Wednesday, 10 August 2011

All The Time in the World: "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"

I think On Her Majesty's Secret Service stands as one of the most undervalued entries in the James Bond series and  may be my second favourite James Bond film after 2006's Casino Royale. What these two films share in common is the sense of really digging, or at least trying to, in to the character of James Bond, making him recognizably human instead of being a super spy who exists a little too far above reality. The scale of the film is also more grounded than previous entries, still containing the kind of spectacle one would want from a Bond film but moving away from hollowed out volcanoes and gadgets.

The reason why On Her Majesty's Secret Service is still not as widely considered one of the best James Bond films the same way Goldfinger is probably due to the controversy regarding its leading actor. When Sean Connery retired from the role after You Only Live Twice (1967), Bond film producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were faced with a challenge which, while a huge undertaking even now, was arguably the most daunting task they had yet to face, the casting of a new James Bond. They made a surprising choice, an Austrailian model with no acting experience outside of commericials, George Lazenby. Lazenby only played Bond once and is considered by many to be the weakest of the actors to play the character. For an inexperienced actor I think Lazenby gives a solid performance as Bond. While he's not as charismatic as Connery, I feel this benefits the film. This Bond is supposed to be a more grounded version of the character and Lazenby's greenness in the role conveys a certain normalcy. Nevertheless, physically he is believable as someone who can handle himself in a fight and its Lazenby's physicality in the role is what is usually praised in his performance.

The plot of the film deals with Bond's determination to take down  the head of SPECTRE, Ernest Stravo Blofeld (Telly Salvalas). Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), head of the largest crime syndicate in Europe offers Bond information on Blofeld's location in exchange for Bond marrying his daughter Tracy di Vicenzo (Dianna Rigg), who Bond had saved from committing suicide in the pre title sequence. Bond is at first hesitant about wooing Tracy, saying he prefers the bachelor life, and certainly we've seen that from the previous entries in the series. Eventually him and Tracy do start to fall in love and we get a lovely montage not seen in a Bond film until now of Bond and Tracy spending time together, set to Louis Armstrong's touching song "We Have All the Time in the World." The montage is without dialogue but with simple images and music the film captures the joy and poignancy of falling in love for the first time.

The middle section of the film involves going uncover as geneologist Hilary Bray at Blofeld's clinical research insitute in the Alps. Unfortunately, Lazenby is dubbed by George Baker, who plays the real Bray and I think it distracts a little from Lazenby's performance. Blofeld wants to claim the title of  'Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp,' giving Bond the perfect in. Bond soon discovers Blofeld is brainwashing ten young women to bateriological warfare agents in to the world. Blofeld, in typical Blofeld fashion will hold the world ransom; and in typical Bond villain fashion explains the plot to Bond even when he figures out Bray is Bond. It's a fun little continuity error that Blofeld only seems to know Bray is Bond after he slips up a geneological detail even though Bond and Blofeld met face to face in You Only Live Twice. This may be due to the faithfulness of On Her Majesty's Secret Service to Ian Fleming's original novel, which comes before You Only Live Twice in the novel chronology. One could also chalk this up to Bond getting plastic surgery, which was the original idea to explain why Bond know longer looking like Sean Connery.

Salvalas is sometimes criticized as playing Blofeld like a mob boss but I like his performance quite a bit and feel he is the best Blofeld. His Blofeld, like Lazenby's Bond, is more grounded than previous incarnations. Blofeld is no longer just a hand stroking a cat, his face unseen, nor is he the Dr. Evil-ish figure played by Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice. He's determined and subtly sinister, and I wish Salvalas had a few more dialogue scenes.

Dianna Rigg is arguably the best Bond girl in the series though I think I still love Honor Blackman and Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger more. Nevertheless, until Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale nearly forty years later, I think Tracy is the most complicated Bond Woman in the series. She is strong willed yet, as we see at the beginning when she tries to drown herself, she still has the desire to die. She is independent yet still needs Bond to give her a future, as she says at the end of the film.

When Bond goes to Blofeld's clinic, the love story is put on hold, only for Tracy to rescue Bond when he escapes the clinic and is being chased by Blofeld and his men. They share a wonderful scene in a barn where Bond is at his most vulnerable. He tells Tracy he'll never find another girl like her and asks her to marry him. I would have liked a final scene between Bond and Tracy before he left on the mission and maybe a little bit more of Tracy back home as well as a lead up to when she meets Bond yet again. Nevertheless I feel the film does a good love of giving equal weight to both the spy and love story, and of course the tragic ending brings them completely together.

After Bond and Draco save Tracy from Blofeld's clinic and foil Blofeld's plan once again, Bond and Tracy do get married. As they stop their car to clear off some of the flowers, Blofeld comes driving by with his henchwoman Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat) firing a machine gun at the car. Bond gets in the car, discovering Tracy has been shot and killed. A police officer drives up and in Bond tells him Tracy is just resting and that they have all the time in the world. Lazenby's speech is all done in one take and I think this is his best moment on screen. Heartbroken and in shock, unable to truly say what he must feel, he pretends like everything is okay. As he puts his head in her dress and sobs, it's devastating and shows a real courage by the filmmakers to stay true to Fleming's vision of a world where Bond constantly has his heartbroken but remains a survivor in the only world he'll probably ever know, the world of a spy, where true happiness can be taken away in an instance.

Peter Hunt, who had been a editor on the previous Bond films, sat in to the director's chair this time and I feel his work as an editor aided him very well in putting together the action sequences with his editor John Glen, who would also go on to direct all the Bond films in the 1980s. The action is intense and fast but still easy to follow geographically. I like the zoom ins during the pre title sequence when Bond throws his punches.

Lazenby felt Bond would not survive in to the seventies so he quit the role and as a result I don't think he's ever transcended the label of "that guy who only did one movie," though he undeniably has admirers. I count myself as one. If he had played Bond a few more times he may have found his groove. The next film, Diamonds are Forever (1971), suffers from feeling like it ignores On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and it's only until The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), where Tracy is mentioned. It's a shame that the series ditched much of the seriousness of this entry and became lighter and more about the gadgets than Bond's character. Still, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a poignant, funny, exciting, and ultimately tragic film which gives us what feels like an authentic human being in James Bond. It's not just a great Bond film, it's a great film on its own terms as well.

1 comment:

  1. I am not a Bond fan (I dislike the series’ treatment of its female leads, who are often bikini-clad airheads) but I rather enjoy this entry. Yes, Bond isn’t a superman here (no space battles, no invisible cars, no moon buggy chases) and that made me root for him. There’s even some real suspense when a genuinely scared Bond tries to hide from Blofeld’s henchmen in the charming Swiss village. I liked the character of Tracy, who’s still one of the more complex and self-reliant Bond girls. Fine film.