Monday, February 22, 2016

Movie Review – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

From – fantastic site!
I recently picked up the James Bond Collection box set from Amazon:

I put it on my Wish List when it came out and have been watching the price ever since. Just last week it dipped into my comfort zone, so I jumped on it. It includes the twenty-three (canon) Bond films that were released at the time as well as a spot for the Sprectre Blu-ray, which I own because I loved that movie. I think it’s my favorite of the Craig films (and I actually appreciate it even more now thanks to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).

But I’m not here today to talk about Spectre.

Over the next several weeks (or however long it takes) I’ll be making my way through all of those movies. I decided not to do it chronologically because I watched Dr. No and Goldfinger fairly recently and also because there are several Bond films that I just haven’t seen as much as others. I want to revisit those before enjoying the ones that I’ve seen countless times like The Man With the Golden Gun (my personal favorite).

I started with The Spy Who Loved Me because of Caroline Munro, Richard Kiel, and that incredible underwater base. After that I wanted some Connery, so I went with You Only Live Twice. It’s one that I couldn’t conjure any specific memories about. I thoroughly enjoyed it and talked a bit about it in the last Needless Things Podcast, but I’m not here to talk about that, either.

At the end of You Only Live Twice, those magical words crawled up my screen:


I had time for another movie before my son got home from school, so I decided to continue on. I was excited because as much as I hadn’t had much recall about You Only Live Twice, I couldn’t think of a single thing about this one. Without thinking too hard, it almost sounded like a Connery Bond that I hadn’t even heard of. Was it possible I hadn’t even seen this one?

As soon as the disc menu came up, the mystery was solved. No, I had not seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Most of you are undoubtedly already on track here, but this is one of the most infamous Bond movies for the simple reason that it stars the only man to have canonically played James Bond but a single time – George Lazenby.

I had avoided this one not for any reason other than it didn’t star Sean Connery or Roger Moore. I had never really heard anything good or bad about the movie itself, but the fact that the star was gone after a single installment couldn’t bode well. With so many other Bond movies available, I simply never felt it necessary to sit down with this one. But with some precious free time at hand and feeling decidedly experimental, I decided it was time to take the Lazenby plunge and form my own opinions about this landmark in James Bond history.

This is an odd thing to say about a movie that is almost fifty years old, but my review is going to contain some significant spoilers and if you haven’t seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I recommend you do so before reading this. It’s a very interesting experience. I had the benefit of watching it almost entirely ignorant of the plot and able to enjoy the story and performances for what they were. I found it to be fascinating; I wouldn’t be writing about it now if that weren’t the case. So if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out. I’m not saying it’s great, but it’s unique and will give you a different perspective on the universe of James Bond and the process of making Bond films.

Now it’s time for… SPOILERS!

From the start this movie is a little odd. It opens with M and Moneypenny before cutting to Bond, who is clearly being built up for a big reveal. When that reveal occurs, it is George Lazenby. I hadn’t ever done more than glance at a picture of Lazenby, so I really got a first impression from this shot. And that impression was that he was a good-looking guy that actually seemed like a halfway point between Connery and Moore, visually. But that his demeanor – his resting face, if you will – seemed more suited to crooning into a microphone in Las Vegas than seducing women and murdering bad guys.

The story involves James Bond saving the life of the Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo and then being thanked in the only way that ladies thank James Bond. But before the latter happens, the Contessa runs away from him and drives off, leaving Lazenby to turn directly to the camera and say, “This never happens to the other guy”.

I have to admit that it was funny, but it set the tone for the whole movie. And it wasn’t necessarily a good one.

Bond is then kidnapped by her father Count Draco (really), a European crime lord who wants Bond to marry the Contessa in order to “tame” her and get her life under control. She’s a wild girl who has made some bad decisions and the Count feels like Bond is the guy to save her. He offers 007 a million pounds to do the deed. Bond agrees only to romance her, and rather than financial gain he wants information that will lead him to the head of SPECTRE.

This all seems crazy, and it is, and Lazenby’s freshness and natural ease sell it less like he’s manipulating the Count and more like he’s going along on some zany ride. For whatever reason I kept imagining Dean Martin in the role.

I will say this for Lazenby’s portrayal, though – he came across very well in fights. He was much more dynamic than Connery or Moore and seemed comfortable with extended choreography. I honestly can’t say how much was him and how much was a stuntman, but all of the fight scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were quite satisfying.

M and the Secret Service are not supportive of the plan, but again, thanks to Lazenby’s easygoing demeanor it doesn’t really comes across like he’s defying the system. More like he’s the carefree teenager ignoring Mom and Dad’s advice.

