Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bond Is Forever: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”

After James Bond (George Lazenby) saves a mysterious and beautiful woman (Diana Rigg) from an apparent suicide (a beach side stroll into the vast ocean), the two are surprised by armed men. The MI6 agent dispatches the thugs, but the lady speeds away before he has a chance to speak with her. Bond encounters the woman a second time at a casino, and 007 and Tracy, a young countess (from a previous marriage), share a hotel room for the night. The next day, Bond meets Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), head of a crime syndicate and father to Tracy, and he seems interested in Bond courting and possibly wedding his daughter. Believing that Bond would tame the apparently wild Tracy, Draco is so desperate for Bond as a potential son-in-law that he offers to exchange information pertaining to Blofeld (Telly Savalas), who heads the evil conglomerate known as SPECTRE.

Having been relieved from Operation Bedlam, a mission whose ultimate goal is the assassination of Blofeld (Telly Savalas), Bond resigns from MI6. M, however, only approves a two-week leave, during which time the spy tracks a lawyer connected to Blofeld to a mountaintop resort. Posing as a genealogist, Bond soon realizes that, although the retreat is harmless on the surface (dominated by a number of ladies of varying ethnic backgrounds), there is a fiendish plan behind it all. And the man responsible for the plot, which includes unleashing a deadly virus across the globe, is Blofeld, and Bond vows to put a stop to the SPECTRE ringleader.

Although On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) performed well at the box office and was one of top grossing U.S. films of the year, it was unfairly dismissed (as was its star) in the James Bond series. George Lazenby was the first actor to portray the cinematic Bond other than Sean Connery, who had decided to leave the series following You Only Live Twice in 1967. Producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli had spotted Lazenby, who was working as a model, in a television commercial. Considering that this was the Australian actor’s debut in a leading role, Lazenby does moderately well. He’s most likely the least popular actor to portray Bond, and though he is considerably less charismatic than the other men, it was Lazenby who passed on the opportunity to find his footing as 007 and make the character his own. On the advice of his agent, he refused a seven-movie contract to play Bond, believing that the series would fall out of touch in the upcoming decade. Unfortunately, not only did the series continue to thrive, Lazenby also was unable to secure the short-lived popularity he’d garnered during the production and release of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Though some people have suggested that the film would have been superior with Connery, this is not necessarily true. One of the reasons is that Lazenby almost becomes a supporting player in the movie, as he is outshone by actors and the settings around him. If Sean Connery had the lead, neither the producers nor the actor himself would have allowed the spotlight to turn away for so much of the film’s running time. There is also the fact that, to a certain extent, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a love story, one that focuses a great deal on the burgeoning relationship between Bond and Tracy. A spy such as 007, who shares his bed more often than sleeps alone, choosing to be with just one woman is much easier to accept with an actor like Lazenby, who comes across as exposed and vulnerable. Audiences would have shunned the idea of an already established Connery giving up his philandering ways.

It seems as if Lazenby takes a backseat when sharing screen time with the movie’s villain and the leading lady. Diana Rigg, fresh from her role as Emma Peel on the hugely successful British TV series, The Avengers, is nothing short of hypnotic in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Tracy is an enigma, seemingly callous at the film’s beginning but sweet and bright as the romance between her and Bond grows. By the end, she’s fully engaged in the action with the men. It’s not so much that the MI6 agent was wooing her (as Tracy’s father had wanted), but more like Bond was spellbound from the minute he met Tracy. There’s also the fact that Rigg is one of the world’s most beautiful women, every movement graceful and seething with untold seduction. Similarly, Telly Salavas as Blofeld proves much more charming than the film’s hero. In one of their scenes together, Blofeld is holding his cigarette in an unusual manner (almost like a knife), such that it’s difficult to take your eyes away from him. It’s telling that the movie’s most interesting scene is the one with Blofeld and Tracy, as he holds the woman captive. The villain is cordial, not cruel, and the “damsel in distress” is decidedly playful, not frightened. It’s a scene that almost makes a viewer hope that Bond waits a few more minutes before saving Tracy.

Much like Lazenby’s co-stars, the action scenes jump into the foreground, sometimes overshadowing Bond (like when he’s literally covered under an avalanche). Director Peter R. Hunt had worked as an editor on previous Bond films, including From Russia with Love (1963), in which Hunt helped establish a basic formula for the series, with a pre-credit sequence and perceptibly tight editing. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was Hunt’s directorial debut, a rousing, action-packed Bond entry that more than holds its own with the films of today. There are several strong sequences of hand-to-hand combat throughout the narrative, but the final 50 minutes are amazing, including a 15-minute chase sequence with Bond on skis, on foot, and in a car (and Tracy driving), a second ski pursuit, a full-on assault littered with bullets, bodies and multiple explosives, and the most exciting bobsled sequence audiences are likely to see.

