a Bond movie should.

That Lazenby did little to help his relationship with Saltzman and Broccoli (his appearing at the film’s premiere with shoulder-length hair and a beard was probably the last straw) probably served to hurt the film’s reputation more than anything else. Bad blood on both sides led to this film always being served up as something of the black sheep of the Bond family. It’s long been viewed as only slightly more legitimate than the 1967 parody CASINO ROYALE or the unofficial 1983 THUNDERBALL re-hash NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. But latter-day viewers and critics have finally started to come around and give the film its due. And it’s about time.

Are these Bond girls asking what's under George Lazenby's kilt?! Yes, while Sean Connery was a Scot, Lazenby, the stiffest Bond, was the only 007 to put that new meaning to not shaken but stirred.

Some will argue for 1965’s GOLDFINGER. Some may argue for 2006’s CASINO ROYALE. Some even will argue for Timothy Dalton’s short run as 007. But I root for the underdog. Both Lazenby and ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE are that underdog. GOLDFINGER is a close second, tied with last year’s SKYFALL (2012; laugh if you must, but SKYFALL is going to hold up far better than any of the Moore outings, mark my words). However, there’s nothing like MAJESTY.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog atdoctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Retro Review: Fly Into the Past Aboard CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG at the historic Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Mar 29th, 2013 By:

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968); Dir. Ken Hughes; Starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howe, Gert Fröbe and Lionel Jeffries; Starts Friday, March 29 ; Plaza Atlanta; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett, Contributing Writer

The Plaza Theatre has a long, storied and—at times—notorious past. So leave it to them to revive one of the most frightening memories of my childhood by bringing CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG  back to the big screen.

As a tiny tot, my family would drive across town every weekend to have lunch at my grandparents’ house. And being a movie fiend at even that young age, I’d plop down to watch whatever was playing on the Sunday Afternoon TV Movie that week while everyone talked in the kitchen and prepped the meal. There was a certain rotation to the movies they’d schedule, and it seemed like every couple of months or so they’d show either the Beatles’ YELLOW SUBMARINE or—more likely—CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG. And I’d sit enraptured by the movie every time, even though I knew what was coming and that it would scare the pants off me.

Sure, most of the movie is harmless enough stuff. It’s set in the salad days of the 1910s, before the specter of World War I darkened the horizon. There’s Dick Van Dyke being his typical charming self as the perpetually failing inventor Caractacus Potts, but he could play charming in his sleep. There’s Sally Ann Howe in the Julie Andrewsas-Mary Poppins-eque role of Truly Scrumptious (Andrews herself was offered the role, but turned it down; it then went to Howe, who had replaced Andrews on Broadway in MY FAIR LADY). There are memorable songs from Disney’s celebrated in-house composers Richard and Robert Sherman. There are a couple of precious kids, a kindly grandfather and, best of all, a magical car named Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (after the sounds it makes while running). Despite the film’s meandering tone and frequent tangential detours, once we start seeing the car in action, it becomes something thrillingly charming.

The story has its roots in the children’s book by—strange as it may seem—Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. He was sidelined from writing the Bond novels due to protracted lawsuits surrounding THUNDERBALL. Constantly stressed about the case, Fleming suffered two major heart attacks. During his recuperation, he set out to write a book based on a bedtime story he’d concocted for his son Caspar. Fleming, sadly, did not live to see the book published. A mere two months before its publication, on Caspar’s 12th birthday, Ian Fleming succumbed to a third and fatal heart attack.

Fleming is not the only Bond connection to the film, though. It was produced by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, co-producer of the classic Bond films. It was directed by Ken Hughes, fresh off directing his segment of the Bond spoof CASINO ROYALE. The film co-stars Gert “Auric Goldfinger” Fröbe and Desmond “Q” Llewellyn. And, most importantly, it was adapted for the screen by the screenwriter of the previous year’s YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE: renowned children’s author and close friend of Fleming’s, Roald Dahl. And that’s where things get weird. And scary.

See, Dahl’s sensibilities were so black as to be nearly morbid. His CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, for example, has so many kids meeting their (non-fatal) ends that it’s practically THE HUNGER GAMES set in the candy manufacturing industry. So Dahl (along with director Hughes) took great liberty with the source material and created something nearly as traumatic as the boat ride in 1971’s WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY or the flying monkeys in 1939’s THE WIZARD OF OZ.

During the course of the movie’s ambling narrative, we learn that Baron Bomburst, the tyrannical leader of Vulgaria, wants to steal Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He sends two spies to kidnap Potts and force him to build a duplicate, but they kidnap Truly Scrumptious’ father and Grandpa Potts by mistake. Caractacus, Truly and the kids take off in Chitty to rescue the oldsters, and fly to the dreary country.

Why is the country so dreary, you might ask? Because there are no children on the streets of Vulgaria. And why not, you ask again? Because of…

The Child Catcher.

*shudder*

A character created entirely by Dahl for the film, Sir Robert Helpmann’s portrayal of the grotesque Child Catcher is one of the most frightening cinematic creations ever to be foisted upon unsuspecting movie-going children. The character is in the employ of the Baron and Baroness Bomburst, who hate children so much that the sight of them sends the couple into fits of fear and loathing. With his spindly legs, pasty face, black clothing, warped top hat and enormous nose (with which he can smell the very presence of the little rugrats: “This nose of mine has never failed me. And if there are children here, my friend, you will die.”), he tempts children out of hiding with promises of lollipops and treacle tarts and then takes them away in his carriage to be imprisoned.

And this is where I’d be sent into paroxysms of terror. Not even the presence of Benny Hill as a gentle toymaker could save me. No, this guy wormed his way into my consciousness and took root. He still freaks me out a little. And I’m not the only one. The character was voted in a 2005 BBC poll as “the scariest villain in books,” despite never appearing in the book. In 2009, a poll carried out by Penguin Books named him as the seventh scariest character of all time.

