Friday, September 28, 2012

James Bond Friday: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)


In terms of James Bond, the big question of the year 1969 was this:  Can the popular film series survive without Sean Connery starring as Agent 007?

Ironically, in 2012 -- over forty years later -- we all take the answer for granted. 

The film series has endured quite nicely, in fact, with Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig each in the lead role.  We now understand that the popular character is bigger than any particular actor’s portrayal of him.

But in 1969 -- with an Australian model named George Lazenby playing James Bond for the first and only time in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service -- the answer seemed far less certain.

That terrible lack of certainty is actually expressed a bit in the text of the film itself.  For starters, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s opening credits feature clips from Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. 

And during one crucial scene involving his resignation from MI6, Bond cleans out his office desk and looks nostalgically at trinkets including Honey Ryder’s knife belt, Grant’s watch-garrot, and Bond’s underwater breather from Thunderball.

Then there’s the moment outside Draco’s office, wherein a janitor whistles the theme from Goldfinger (or is it Moon River?).  

Finally, there’s the controversial and valedictory moment in the terrific pre-title sequence during which Bond breaks the fourth wall and quips, “This never happened to the other fellow…”

In short, existential uncertainty and diffidence are injected right into the DNA of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  All these moments veritably scream out to the audience that the James Bond films boast a history and legacy, and this new film is the next legitimate part of that history and legacy.


Remembering past adventures.

And remembering them again.

In retrospect the filmmakers needn’t have bothered with such an orgy of self-justification.  It’s unnecessary because the movie stands up brilliantly on its own, and also, perhaps, as the most important chapter in the entire James Bond story.

Some critics of the day clearly viewed it as a vital and vibrant installment too.  Writing for The Village Voice, critic Molly Haskell called On Her Majesty’s Secret Servicethe most engaging and exciting James Bond film” and noted that “the action scenes, particularly the ski chase, winter carnival, and stock car racing episodes are breathtaking.”

Directed by former second unit director and editor Peter Hunt, this 1969 Bond film crackles with energy and high-intensity action, and much more importantly, conveys brilliantly the human tragedy of James Bond, the tale of a man who finds -- and then abruptly loses -- his true love and soul mate.  In some twisted way, the whole affair plays like a dark, anxious fairy tale.

Clocking at nearly two-and-a-half hours, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the kind of rich, nuanced Bond film one can get truly lost in.  It takes its time.  It doesn't rush.  In a sense, it’s almost better to approach this particular Bond epic on its own, rather than as part of an on-going series because it diverges so much, and so delightfully, from expectations and tradition.   If one can set aside expectations and preconceived notions, there are great pleasures to be found here, and great artistry as well.

Buttressed by a charismatic performance from Diana Rigg as Tracy Draco, highlighting action scenes that remain “breakneck, devastating affairs” (per Vincent Canby) and featuring an utterly devastating finale, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, like the later effort, Licence to Kill (1989) showcases Bond at his most vulnerable and most human.

“I hope I can live up to your high standards.”

A vacationing James Bond (George Lazenby) rescues the beautiful Tracy Draco (Diana Rigg) when she attempts to commit suicide on a beach.  Later the same night, he bails her out again at a casino when she loses an expensive wager.

Bond’s protection doesn’t go unnoticed by Tracy’s wealthy father, Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), leader of a vast international crime syndicate.  He abducts Bond from his hotel, and tells the agent that he would like the spy to marry Tracy, in an effort to keep her in line and “dominate” her.

Intrigued by the offer, Bond agrees, but only on the condition that Draco share with him everything he knows regarding the location of the missing fugitive from justice, SPECTRE’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas).

Draco acquiesces, and Bond and Tracy soon fall deeply, madly in love.  At the same time, Bond traces Blofeld’s location to the Swiss Alps, and to an allergy clinic on an isolated mountaintop.  Disguising himself as an (effete) expert in heraldry -- Sir Hillary Bray -- Bond infiltrates the stronghold and learns that Blofeld is attempting to engineer a pardon for himself by unleashing a deadly, infertility-spawning virus.  He is brainwashing his patients -- all females -- and during the Christmas holiday plans to return them to their homes to release the toxin.

Bond escapes from the clinic, but with Blofeld’s minions in close pursuit, and Tracy unexpectedly shows up to aid 007.  When she is captured by Blofeld following an avalanche, Bond urges M to act on her behalf.  When M can’t do so, Bond teams with Draco to launch a devastating helicopter assault on Blofeld’s mountaintop fortress.

