Tuesday, 2 October 2012

50 Years of Bond: "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, and the 23rd Bond movie, Skyfall, is set to hit theatres this November. I thought now was a pretty good time to revisit several of the Bond films. I'll probably not cover every film but I'll discuss the most important films in the franchise as well as my personal favourites, which do overlap frequently. Now it's time to look at what's arguably the most controversial Bond film in the series' history: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Note: This is a revised version of a review I did a little over a year ago. The original review can be found here.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a paradoxical Bond film in that while the film, and especially its lead actor, have been overshadowed in the past by other Bond films, the film is actually one of the best in the series. It's a film that combines the kind of spectacle and intense action one would want from a Bond film, while still telling a shockingly poignant story about James Bond actually falling in love and having to confront the idea of quitting the British Secret Service. It's the most grounded Bond film since From Russia With Love and the closest in spirit to the original Ian Fleming novels since that film.

After Sean Connery announced his retirement from the role while filming You Only Live Twice, the Bond producers, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, made two signficent changes to the Bond series-one by nescessity and one by choice. The nescesarry change, of course, was to find another actor to play the iconic superspy, which was the most daunting task they had to face since casting Bond in the first place The change they made by choice was to ground the series back in to a semi-plausiable reality-the previous film had taken the series all the way in to a hollowed-out volcano. This would be a pattern as the series continued-when things became too fantastical, the series would have to be reigned in and find a comfortable middle ground between escapism and reality-which this film does very well.

When Sean Connery retired from the role, Broccoli and Saltzman made a surprising choice, an Austrailian model with no acting experience outside of commericials, George Lazenby. They even make a pretty big deal out of it in the pre-title sequence, not showing his face until he introduces himself to the woman who'll change his life, Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg). Bond stops her from drowning herself in the ocean. They're attacked by some unknown thugs, which Bond dispatches. As Tracy gets away, Bond breaks the fourth wall and says "This never happened to the other fella." This was a way of "breaking the ice," so to speak and shows that changing actors for the first time was deemed to require some self-consciousness on the film's part. Even the title sequence shows images from the previous five films. The theme for the film, orchestrated by John Barry, is the first without lyrics and this is the first title-sequence since From Russia With Love that's just instrumental. The theme really captures the propulsive energy of the film as well as its epic nature.

I think the reason why On Her Majesty's Secret Service is still not as widely embraced as Goldfinger is probably due to the controversy regarding its Lazenby- and the fact that he  only played it once plays in to the notion that he was pretty horrible as Bond. Honestly, I like Lazenby, I even like him more than Roger Moore. Lazenby doesn't have the presence of Connery but he feels more real to me than the Connery of the last two Bond films. He's more posh and refined than Connery's Bond, who had a certain roughness about him. Like Moore after him, Lazenby is very much the English gentleman. Nevertheless, physically he's believable as someone who can handle himself in a fight and it's this aspect of his performance that is usually praised. There's a debate about whether Connery could've pulled off the vulnerbility and the romantic side of this Bond. Honestly, I'd be interested to see what Connery would've done in this film-it could've been his best performance in the role. But to be fair, this isn't a Connery Bond film-it's not even a Lazenby Bond film-it's more like an Ian Fleming Bond film.

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, the same woman Bond rescued in the pre-title sequence. Bond is at first hesitant about wooing Tracy, saying he prefers the bachelor life. It's a nice little moment of self-consciousness for Bond, one of those moments that makes Bond feel real to us. 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. It was actually quite a bold decision to stay true to the love story element of the novel, particularly since audiences were used to Bond being a womanizer without strong emotional attachments to the women he slept with.

But before things get too "mushy," the film shifts directions from love story to spy story in the middle section of the film, which involves Bond going uncover as geneologist Hilary Bray at Blofeld's clinical research insitute in the Alps. Unfortunately, in these scenes 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 dispurse bacteriological 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 the novel, which comes before You Only Live Twice in the novel chronology. One could also chalk this up to Bond getting plastic surgery because his face had become too well known to his enemies, 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 and feel he gives the best performance as Blofeld out of the three actors who physically played him the official series, the other two being Donald Pleasence and Charles Gray. 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 from You Only Live Twice. He's determined and subtly sinister, and I wish Salvalas had a few more dialogue scenes. I also feel the confrontation between Bond and Blofeld in this film is much more satisfying in this film than it was in You Only Live Twice. Here's there more of a dynamic between them being face to face- a genuine feeling these two are arch-enemiies

As mentioned earlier, 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. The structure of the film is the one thing that always feels off to me. The shift from the emotional story to the second act of the film is perhaps too rushed. 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 the tragic ending brings them completely together. I like the idea of Bond being saved by Tracy instead of the other way around. It puts a nice twist on the whole "damsel in distress" situation when Bond saves Tracy from Blofeld's clinic.  It's Bond's way of saying "thanks" and returning the favour in a pretty explosive fashion.

Diana 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 and complex Bond Woman in the series. She is strong willed yet she still has the desire to die. She is independent but still needs someone in her life to love her. Ultimately, Bond is able to give her a future, as she says at the end of the film. Rigg brings an intelligent and self-awareness to the role-she's a real person and one that Bond feels the desire to understand and to help.

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 real courage by the filmmakers to stay true to Fleming's vision of a world where Bond constantly has his heart broken 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. In a weird musical shift, the orchestratal version of "We Have All the Time in the World" sag ways in to the Bond theme. I think it would've been much better to just stay with the love theme, keeping true to what this film is about, rather than saying "Bond will be back!" with the Bond theme.

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. The "zoom ins" when Bond throws his punches in the pre-title sequence. I love that the last 45 minutes or so of this film feel like an extended suspense/action sequence, with occasional quieter moments. From the moment Bond escapes the clinic, there's a propulsiveness that we haven't quite seen since the final act of From Russia With Love or Goldfinger.  When the clinic is attacked, it's able to take the climax of the previous Bond film, in the volcano, and put it on a smaller yet still invigorating scale. When the Bond theme plays and Bond is sliding on his stomach down ice, firing his machine gun, it's a pretty cool moment. The blobshed show-down between Bond and Blofeld is edited in a fashion that makes Blofeld getting his neck stuck in a branch a great payoff.

Lazenby supposedly 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," or "being an answer to a trivia question" 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 and become a more respected Bond. When he decided to quit being Bond, I think it made the producers want to ignore this film as much as possible for the next go around. Connery returned for the next film, Diamonds are Forever (1971), which is really bad follow-up to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, being much sillier and campier, whereas with Lazenby, it could've been a strong revenge story for Bond- and it's only until The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), where Tracy is actually mentioned. It's a shame that the series ditched much of the seriousness of this entry and eventually became much too goofy in the next film and several of the Moore films. 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.

P.S. That's it for the 60s Bond era. From now on, I won't be going through all the Bond films but focusing on specific ones throughout the rest of the series history.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Andrew, thanks for these reviews! It's really great to read some detailed analysis of the older Bonds. I have been wanting to sit down and watch them all too, to celebrate the 50th anniversary, but I will have make do with your reviews instead! Keep going and see how many Roger Moore films you can get through without losing the will to live.