Hunt’s action sequences are so impressive that it’s easy to forget that the film was made over 40 years ago. Action films of recent, including The Bourne Identity (2002) and its sequels, and even the most recent Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008), are defined by rapid-fire editing. Hunt’s film is of a similar style, to the point where it’s interchangeable with today’s movies (the credited editor of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is John Glen, who, like Hunt, would eventually move to the director’s chair). Hunt keeps everything moving at a stupefying momentum. Simple techniques such as limiting the use of rear projection in the skiing and bobsled scenes and including explosions in the tightly edited structure (as opposed to focusing on them with multiple camera angles) is a way to drop the audience into the action. Just like the characters, viewers do not have the time to concentrate on a singular occurrence, let alone take a breath. This method actually makes, as a for instance, both ski chases more exciting than the one in a later Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

Hunt’s film is even a precursor to Hong Kong action films of the 1980s, popularized by such directors as John Woo and Tsui Hark or a star such as Jackie Chan. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, like the Hong Kong films, includes stylized action (Bond sliding across ice as he repeatedly fires his weapon), females who are more than capable in fighting men, and a person using whatever means available as a weapon (Tracy throws bottles, uses her fingernails, and even works a decorative wall to her advantage). Additionally, Hunt incorporates the action scenes so well that he actually foreshadows them. During Bond’s trek to the retreat, viewers can clearly see the slopes and bobsled track. There’s also Tracy behind the wheel early in the film (before she expertly outmaneuvers the baddies while driving through a car race in progress), and the ladies at the retreat in a game of curling, near the place where Bond slides and fires. In one scene, there is an ongoing Portuguese-style bullfight. Hunt focuses not on the bull being dominated but rather the bull charging the forcados, a group of eight men who confront and attempt to subdue the bull. Not to compare Tracy to a bull, but in the movie, two men, both of whom are bigger than her, try to overpower her. But, like the forcados, they underestimate their target and fail to subdue a strong opponent.

In the pre-credit sequence, after Tracy quickly leaves without a word of thanks, Bond says, “This never happened to the other fellow,” while Lazenby violates the fourth wall and eyes the camera and the audience. As the credits roll, characters from preceding Bond films are shown (mostly the women), and following Bond’s resignation, he goes to pack his things, including gadgets from earlier films (such as the breathing apparatus from 1965’s Thunderball). These moments superfluously acknowledge the fact that Connery is not present. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is at its best when it becomes its own film: a strong and beautiful leading lady, a charming villain, incredible and breathtaking action sequences, all leading to an ending that lingers for days. The end result explains the likely point to hiring an unknown actor to portray James Bond: though the man playing 007 may become a celebrity, it is not he who makes the series a success. It’s a collaborative effort, a film defined by the team.

This is the second film of what has come to be known as the “Blofeld Trilogy,” beginning with You Only Live Twice and ending with Diamonds are Forever (1971). Although Blofeld is a character in films preceding You Only Live Twice, his face is never shown. The Blofeld Trilogy are the three films in which the villain is entirely revealed and is a much more active character.

Rigg is not the only connection to The Avengers. Joanna Lumley appears as one of the ladies at the retreat (most clearly at a dinner scene), and she went on to star as Purdy on The New Avengers. Lois Maxwell, who plays Moneypenny, starred in an episode of The Avengers during the season with Honor Blackman, who played Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964). And, for another Bond-Avengers link, Patrick Macnee, who was John Steed throughout the Avengers series (as well as The New Avengers), would make an appearance alongside Roger Moore in 1985’s A View to a Kill.

Apparently finding it too difficult to work “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” into lyrics, the film’s opening credits run only with John Barry’s score. In the movie, the audience witnesses Bond’s family crest, adorned with the motto, “Orbis Non Sufficit,” which is Latin for “The world is not enough.” This would be the title of a Pierce Brosnan Bond film (and is next month’s “Bond Is Forever” selection) in 1999.

This film has grown on me, and it seems to improve every time I watch it. I would definitely recommend it to someone who hasn’t seen it, but I would likewise implore that someone who didn’t like it gives it a repeat viewing. What does everyone think of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Any fans of the film? Any George Lazenby advocates?

Bond is Forever will return next month with The World is Not Enough (1999).


toto2 said...

Sark, you have truly done a remarkable analysis of "OHMSS." I think that you made an excellent point about the need for a different Bond for this film. I do not think that James Bond as portrayed by Sean Connery would be willing to marry anybody. Not that the lovely Diana Rigg's Tracy could ever have been just anybody. It is also very interesting to note that while this was Peter Hunt's directorial debut, it marked his final work on any Bond film, after having served as editor or second unit director on all previous Bond works. Neither George Lazenby nor Hunt saw their careers flourish after "OHMSS".