After Tracy is rescued, Bond and the love of his life are married in a romantic and beautiful ceremony.  There, Bond says his goodbyes to the secret service, and to Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell).

 But the newlyweds have not heard the last from Blofeld…

“We have all the time in the world.”

In some very perverse and tricky way, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service excels as a Cinderella-type fairy tale, albeit one turned on its head. 

The Cinderella figure in the drama is clearly Tracy, and as in the storied fairy tale, her father, Draco, is a lonely, heart-broken widower.  And in both the fairy tale and the film version of the story, this widower isn’t able to provide his daughter the family upbringing she needs.  Accordingly, she faces strife and upset in her life.  She seems lost.

Into this unfortunate dynamic arrives the dashing, outside savior, a Prince Charming figure.  Or in the case of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, James Bond, himself.

Although James routinely romances glamorous women, he soon falls hopelessly in love with Tracy, realizing that she is his soul-mate and, in a very real sense, a mirror-image of himself.  She is as physically capable, verbally witty, and sexually carnivorous as he is.  In other words…a perfect match. 

In the film’s first scene -- set on a picturesque beach at dusk -- Bond even stops at one point to retrieve Tracy’s slippers immediately after she runs away from him and disappears over the horizon.  At this point, he is unaware of the true identity of this princess (or contessa), as is also the case in the fairy tale. 

Finally, before the credits roll, Bond notes that “this never happened to the other fellow.” 

But, of course, the very same thing happened to Prince Charming. 

Now Bond must find the mysterious woman who has enchanted him and win her heart.

Even the Cinderella-like notion of “happily ever after” is acknowledged and strategically re-parsed in this Bond film, specifically in the turn of phrase “we have all the time in the world.” 

Both phrases imply simply, a long future of happiness and shared time.  And immediately preceding her death, Tracy even comments to Bond that the wedding gift he gave her is "a future.”  “Happily ever after” thus seems within real reach, not merely the romantic fantasy of some childhood story.

Sadly, however, that future is not to be.

Tracy is killed in the film’s final scene by a vengeful Blofeld.   Thus On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the Cinderella story as seen through a cracked mirror, or a cracked windshield as the case may be; the film's final, haunting image.


The slippers of the princess...

and the Prince Charming who finds them.

The Fairy Tale Wedding.

A Fairy Tale shattered: Unhappily Ever After.

Although few Bond fans would probably select Cinderella as an inspiration for a franchise film entry, in this case, the selection proves illuminating because it lands the primary focus on the female character.   That’s a rarity in Bond movies, which, of course, usually focus almost solely on Bond’s exploits.

Already at this point in the Bond series, we had seen a number of great female characters, from Honey Ryder to Pussy Galore and beyond.  But for this movie to work as an emotional, human experience, viewers had to understand the depth of Bond’s connection to Tracy.  And to do that, she had to be established as something special: a woman above all others (just as Bond is a man above all others).

In other words, the film had to answer a critical answer.  Why would Bond choose Tracy?   After all the beautiful and feisty women he has romanced and bedded, what makes this individual so special that he can’t just walk away, essentially, as he’s clearly walked away from so many other beauties?

The movie more than provides answers to that question.  First, Tracy is a princess, like Cinderella, but one with problems.   Like Bond, Tracy is broken inside.  They are both lonely and isolated individuals living among the “international jet set,” an outwardly glamorous and fast-paced world, but alienating, apparently, on a personal, individual level.   They both seem to have had their fill of hotels, casinos, aristocrats and empty, shallow assignations.  This lifestyle no longer holds allure for either of them, and so Bond finds himself in a profession where death is a constant companion, and Tracy contemplates suicide.  Each has made a self-destructive decision, in a way, about their futures.

As I describe above, the film also great lengths to reveal Tracy’s family heritage.  Draco describes how he and her mother fell in love, and how she died tragically when Tracy was young.  We thus come to understand where Tracy comes from, and again, this is background information we don’t’ necessarily get on all the other Bond girls.

This background information arrives (in a beautifully-written and performed scene in Draco's office), and it adds to our understanding of the Cinderella figure, of Tracy.  By telling us of Tracy’s life we start to understand her journey, and why that journey dovetails with Bond.  There is hope for a happy ending, at least for a time.

In action and deed, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service also reveals Tracy’s penchant for gambling, her athletic prowess (skiing and horseback riding), and her verbal aplomb, matching Bond witticism for witticism. 

