The James Bond Chronicles: 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'

Terrific. Any detractors of OHMSS need to re-watch it. Despite a few stumbles, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable Bond film with perhaps the most development of Bond’s character since Dr. No. Let’s dive in.

A Different Bond, James Bond

We begin as we always do, with the man himself. The man, however, is now George Lazenby.

There have been many detractors of Mr. Lazenby over the years, but here in 2011, he comes off as completely credible, a perfectly competent actor, and he cuts a masculine and heroic figure. He’s got a different look to him than Mr. Connery – he was a male model, after all – but no less intriguing. His first appearance is on a windy beach road, passed by in a sports car by his soon-to-be-lover Tracy Di Vicenzio (Diana Rigg). The director, Peter R. Hunt, was the editor of all the previous Bond films, and plays coy with the audience for only a few moments before revealing the new Bond. Mr. Lazenby is shown only in silhouette or in extreme close-ups. When he leaps from his car, we get our first look. It isn’t long before he’s in a wave-crashing and sand-blasting fistfight with the thugs assailing Tracy. Although I hate the moment where he says, “This never happened to the other fellow” and throws a quick glance to the camera, Mr. Lazenby’s introduction makes it pretty clear: he’s no pansy.

There’s a subtle difference between Mr. Connery’s later, more relaxed appearances, and Mr. Lazenby’s portrayal. Mr. Connery’s persona was one of granite and steel. You knew he always meant business, and that nothing much would get past him. Mr. Lazenby’s interpretation is warmer, more welcoming, and more of the playboy seen in Mr. Fleming’s novels. I think this choice is a good one. In order for us to buy the romance between Tracy and Bond, the lead actor had to present a softer side we had not seen before. Yet, this vulnerability plays perfectly in contrast to what we expect from Bond: a rough-and-tumble spy. He’s in a tough fight right from the start, and 14 minutes in, he’s got a formidable opponent in Tracy’s bedroom (an African-American tough, recalling both Dr. No and foreshadowing Live and Let Die).

We also finally get to see Bond believably fall for one of the Bond girls, and again screenwriter Richard Maibaum comes through, by providing Bond with a woman we would expect him to fall for. She’s suicidal, a wild horse, a gambler, a masochist, and rather tough in a fight herself. When her father, Draco, tells Bond that she needs a man to “tame her”, the line feels like such a relic of the late 60’s. But it’s true! She not only needs a man to tame her, but a man who can actually handle her! There’s plenty of sexual tension between the two, and the movie takes its time developing their relationship. The primary storyline doesn’t begin until 37 minutes in, with the break-in of Gumbold’s safe.

I love it. It’s solid writing, solid direction, a believable love story, and still plenty of action to keep audiences engaged.

The second act is somewhat problematic, but overall still works very well. Bond’s charade as Sir Hilary Bray is great from a story perspective, but it’s a bit silly. What is nice, however, is that Bond’s bedding of various women is in service of the story, as he attempts to find out what Blofeld’s plan is. Once Bond’s charade is discovered, the film recovers supremely well, with an extended sequence of his pursuit by Blofeld’s henchmen into the ski village.

And then, of course, there is a wonderful moment. Unexpected. Romantic. Totally coincidental – and that’s what makes it special. In the midst of frantic crosscuts very typical of this era of filmmaking, as Blofeld’s people close in on Bond, who really has nowhere to hide….suddenly all the cuts come to a screeching halt as a pair of skates skid to a stop right in front of Bond. It’s Tracy. And she knows he’s in trouble. She rescues him. The romance continues amidst the continuing chase. By the time we reach the film’s controversial and heartbreaking conclusion, there really is no doubt – Bond has fallen hard for Tracy.

It all circles back to the choice to pull back on the Bond gimmicks and trademarks that were beginning to epitomize the series. The subject matter and tone are more serious, skewing more towards From Russia With Love, and making Bond vulnerable. In fact, at the skating rink, he’s actually scared. I like it. It makes him human.

