1969, UK/USA, Peter Hunt
It is with some caution that I admit that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is my favourite Bond film, one which I have seen and enjoyed more times than I care to mention. It’s been shockingly underrated for the simple reason of casting, and its merits took time to become apparent. In terms of set-pieces, characterisation and tension, it is certainly up there with the very best Connery films, and the final third of the film is so good that it transcends genre and shows how action can become an art in itself. I suppose we should get this over with sooner rather than later. I like George Lazenby as Bond and I can’t agree with the antagonism towards him. Certainly, his delivery of the dialogue is slightly wooden in places, revealing the fact that he wasn’t trained as an actor, but his physical presence is fine and he throws himself into the violent action with a convincing relish that matches, and maybe outdoes, Sean Connery in From Russia With Love. Lazenby seems to relax into the character, and he is genuinely effective in the incredibly difficult final scene, which more experienced actors might have found difficult to execute with as much poignancy. It’s a shame that he didn’t make another Bond film as he would certainly have been more impressive having more experience in film acting - and judging by Connery’s lazy non-performance in Diamonds Are Forever, it might have been better if Lazenby had done it instead. Perhaps I could put it best by saying that it’s refreshing to have a Bond who is Bond and not the actor playing him - something which hadn’t happened since Dr No and rarely happened again.
However, leaving the casting of Bond aside, the film is a triumph. The plot is carefully developed and mad enough to be entertaining without leaving the realms of possibility. Blofeld (Savalas), head of SPECTRE, has retired to his mountain top complex in Switzerland - following the failure of his plan to start World War Three - and has developed an obsession with how he will be judged by history. He develops a scheme to render the human race sterile. His price ? That he should be recognised as being of genuine noble blood and that he should receive a pardon for all his past crimes. All this is, to my mind, much more interesting and convincing than the usual “world domination” plot, and rounds out Blofeld’s character to satisfying effect. Telly Savalas’s urbane and slightly sinister performance is just right for this reading of the character. Bond penetrates Blofeld’s domain in disguise and discovers that the plan involves the use of twelve beautiful girls who have been hypnotised to obey Blofeld’s wishes. Meanwhile, our hero falls in love with Tracy Di Vicenzo (Rigg), a gangster’s daughter. These two plots come together rather well around the middle of the film, and the result is one of the most downbeat endings ever to adorn a Bond movie.
The pace of the film is leisurely for the first ninety minutes or so, due to Peter Hunt’s interesting decision to develop the characters rather than diving straight into action. There are some good fist fights and a scene of excellent spycraft, but the focus is on character. This allows Diana Rigg to create a heroine who is genuinely three dimensional; rich, spoilt and capricious, but also vulnerable and needy. Bond is also developed rather more than in the previous two films - the scene where he confronts “M” with his resignation is a small gem, suggesting that being the world’s greatest secret agent must result in a considerable expansion of the ego. There’s some good, quiet scenes in the film, something rare in the series. I like the subtle flashback on the window as Bond stares out after Tracy has been captured by SPECTRE. There’s also a lovely moment towards the end, when Bond tosses his hat at Moneypenny as if it were a bride’s bouquet. As for the final moments, which I won’t reveal, they represent a real chance to deepen Bond’s character - a chance which was thrown away by the producers who went on to turn him back into a comic strip superhero in the simplistic, sadistically camp Diamonds Are Forever.
However, enjoyable as the first two thirds of the film are, they merely raise the curtain for the blazing action of the final forty five minutes which represents the peak of the Bond series and the zenith of Sixties action cinema; incredible ski action, much repeated but never bettered; a pulse-pounding stock car sequence; more skiing action; a cracking set of explosions; and finally, best of all, the knuckle-whitening bobsleigh chase which is my personal nomination for the finest action scene in the entire series. The fantastic look of these scenes is a tribute to the second unit, especially the work of Johnny Jordan who filmed while dangling from a helicopter. All of the action seems tougher than in the other Bond movies, partly because the punches have been overdubbed to give them more impact , and partly because the editing is deliberately faster than usual.
The film looks stunning from start to finish, thanks to the work of the cinematographer Michael Reed - that shot of the helicopters against the sunrise is glorious. It has a more realistic feel than other films in the series, largely due to the lack of Ken Adam’s grandiose designs, and partly because there’s a distinct absence of gadgets. I rather like this in context - just as I like the abundance of silly gadgets in the very different context of Moonraker - and it helps the film to have a grounding in everyday life which is important for the plot and for this different depiction of Bond. John Barry also rises to the occasion with a gritty and versatile music score. In fact, it’s the moments where the film tries to be self-consciously clever that work least well. Notoriously, that opening scene of Bond on the beach would be fine if it weren’t for the final line where Lazenby addresses the audience with “This never happened to the other fellow”. That’s just plain wrong, because as far as the plot is concerned he _is_ the other fellow, and it just draws attention to the artificiality of the film. In another Bond film, this would work, but OHMSS tries strenuously to be emotionally grounded in reality and therefore can’t carry off this sort of camp effect. Interestingly, an attempt is then made to link to the past films directly, with a fantastic Maurice Binder title sequence which incorporates images of an hour glass and a clock going backwards along with scenes from the previous Bond films.
Overall, however, I think the film is excellent. It is as close to the spirit of original novels as the series has ever managed and deserves the reappraisal that it has begun to receive. Lazenby isn’t always ideal, but nor is he as bad as has been claimed, and he’s surrounded by top-class professionalism which covers over any cracks in the central performance.