Finally, Tracy even proves herself eminently capable in physical combat.  Importantly, her final battle with one of Blofeld’s hulking guards is scored to the James Bond, 007 theme.   Intriguingly, Bond is virtually a non-presence in this particular scene.  He’s still on the helicopter, outside, at some distance.  Yet Tracy fights to that well-established, even iconic theme, and the suggestion is, of course, that she is worthy of it.  That she is a Bond-ian reflection, and therefore 007’s soul mate.

In conjunction with the Cinderella-type leitmotif, these character aspects of On Her in Majesty’s Secret Service make us understand the human and romantic aspect of the tragedy.  I’ve made no secret of my selection of Tracy (and Rigg) as the greatest Bond Woman in the film series’ history.  Where many Bond Girls (especially in the 1960s and 1970s) were relatively one-dimensional, Tracy is not.  She is a fully-developed and intriguing person who seems every bit the equal to Bond.  

But the Cinderella approach to the story helps to remind us of what is at stake here.  It isn’t, actually, the end of the world, as Blofeld plans it.  No, the danger in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is two-fold: failing to recognize true love, and secondly losing that love once it’s been identified and acknowledged.

“Life’s too short for 'someday,'” states the film’s dialogue about falling in love, and so Bond makes the most dangerous decision of his life (and the film series).  He commits himself to the love of one very special person.  There is much less at stake, for instance, when you don’t really love someone, when it’s just a fling or casual sex.  But by falling in love with Tracy, Bond puts himself in the terrible and vulnerable position where Blofeld can really, truly hurt him.  For once, James Bond really knows what it means to love, and to put his heart on the line.  And just look at what happens to him. 

Once you've known love, the world is not enough.  Especially for a Bond.

That is why, of course, the James Bond story qualifies as tragedy.  A man who has hidden from love finally lets it into his life, only to lose it. 

Beyond the twisted Cinderella/fairy tale leitmotif, this Bond film plays uneasily with franchise traditions.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is certainly a (dangerous) love story as much as a spectacular adventure, for instance, and yet that's not the only shift in accent.  Additioinally, this Bond film also eschews the series’ trademark and widely-beloved gadgets.  In fact, the film even goes so far as to mock those gadgets by suggesting that the wave of the future is not such obsolete trinkets, but things like “radioactive lint.”    How exciting is that possibility?

At one point -- when Bond deploys a safe-cracker device -- he just sits back and reads Playboy Magazine while the machine does the hard work.  The implication, of course, is that such gadgetry (like the mini-copy machine) is now an accepted part of everyday life, not cutting-edge, life-saving devices.  The thrill of technology is gone.  Gadgets are just workaday things.

I suspect that some critics and viewers will always criticize Lazenby’s performance as James Bond in OHMSS.  But facts are facts: he certainly looks good and moves well.  Lazenby is a real presence in the fight scenes, for example. Perhaps his biggest deficit, performance-wise, is his voice. The Australian accent doesn’t seem right for Bond, and something about the very cadence or tenor of Lazenby’s voice is unappealing.   I have some support for this opinion, I hope.  My wife watched the film with me the other night, and said that she liked Lazenby best when he was in the Alpine Room at Piz Gloria.  Of course, in that particular scene he was dubbed by the actor playing Bray, but my wife didn’t know that.  She just picked up on a quality of the vocal performance that worked.

Some critics have also described Lazenby’s Bond as less self-confident than Connery’s incarnation, and this might also be true.  But I would submit this quality works in regards to the particularities of this story. 

I rather like that Bond isn’t certain that Tracy is love with him (a feeling she also shares about him).  And I like that when Bond gets lost in the winter carnival -- pursued by Blofeld’s goons -- he appears absolutely terrified.  The sense of danger to Bond is palpable in this film.  He’s not the suave, unflappable guy in a white dinner jacket.  This Bond seems more jittery, more uncomfortable, more ill-at-ease than Connery, and I feel that if Lazenby had returned to the role for a second outings, these qualities might have been marshaled to even greater effect.  

We have seen, today, how Dalton and Craig excel by playing a human, not superman James Bond, and one gets the feeling that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was designed to provide a vehicle for just that kind of portrayal.  It’s a shame that Lazenby isn’t quite good enough to carry the picture.  And yet, I don’t feel -- as I did some years back -- that he is a huge impediment to the film’s success, either.


Bond, certain in deed.

Bond, uncertain in life.

Bond, shattered by death.

