A few weeks ago, I sat down for an interview with The Ampersand, Washington University’s online magazine devoted to goings-on in the College of Arts & Sciences. You can read the entire interview here. Here’s a nibble:
What is your favorite James Bond movie, and why?
This tends to shock people, but it isn’t a Connery or a Craig. It’s the movie with the one-off Bond, George Lazenby. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service from 1969. Lazenby tends to turn people off, I know. He lacks Connery’s cool grace, the timing and tone of his line delivery often seems slightly off, and he projects blunt smugness rather than the refinement and charm we associate with the role. But it’s the movie he’s in that has always interested me. It’s the film where Bond becomes a serial character. He feels and grows.
The Connery films before this—Dr. No (1962) through You Only Live Twice (1967)—gave us a serial figure reminiscent of the sound serial of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood—like Captain Marvel or Dick Tracy—or in postwar Britain, Dick Barton, Special Agent. They’re all “figures” in the sense that the plots written for them are highly repetitive and never all that invested in character development. They didn’t have to be. Writers for studio era serials—or for modern blockbusters like Indiana Jones and The Transporter—knew that what makes the serial figure popular is the simple motivations—“save the day,” “escape the trap,” “bring the villain to justice,”—and the pleasure of expectation and variation in the adventures the “figural” hero sets out on.
Like these other properties, 1960s Bond films set up a reliable formula. With each new installment, audiences came to anticipate not character development but a fresh twist on the established conventions. It’s not just that Bond had to drink a medium-dry vodka martini, travel to exotic locales, or pursue three sexual conquests in every film. It’s that these story elements had to be presented in ways that mixed familiarity with novelty. The villain needed an extravagant hidden lair, so let’s put it inside a volcano rather than at the bottom of the sea—variations like this were sufficient to renew audience interest at that point. Such was the franchise’s appeal.
The Lazenby film changed all that. It opened up the possibility of a different—a more character-based—cinematic Bond. In fact, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service marks the franchise’s first “return to Fleming.” In Ian Fleming’s novels, Bond does all of the Bondian things we expect of him, but he also moves through a range of emotional states, faces trauma, reflects on his life, his occupation, and is subjected to pangs of guilt and loneliness. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service showed that you could begin to explore these dimensions of character and still play with fresh variations on the popular Bond formula. It suggested a new way to strike the right balance.