Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bond Bios: M

I would imagine that most casual Bond fans aren't even aware that there or multiple Ms over the course of the series, or at least most probably assume that there are just two: The guy and Dame Judi Dench. Well, if you're one of those people, it's a good thing you found this blog because I'm about to give you a PhD in M-ology. Would you believe that there were actually three official Ms, one unofficial M (in the now infamous to readers of this blog Never Say Never Again, which always seems to be mentioned only in parenthesis), and countless other versions and variations in other works of literature, film, and TV? Well, let's get right into it:

Bernard Lee

Dr. No (1962)
From Russia With Love (1963)
Goldfinger (1964)
You Only Live Twice (1967)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Live and Let Die (1973)
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Moonraker (1979)

Damn! That's a lot of movies. That's more movies than even any of the lead actors have appeared in. I'm pretty sure only two other actors have appeared in more Bond films than Bernard Lee... but we'll talk about them later. Bernard Lee was the first M and he was the best M. His reign saw him as the head of MI6 for 17 years, overseeing three different 007s, which is one more Bond than either of the other two EON Ms saw. He was in the first eleven Bond films, without missing a single one. And then, after he died in 1981, they retired the character without being recast in For Your Eyes Only, out of respect.

Lee was just a fantastic actor whose demeanor as a proper British gentleman made him the perfect foil to Connery's (and Lazenby's and Moore's) rakish, devil may care secret agent. Even before being cast as M in the first Bond film, Lee had a distinguished career, appearing in such films as the Third Man and in Father Brown, written by Graham Green and G.K. Chesterton respectively, both of whom most likely greatly influenced Bond creator Ian Fleming. The Living Daylights even had a scene that took place in the same Ferris Wheel where Orson Welles gave his famous cuckoo clock speech, possibly as an homage to both Green and Bernard Lee.

But I'm digressing. The bottom line is that Lee was a marvelous actor who's gravitas and commanding presence did as much for the franchise as any of the actors who played Bond. The Bonds came and went, but for eleven films, M was always Bernard Lee.

Interesting tidbit: Bernard Lee appeared (along with Lois Maxwell who played Miss Moneypenny and the guy who played Largo in Thunderball) in a film called Operation Kid Brother starring Neil Connery, Sean's younger brother. Yes, this is true, and yes, I have seen it. I don't recommend it.

Robert Brown

Octopussy (1983)
A View to a Kill (1985)
The Living Daylights (1987)
License to Kill (1989)

Robert Brown was so perfectly cast as Bernard Lee's replacement, that I bet most people didn't even realize it was a new actor. He looks just like Lee, he sounded just like Lee, and the characterization was identical to the way Lee did it. There was no messing around with M like they did with Felix Leiter. With Leiter, each new portrayal had a completely different appearance, varying ages, and often different jobs. But M was always M, and Brown was quite good. Not as good as Bernard Lee, maybe, but then again, I don't think he got as much screen time. M had a bigger role in the Connery films than he did later on, with each new film having less and less of the old standby characters. But I have nothing bad to see about Robert Brown, who was a wonderful actor who maybe didn't do a whole lot to make the role his own, but he certainly kept the tradition alive over the course of his four films.

Brown's first appearance in a Bond film was actually in the Spy Who Loved Me, playing a character named Admiral Hargreaves, which begs the question of whether his role as M was meant to be a promotion for Hargreaves, whether his character was actually meant to be the same character as the one Lee played, or if this was an altogether third character entirely. Another interesting tidbit: Robert Brown's first credited role was in the Third Man, alongside Bernard Lee. Small world.

Dame Judi Dench

Goldeneye (1995)
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
The World is Not Enough (1999)
Die Another Day (2002)
Casino Royale (2006)
Quantum of Solace (2008)

A woman? Yeah, all right. Why not? It was 1995 by that point, so I can't blame them for wanting to finally have a strong female in the series who wasn't actually a Bond girl. And, all things considered, her casting was brilliant. Dench is basically the female version of Bernard Lee. I don't have a whole lot to say about Dench's version of M if only because I don't have much affection for the Brosnan films. I liked her a lot in the Daniel Craig films, but I dunno. I never loved her. As good as she was, I would rather have seen them recast the role again with -- and I hate to say this -- a man in the role. I'm not sexist at all, but I think having a woman give orders to James Bond adds a deeper level of subtext that the series doesn't really need. I'd prefer somebody like Derek Jacobi or Michael Gambon.

But I think at this point she is here to stay, and I can't really complain because she's a wonderful actress who created a completely new and fresh character. She's a good M. She's the only M to have won an Oscar, although not for a Bond film. She was not in the Third Man.

Unofficial Ms:

Edward Fox

Never Say Never Again (1983):

Say what you will about Never Say Never Again, at least it had a fantastic cast. I've always loved Edward Fox, and he was as wonderful as always as the M in this film. He played M as kind of a jerk, but kind of being a jerk is what Edward Fox does best.

Not a whole lot to say about this guy, other than that he played M in Never Say Never Again. And he was fun.

Anno Dracula (1992):
In this novel by Kim Newman, an alternate history vampire novel set during the 19th century. The British Government is ruled by the Diogenes Society (taken from the Sherlock Holmes stories), which is run by a character named Miles Messervy, which is the name given to M in Ian Fleming's novels. Co-Chairman of this organization are Mycroft Holmes (who legally has to appear in every work of alternative history) and Alexander Waverly from the Man From U.N.C.L.E., which was also developed in large part by Ian Fleming. Confused yet? Just try reading the book.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999):
This amazing comic book series by writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O'Neill was obviously very inspired by Newman's Anno Dracula series, since may of the same ideas and characters are used, although to much better effect by Moore, in my opinion. Another alternate history story set in the 19th century, we see another version of the British secret service run by a man known only as M, who later turns out to be Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories. After he is killed (spoiler!), the role of M is later taken up by... Mycroft Holmes.

In a later series of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics set during the early 20th century, the latest version of M is revealed to be Harry Lime, the character played by Orson Welles in The Third Man. This never made much sense to me, considering how Lime was always a criminal, and not really any agent of the British government.

And that pretty much exhausts my knowledge of the character M. Come back tomorrow when we'll talk about everybody's other favorite letter from the James Bond films.


Top Ten said...

I wonder whether there was a real M at the MI6. Apparently, according to MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 there was a C.

Justin Garrett Blum said...

That's pretty interesting--I never know there was a sort of precedent to League; I'd never heard of Anno Dracula. Even I'm learning something in these posts!

I loved the chemistry between Bernard Lee and Sean Connery. One of my favorite moments is when Bond has to implicitly chide M in Goldfinger for having poor taste in brandy.