In terms of the things one expects from a Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is absolutely superb.  The fight scenes are brutal, brilliantly-edited affairs.  The ski and bobsled chases are suspenseful and escalate to sheer mayhem and exhilaration, marred only by rear projection photography in some shots.  And the stock-car race scene -- so battering and bruising -- is immersing.  In the absence of gadgets, focus here falls on romance and Hunt’s apparent obsession with man-against-man, fist-against-fist conflicts.  It’s not a bad template for a 1970s Bond, but of course, the series doubled-down instead on spectacular set pieces, gadgets, and increased humor.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service may just be the most important Bond film ever made, if not the best one.  One thing is for certain: the series has by now acknowledged its importance time and time again.  This story, and Bond’s marriage to Tracy, have been mentioned or noted on-screen in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), For Your Eyes Only (1981), and Licence to Kill (1989). Interestingly, no other Bond film has been referred to with such frequency. 

And secondly, it’s hard not to view the re-boot Casino Royale (2006) as an unofficial remake of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, since it concerns such plot elements as the love of Bond’s life, the death of that love, and even Bond’s brief resignation.  Vesper is very…Tracy-like.

Whenever I watch the film, I find myself dreading the ending, dreading that final, unforgettable shot of a shattered windshield and by extension, a shattered Bond.  It’s a haunting finale to a great and generally underrated entry in the Bond catalog.  There isn’t one other Bond film that ends on such a tragic, emotional note, or leaves the audience with a lump in its collective throat.

I’m glad that today we “have all the time in the world” to consider On Her Majesty’s Secret Services’  merits. It deserves a second look.

4 comments:

  1. While the action sequences are first-rate and edited well, I find it strange that the rest of the movie editing feels so clunky. The film doesn't flow as smoothly as the previous Bond movies, and I think the excessive amount of overdubbing is really distracting.

    That said, it's one of the more down-to-earth Bond movies and very faithful to the novel. Since it's such a pivotal point in Bond's life, it's a shame that Sean Connery was not in it. However, having Lazenby did smooth over one of the critical bloopers in the story. In the novel series, IHMSS came after Thunderball but before You Only Live Twice, so Bond had not met Blofeld yet. Therefore, he could go undercover and not be recognized. In the film series, Bond has already met Blofeld, so Blofeld should recognize Bond immediately. Since both characters are played by different actors in IHMSS, that oversight is not as obvious.

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  2. Anonymous10:45 AM

    John excellent review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. With Diana Rigg hot off the Avengers this Bond film is a jewel in the crown of the franchise.

    SGB

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  3. Great look at this under appreciated Bond, John. While Lazenby is not my favorite in the OO7 role, the man did have a pretty impossible task of following Sean Connery, I have to give it to him for what he pulled off (even in later interviews, George is pretty self-effacing and honest about his mistakes in the production). Still, this is my absolute favorite story of the entire series, and it has my all-time favorite Bond girl in Diana Rigg. I prefer FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and GOLDFINGER and think they're better films overall, but over the years since, OHMSS has steadily risen to the third slot. This is surprising to me from my initial reaction to the film. It was wonder to read your thoughts on the film. Thanks for this.

    p.s., the one thing that's always bugged me about this movie is the fact, that Blofeld doesn't immediately attempt to kill Bond after he initially meet with him. I mean, the character (Donald Pleasence in the role) in the preceding film, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, unmasked Bond -- "You only live twice, Mr. Bond.", and all. Tried to shoot him, for chrissakes. Bond's disguise wasn't that altering. I've since come to learn that this story came out of order from the novels, but the screenwriters stayed true, somewhat, to the Fleming's concept and kept the aspect of this being Blofeld's initial face-to-face.

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  4. SteveW7:33 PM

    Have to disagree with Neal about the editing--I think the overall editing and pacing of this one is the best in the series. For me, the tragic death of Tracy and the "human" dimension it adds to Bond are actually less important than (1) the strong storyline, (2) the critical casting of Diana Rigg and her great warmth, humor, and style, (3) the overall level of polish and craftsmanship, and (4) the terrific and innovative action sequences. Personally, I wish they had left out Tracy's death and she had hung around for a few more movies, taking Bond in an "Avengers"-like direction. That was never meant to be of course, and they did handle her death scene very well.
    I do think the action scenes in this one are not only the best in the series, but really among the greatest in all movies. Their fast, disorienting yet lucid cutting presages Paul Greengrass's work in the Bourne movies by over 30 years.

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