Supporting the Film

Supporting characters this time around are uniformly outstanding. Detractors of the film point to Ms. Rigg as being rather plain in comparison to the voluptuousness of previous Bond girls. I think the casting here is inspired. It’s against type, totally in concert with the casting of Mr. Lazenby, and Ms. Rigg carried with her a degree of kick-ass iconography having portrayed Emma Peel in the The Avengers. She and Mr. Lazenby make a fine on-screen couple and the very fact that she isn’t some exotic specimen grounds the story and the romance all the more.

Blofeld is portrayed this time by the late Telly Savalas, and he’s given far more to do than all the other Blofelds combined. It’s difficult to articulate exactly why Mr. Savalas’ interpretation works so well here. Perhaps it’s because he’s presented as a very worthy opponent. He’s confident, strong, and just as athletic as Bond. He skis in pursuit of Bond himself, and handles a bobsled like a pro in the climactic chase. The other thing, however, is just that thing we call “charisma”. Mr. Savalas had it. His screen presence is just great, even stronger than Mr. Lazenby, and I think this all adds up to a memorable role. It also stands in stark contrast to many of the other Bond villains and Blofeld portrayals up to this point. Previously, Blofeld was seen only in a reclining chair with a cat on his lap. Donald Pleasance wasn’t given a lot to do, and he played the role almost as a cripple, a kind of modern Richard III. Goldfinger was, at his core, a small man desperate for respect. Emilio Largo had potential, but never comes to fruition. Only nemeses such as Red Grant in From Russia With Love and Oddjob provide a real challenge.

Draco, the head of the crime syndicate, proves to be an interesting character. As often happens, Bond is aided by a third party who has varying cross-interests. Draco is the kind of rogue we like seeing Bond associate with, and that it is his men who assist Bond in the attack on Blofeld’s HQ makes their relationship all the more satisfying. Beyond him, we have the amusingly stern Irma Bunt (recalling Rosa Klebb). There’s also two nice moments involving M. The first when Bond is thrown off the mission to find Blofeld. He tenders his resignation as a bluff, and is shocked (as are we) when M accepts it moments later! Only then is it revealed that Moneypenny actually tendered a request for two weeks leave, and that is what was granted. And only then is it revealed that Moneypenny also told M that she switched out the requests, to which he says, “What would I do without you?”

The other nice moment is at the wedding, when M runs into Draco and compliments him on some illegal activity that the Brits couldn’t nail him on. They act like old friends as M asks how he pulled it off.

Other Cool Bond Stuff

There are numerous references to earlier Bond films, and the choice to show snippets of them during the opening title sequence is a bold choice. The producers basically spend three minutes reminding everyone about Sean Connery, only to pull the rug out by introducing Mr. Lazenby. We see Bond’s office for the first time, and he rummages through a few props from the previous films with bits of the respective scores underneath.

The movie hews so closely to the book that Blofeld and Bond do not recognize each other when they meet, despite having met face-to-face in the previous film. One might plausibly explain this as Bond having…uh…plastic surgery to alter his look, to assist him in his hunt for Blofeld. At any rate, Blofeld himself had his earlobe removed to pass off the ruse of his “royal” lineage, and must’ve had that awful scar removed as well. There is also a nifty little side plot involving Bond’s ally, another MI6 agent who provides assistance to Bond during the clever break-in of Gumbold’s office, and provides cover during his visit to Blofeld’s chateau. It’s a nice touch to show that he has backup, and that he is brutally murdered by Blofeld.

One can’t discuss OHMSS without mentioning the skiing. Like Downhill Racer, also released in 1969, the film broke new ground in filming ski scenes. It’s not exactly Warren Miller, but the ski chases are actually quite thrilling in places. Much of this is due to the handheld camerawork, which places us right in the middle of the action, and overhead shots (achieved by dangling a cameraman in a parachute harness from a helicopter). One can’t help but also be impressed by extensive shots of a stuntman whipping along on one ski, which Bond does after wiping out the first time. Remember, movies were a long way from CGI back then. This is the real thing. There are also beautiful sweeping shots of Bond and Tracy being pursued by six of Blofeld’s men down the mountain. Combined with John Barry’s magnificent score, it creates an iconic Bond sequence.