In order to infiltrate Blofeld’s mountaintop compound in the Swiss Alps, Bond poses as a gay Scottish genealogist.

Yes. I know.

While there, he discovers Blofeld’s plot to destroy the agricultural capabilities of the nations of Earth, as well as his plot to brainwash a group of aristocrat women into becoming assassins while simultaneously curing them of their allergies.

Apparently this is the James Bond movie that sticks the closest to Ian Fleming’s original novel. So think about that.

Naturally Bond – who by this point is at least smitten with Contessa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, if not full-bore in love – nails several of the women, who are confounded by the supposed sexual orientation of the person he is portraying.

“I thought you didn’t like girls…”

“Most girls. But you’re special.”

Oh, Bond, you borderline rapist!

He uses the exact same lines twice. Probably thrice, because there’s a third girl he’s nailing that we don’t see all of the details about, but he explicitly gives her a booty call time along with the other two. One at 8 PM, one at 9, one at 10. The movie simply can’t show all of the trim Bond is pulling down because there’s a plot to get back to!

Bond and Blofeld meet shortly after Bond’s arrival at the allergy clinic, but they don’t recognize each other because Blofeld had his ear lobes cut off and Bond is a completely different actor.

Honestly I don’t know if I missed it or what, but it isn’t explained why Blofeld – who met James Bond face to face at the climax of the last movie – doesn’t instantly recognize his greatest nemesis. And at this point in the movies Bond is narratively the same human being. There’s none of this “Bond might be different people using the same name” fan fiction stuff yet.

Blofeld does eventually figure out Bond’s identity because gay Scottish genealogists don’t generally spend their evenings giving hot, young female socialites the hot beef injection. Bond is imprisoned, but manages to escape and happens to run into Tracy. The pair are chased through a blizzard by Blofeld’s men and take refuge in a barn, where Bond professes his love for the Contessa and asks her to marry him. It’s a very touching scene, and the first instance where Lazenby’s natural sincerity works in his favor. I don’t know that Connery would have been as convincing. Also, the action sequences leading up to this are quite good, though again Bond seems more like he’s stumbling through things than being in any kind of control of his faculties.

In the morning Blofeld causes an avalanche and Tracy is captured while Bond manages to escape back to MI6. M tells him that Blofeld has presented his threats and that the world’s governments are terrified and plan to meet his demands of amnesty and, of course, ONE MILLION DOLLARS. Bond is forbidden from attempting a rescue mission and told that as far as Her Majesty’s Secret Service is concerned, the case is closed.

This is where Lazenby finally starts to have some gravitas and feel more like a driven secret agent. Bond is not having that happy crappy because that bald sonofabitch has his One True Love. He has a pretty heated exchange with M, then says, “fuck it” and contacts Count Draco, telling him about Blofeld having his daughter. Draco is like, “Let’s blow the fuckers up”.

This is where the movie shifts into high gear and doesn’t relent until the closing credits roll.
While Bond and Draco are organizing an army to rain hell down upon Blofeld’s allergy treatment center (don’t forget that), Blofeld is getting pretty sexually assault-y with Contessa Tracy. Again, I might have missed a key moment, but it seems that he and the Contessa have a bit of history. There’s some awkward couch hopping as he follows her around his Evil Lounge and at one point he’s pretty much sitting on top of her.

Then the cavalry arrives in the form of four badass helicopters full of Draco’s troops. Bond and Draco lead an awesome all-out assault on Blofeld’s facility with plenty of fighting, gunfire, and even this one scene where a guy in an ice tunnel is set on fire with a blowtorch. It’s an impressive sequence that is all the more visually stunning for its snow-covered setting.

Blofeld escapes with his evil German housefrau while Bond and Draco save Contessa Tracy and blow the facility to hell, destroying Blofeld’s means to distribute his biological agents and foiling his plot.

Normally in a James Bond movie, this would be the part where Bond whisks the lady off to some private local and proceeds to play hide the salami, but the filmmakers have just spent an entire movie setting up a premise and they’re going to follow through. As unlikely as it may seem, at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, James Bond gets married!

After the ceremony the newlyweds drive off in Bond’s Aston Martin, happily joking around and generally seeming super in love. They discuss having children and Contessa Tracy – now Tracy Bond – tells James that they have all the time in the world together. She jokes that he didn’t give her flowers, so he pulls over to take the decorative flowers off of the outside of the car. As they’re parked, another vehicle speeds by with Blofeld at the wheel. Evil German Housefrau leans out the window and fires a machine gun at Bond, who is on the far side of the car. Once they’re clear, Bond leaps into the car and says, “It was Blofeld!”, only to discover that his new bride HAS BEEN SHOT IN THE HEAD AND IS DEAD.