The Child Catcher even figures prominently as an avatar of childhood fright in the earlier, funnier work of Marilyn Manson. On the band’s debut album, PORTRAIT OF AN AMERICAN FAMILY, he is obliquely the subject of the song “Organ Grinder,” which features samples of the character calling out “Here we are children! Come and get your lollipops! Lollipops! Come along my little ones!” Manson’s second release, SMELLS LIKE CHILDREN, was even named in the character’s honor and featured Mr. Manson on the cover dressed in the Child Catcher’s garb.

So toss your cynicism aside and let the film take you back to a more innocent time. The journey may go all over the place, plot-wise, but it’s a scenic route. And the Plaza may not have a magical flying car, but taking a trip with CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG costs you only the price of a ticket. Come along, kiddie-winkies!

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

 

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Kool Kat of the Week: Everything He Touches Turns To Excitement! Conductor Michael Krajewski on ASO’s BOND AND BEYOND Concert

Posted on: Mar 14th, 2012 By:

By Anthony Taylor
Contributing Writer

This Friday and Saturday the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra enters the shadowy world of spies and secret agents with the BOND AND BEYOND concert, celebrating the music of composer John Barry and the 50th anniversary of the first James Bond film, DR. NO. Principal Pops Conductor Michael Krajewski will lead the Orchestra in a variety of James Bond movie themes, including “From Russia with Love,” “You Only Live Twice,” and “Goldfinger.” The program will also include other spy and action movie favorites, such as “Sooner or Later” from DICK TRACY, the “Inspector Clouseau Theme” from THE PINK PANTHER, and “Soul Bossa Nova” from the AUSTIN POWERS films. Broadway vocalist and Tony Award-winner Debbie Gravitte will join the Orchestra for many of the evening’s musical selections.

A cultural icon of the 20th century, superspy James Bond is a plucky survivor that remains a favorite with today’s film audiences – the 23rd Bond film, SKYFALL, is currently in production at Pinewood Studios with Daniel Craig returning to the role, and is due for release in November.

The music from the films is no less iconic. Setting the tone with DR. NO in 1962, composer John Barry would go on to score twelve of the films as well as create the unforgettable James Bond theme. Though credited to Monty Norman, the arrangement by Barry is what has become synonymous with the character and musical shorthand for suave, retro cool. Later films feature music by David Arnold, Marvin Hamlisch, Sir Paul McCartney and even Sir George Martin, the “fifth Beatle.”

Micheal, Debbie and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will be giving all for Queen and country to thrill spies and femme fatales in attendance. ATLRetro recently interrogated Michael about the program and his connections to Bond… James Bond.

ATLRetro: The music of Bond is essentially the music of John Barry; what is Barry’s (who passed away in January 2011) ultimate impact on the landscape of film music, and how did his work influence you personally?

MK: John Barry seemed to have a knack for writing music that captured the grandeur and overall atmosphere of the film. The best examples are his work on DANCES WITH WOLVES, BORN FREE and OUT OF AFRICA. The Bond films are set in exotic locations and feature beautiful women and a suave, handsome hero. Barry’s sweeping descriptive music effectively supports the glamorous settings and characters.

Bond and Beyond features themes from other adventure films as well. Why not an all Bond program, and how did you decide what other pieces to include?

For the sake of an entertaining concert I chose to add some variety by including some well-known music influenced by the Bond movies, such as “Secret Agent Man,” “Soul Bossa Nova (the Austin Powers theme song) and the theme from MISSION IMPOSSIBLE.

Also, are there any Marvin Hamlisch pieces from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, or any of Sir George Martin’s work from LIVE AND LET DIE included?

The concert will include Marvin Hamlisch’s “Nobody Does It Better” and Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.”

“Goldfinger” is arguably the most well-known movie theme song of all time, and an enormous hit for Dame Shirley Bassey. What makes Debbie Gravitte the right vocalist to interpret it and the other theme songs included in BOND AND BEYOND?

Debbie Gravitte has a strong and compelling stage presence as well as a bold and commanding vocal style. She has a lot of dramatic experience due to her many years on Broadway, plus she has experience performing in concert with symphony orchestras. This made her the perfect choice for this program.

David Arnold composed the music for the last five Bond films, and was recommended for the job by John Barry. How do you feel his music compares to Barry’s work, and what differences do you find in performing it?

Just as the action and chase sequences seemed to intensify in the later films, so too did the music, courtesy of David Arnold.

Does BOND AND BEYOND feature deeper cuts from the films – for instance, the Little Nelly theme from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE – or possibly medleys that include a sampling of music from the films?

The concert includes a medley of action sequences from CASINO ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE.

The spy film craze ended around 1968. What makes James Bond such an unforgettable character, and how is he (and the music from the classic films) relevant to today’s audiences?

I think the James Bond movies have always provided the audience with a wonderful escape. The characters are larger than life and the settings and music are beautiful and exotic. The desire to escape to the world of James Bond for a few hours has probably gotten stronger as our lives have become noisier and more complicated.

If you could have any gadget from the films, which one would it be and why?

Michael Krajewski. Photo credit: Michael Tammaro.

I’d like the invisible car that Bond had in DIE ANOTHER DAY. I don’t think I need to explain the advantages of an invisible car!

BOND AND BEYOND takes place at Atlanta Symphony Hall, Memorial Arts Building, Woodruff Arts Center Friday, March 16, 2012, 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 17, 2012, 8 p.m.  All single tickets for the 2011–2012 season are available online at www.atlantasymphony.org, by calling (404) 733-5000 or at the Woodruff Arts Center Box Office, at 15th and Peachtree Streets. Black tie and vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) are optional. 

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