Blofeld’s plan is clever but far-fetched considering the era — induce sterilization among all food-producing animals and plants — but viewed through a contemporary prism, the idea of a bioterrorism threat introduced through the food supply is all-too-credible. Then again, the plan isn’t what’s important in a Bond film. Blofeld’s motivation is also rather curious. Okay, we get that he’s holding the world for ransom. That’s what he does every time. But to what end? There’s an implication that his intent is to simply retire! Being Blofeld, however, he intends to retire royally. He wants a royal title, a royal estate and full immunity from prosecution. I guess it means he’s had it with villainy. Then again, if what he wanted was to retire, he shouldn’t have spent all that money on the volcano base or the Swiss chateau.

After having strong thematics in the first three films, the series stumbled in the following two outings. However, OHMSS tosses us a few crumbs in that department with numerous references to time. Of course, Bond’s and Tracy’s ill-fated theme song and manta, “We have all the time in the world”, is the primary reference. However, there are several others. The opening shot of the film is a close up on MI-6’s headquarters emblazoned with the familiar cover plaque of Universal Exports. In the reflection of the gold-plated sign is Big Ben. The opening title sequence is all about time. The primary image is of an hourglass (which morphs back and forth into a martini glass) and we see images from the previous films slide through it. The most striking, and unexpected image, is at the opening of the sequence. Here, Bond dangles in Buster Keaton fashion from a massive clock hand as it ticks backwards, showing us all the aforementioned images. It is also a beautifully concise image of Bond’s emotional state in the film – hanging onto time for dear life, namely his doomed time with Tracy. Note that as the clock hands pass by again at the sequence’s conclusion, Bond is gone, presumably having fallen off – foreshadowing the film’s tragic conclusion.

There is a clock tower seen outside Gumbold’s office as the safe-cracking device is elevated to Bond, a grandfather clock appropriately placed inside M’s home, and numerous references to time in many scenes inside Blofeld’s chateau – itself shaped like a clock (and continuing the motif seen since the series’ beginning, that circles represent evil). There’s also a critical exchange of dialogue between Tracy and her father in the car. She mentions that she’s in love, and he asks, “Mr. Bond is in love with you?” Tracy hesitates, then says, “That may come to, one day”. Draco tells her, “Life’s too short for some day”. Indeed.

That Score!

Commenters in previous articles have been haranguing me over my failure to mention John Barry’s scores. The truth is that I wasn’t wild about them until OHMSS. Yes, they were perfectly acceptable and even great…but only in places. I found the theme in Thunderball to be irritating. Goldfinger was very well scored. However, it’s here that Mr. Barry really knocks it out of the park. Not being a musician, it’s difficult to articulate what makes the score so fabulous. For starters, it’s just…cool. Memorable. Great uses of horns, which have become synonymous with James Bond music. As an audience, we want music to help provide an emotional through-line. Mr. Barry’s theme for OHMSS feels adventurous, sweeping, romantic, and fits just so perfectly with the ski chase scenes. The shots of Bond and Tracy swooping down the slopes in early morning, which then transition into a pursuit – with the music – it’s one of the highlights of the entire series.

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The music has a feeling of pursuit to it, of relentless forward trajectory – with the time signature providing a heart-pounding pace that just pulls us along. We’ll see how other scores compare going forward, but the only one I remember coming close to OHMSS is The Man With The Golden Gun.

The End

There’s not much to say about Tracy’s tragic assassination by Blofeld and Bunt that hasn’t been said already. It comes as a terrible shock. It really destroys Bond, and in watching it this time, I felt very invested in the romance. That the film just ends – boom – right there is a major downer. It takes the wind out of the film’s sails and just plunges the knife right in our hearts. On the one hand, it’s a WOW moment. I can’t think of many other emotional moments in the entire series that hit like this. It remains an incredibly bold choice even 42 years later. Amazingly, the film was enormously successful despite this. There are only four references to Tracy in the remainder of the series, although there is a direct homage to OHMSS in the ski scene with Bond and Elektra King in The World is Not Enough.

Overall, I loved this entry and it was a welcome recovery after the two previous outings. As my old high school math teacher used to say, “if you’re going to do something, do it first-class”. They did.

James Bond will return in Diamonds Are Forever.

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