This blew my fucking mind. I mean, I was already shocked that Bond was married, but to end the movie on that – and yes, that was the end – was a massive shock. I never saw it coming. It’s the most dramatic thing that occurred in any of the classic Bond movies and I never even knew about it. Lazenby’s performance is powerful here, as he cradles Tracy and mumbles, “We’ve got all the time in the world,” as the credits start to roll.

If Sean Connery had returned as Bond and Donald Pleasance had returned as Ernst Stavro Blofeld I think On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would be regarded as one of the greatest James Bond films.

Lazenby just didn’t have the arrogance to play Bond. Sean Connery and Roger Moore both possessed this incredible presence that demanded attention. Without speaking a word, you could see that they each considered themselves to be the most important person in any given situation. To a certain extent, they projected sociopathy, though Moore’s was a little more humorous than Connery’s. Lazenby is actually just too likeable and maybe even relatable.

These are the exact same reasons why I feel like Pierce Brosnan was never the Bond we all thought he would be. He’s likeable. He’s charming in a human way that makes you root for him. The guy playing Bond needs to have that innate cockiness and unflappable bearing. You almost want to see him get his ass kicked a little bit because he’s such a self-possessed son of a bitch. While Timothy Dalton got stuck with some crap movies, he was actually the better Bond in my opinion.

As for Telly Savalas as Blofeld, he doesn’t really get into the role until the end of the movie, when he’s getting super creepy with the captive Contessa. Up until that point he’s been a very generic villain; it’s only at that point that Savalas seems to find a hook for his version of the character. Donald Pleasance, on the other hand, was full of menace and seemed to delight in the evil he was responsible for. There’s a reason Mike Myer’s Doctor Evil character has become such a pop culture icon, and it was all derived from Pleasance’s incredible performance in You Only Live Twice.

If Connery and Pleasance had been clashing in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it would have been absolutely epic and felt like a satisfying continuation of five movies’ worth of ongoing story. And the ending – it was still very effective, but it was disjointed with different players in the roles. I fully understand what the Daniel Craig movies were going for now. I feel like Sectre finally delivered the Bond/Blofeld payoff that didn’t quite work in 1969.
Some noteworthy stuff:

*When Bond is getting into character for his cover as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray, he learns the Latin motto on his own coat of arms – “Orbis non sufficit” – means “The World Is Not Enough”, which is awesome and was later used as the tile for a Pierce Brosnan Bond film that would have been pretty good if not for Denise Richards.

*The actress that played the Contessa – Diana Rigg – was Emma Peel on The Avengers, a classic British spy show. I’m aware of The Avengers but not overly familiar with it, so I just spent the whole movie knowing she looked familiar.

*It was Lazenby’s decision to leave the role of James Bond after only one film, and he made the decision during shooting. He did not enjoy the process, it seems. He showed up to the premiere with a beard and long hair despite the protests of the producers because he knew he would never play Bond again. This pissed them off and for some reason makes me like him more. And make no mistake – he wasn’t a great Bond, but his performance did charm me.

To wrap up, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a notable and historic entry in the James Bond film series. A confluence of factors keep it from being the excellent film that it should have been, but I don’t put any of it on George Lazenby’s shoulders. I feel like he put forth a commendable effort and probably could have developed into a fun Bond if he had some of Moore’s scripts rather than this particularly complicated and tonally varied narrative.

It’s worth checking out if you’ve never seen it and I have say it’s one I’ll certainly visit again.

1 comment:

  1. My love and my respect is not enough for Lazenby. Ο.Η.Μ.S.S. is not as ”Casino Royale”, where Bond is at the beginning and has no past. Lazenby looks more like a young bodyguard – or like Bond in the early years – and not with the agent 007 that the movie needed. The movie was a success. The success (the smallest in the history of the series) is due to the dynamics of the Bond films, in the particularity of the film, in the experience of the actors in the other roles, in director and the curiosity for the new Bond. Until now the producers did not provide the role of Bond in a model that is no actor and is totally inexperienced. The film was shot as in the book. Bond is an experienced man in the book and movie. Connery is Bond for the audience. So I ended in Stanley Baker ( 1928-1976 ). He looks like Connery and play like Bond ( see ”Ιnnocent Βystanders” 1972 and secondly ”Last Grenade” 1969 ) and he was one of the best actors in his time.