I really need to see this again and you have inspired me to want to do so. Like you, I have sometimes seen films grow on me with repeated viewings. Outstanding write-up!

Rick29 said...

Sark, I loved your perceptive, in-depth, and entertaining analysis one of my favorite James Bond films. It was great to see Peter Hunt receive some overdue credit for his direction, especially during the quick-cutting fight scenes. You made an excellent point in noting that his directorial style laid the groundwork for the later Asian action films and the hand-held, rapid cutting that's prevalent in many contemporary action films. I agree that Bond doesn't dominate this film as other entries in the series. But do you think part of that was because the filmmakers wanted to mitigate Lazenby's limited thespian skills? Lazenby is OK as 007 and he probably would have improved (his decision to bow out must be one of the great faux pas in film history). Personally, I think that Connery could have made this the ultimate Bond film. It would have required him to display a more emotional side to 007, but he's good enough an actor to have pulled that off quite well. Additionally, it would have set the stage for a more serious Bond in later installments (DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER was a lark...instead, imagine Connery as an angry, bitter Bond!). Dame Diana was awesome as always. The supporting cast also included Julie Ege of Hammer fame (it's always fun to point out Bond-Hammer-Avengers connections). When ABC showed OHMSS on TV, it wanted to expand it into a three-hour time slot. So it showed the big ski chase at the start of the movie and then added a voiceover where Bond pondered how he got into that situation. Then, the movie started at beginning and played all the way to the end (repeating the ski chase). By the way, the John Barry OHMSS theme is way cool, but the closing song, "We Have All the Time in the World" sung by Louis Armstrong, is just awful.

Kevin Deany said...

This is one of my favorite Bonds, and a very good write up about it this is. I think Lazenby is fine as 007, but I just wish he wasn't in this particular one. It's so different from other Bonds, that his inexperience sticks out like a sore thumb.

I think if he had played Bond in a more routine outing, say something like "Live and Let Die", he would have been more accepting by people.

This is also likely the most faithful translations of an Ian Fleming novel to the screen. The producers knew how impeccable the source material was and didn't tamper with it too much.

Aki said...

Outstanding review of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Although not one of my favorite Bond movies, it still has it's merits. I like the plot and like you said, Sark, Diana Rigg is just awesome. In fact she steals the movie from Lazenby. He isn't a bad Bond but when you watch this movie after seeing Connery, he is rather a bland. However, he is still striking in a tux so that's a plus for me. Well research article and I really enjoyed it.

Bill Guppy said...

smashing article of the most underrated 007 movie. I think lazenby is a lightweight bond but rigg is hot. As you wrote the directing is first rate.

ClassicBecky said...

Well, you've done it again, Sark -- a spectacular review in your Bond series. Your research and just plain knowledge about this movie is so interesting and gives us the whole picture about it. I never saw Lazenby as Bond, and I am going to follow your advice and rent this one. You've inspired me!

Dawn said...

Sark, Awesome review!! I thought that I have seen all the Bond films.. but, I'm not so sure I have seen this one.. Like Becky.. you've inspired me to watch it.

Michael Powers said...

I have to take issue with the notion that Lazenby was less charismatic than Connery and only did "moderately well" in the role. His announcement of his leaving the part before the picture's release understandably drove the production company wild since that radically undercut the movie's box office take and they have pilloried Lazenby ever since. I realize that this is a cliche but it's true: Lazenby came the closest to the James Bond that readers discover in Ian Fleming's novels and delivered the most realistic interpretation by a wide margin. The studio offered him the moon to stay but he did listen to execrable advice from an Iago, dooming audiences to a decade of Roger Moore in the role. Lazenby was the best Bond so far.

boblevin said...

Thanks for this great review of my favourite Bond movie. In fact, I watched it many times and never got bored with it. Main reason is to watch the alluring Diana Rigg from the Avengers.

Aaron said...

probably the best bond film in my opinion because George plays the role with venerability and Diana Rigg Fresh off the Avengers, is beautiful and most capable as a bond girl, she's not a push over. The story works well, the action is abrasive and very modern in feel. The movie has aged well and still looks fresh. It follows the novel unlike most bond films. It also has a wonderful score from John berry and title song by Louie Armstrong. Sean Connery is great but he couldn't play the role in this film like George because he is too slick and comes off as a super spy too often. Lazenby's take on 007 was a welcome change and the film feels very realistic in all aspects. the ending may be rough but it makes sense, bond must go on, and it doesn't hurt the film's story up till this point. Along with Dan Craig's more realistic portrayal, George Lazenby may be the best bond ever.