Saturday, October 31, 2015

007@40: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Originally written: March 20, 2002

Note: With the impending release of Spectre, the 24th entry in the James Bond, I went into my archives and found this piece I wrote during the franchise's fortieth anniversary year about one of its most underrated entries. In the more than thirteen years since I wrote it, it's somewhat gratifying that the rest of the world has gradually come around to the fact that this is an overlooked gem in the 007 canon. Meanwhile, look out for my Spectre review this Thursday!

His name was Lazenby. George Lazenby.

The year was 1969, and the most popular movie series of the '60s had found itself without its leading man. After starring in five James Bond features, Sean Connery, the man who—thirty years later—remains inextricably linked with the role he first brought to the silver screen, bowed out of the franchise. This left producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli in a bit of a bind. Their answer lay in the handsome 28-year-old Lazenby.

However, rather than ushering in a bold new era for the Bond franchise, Lazenby would appear in only one film, leaving the series with an entry unlike any that came before or since. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has remained virtually ignored in the Bond-canon. This is really a shame, as the lush cinematography and epic storyline actually elevate it above most of the other Bonds. It remains a mystery why OHMSS never seemed to catch on with the fans. Even now, some thirty years after its premiere, it is an oddity.

At just under two-and-a-half hours, it's also the longest of any entry in the Bond series. The typically bonkers plot has Bond’s old nemesis Blofeld (played this time by Telly Savalas of TV’s Kojak) planning to infect the world with a new disease to which only he has the cure, unless he is cleared of all his past crimes and given his own title. In the meantime, Bond meets and falls in love with the Contessa Teresa Di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg of TV's Avengers fame), leading to a predictably tragic conclusion. At breakneck pace, we jet from the Bahamas to Argentina to Switzerland, with pit stops in merry olde England.

In a daring move, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service marks a sharp detour from the direction the Bond series had taken up until that point. Eschewing the flights of fancy the series had gone further and further into since Goldfinger in 1964, this represented the series stepping back towards the Ian Fleming pages from whence they’d originated. Unlike just about any of the other films, it shows an almost unprecedented fidelity to the source material, right down to the uncharacteristically downbeat ending. For the first and only time, Bond takes a bride, only to see her brutally gunned down by the vengeful Blofeld.

These factors, coupled with the unknown Lazenby stepping into Mr. Connery’s well-worn designer shoes could very well have accounted for the less-than-stellar showing at the box-office. Though an $80 million worldwide take for a production budgeted at just under $7 million can hardly be called a flop, it did mark a steep drop from the $120 million box-office of You Only Live Twice, which immediately preceded it. Despite, or rather because of these factors, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service remains an under-appreciated gem. A true cult classic hiding in the midst of the most successful series of all time.

Taking over the director’s chair after serving as editor on the previous five Bonds, Peter Hunt gives the proceedings a look all their own. His sure hand is most visible in the brutal hand-to-hand combat sequences. Utilizing experimental techniques in service of a major Hollywood production, Hunt combines his use of odd camera angles, fast shots, and jump cuts to bring to fruition a style he had honed over the earlier films. It’s a pity that Hunt’s association with the Bond series would end with this entry, as it would have been interesting to see how his techniques progressed.

Hunt (ably assisted in the editing room by future five time Bond-helmer John Glen) breaks down his fight scenes to their core essence. They are all flying fists and blurred motion. In addition, he overdubs hard the exaggerated sounds of bone crushing CRACKS, further adding to the unsettling nature of the sequences. He manages a curious feat of making On Her Majesty’s Secret Service more realistic than any other entries by taking it further into the depths of surrealism.

The action scenes are at once more ferocious yet more absurd. It is a curious fact of the Bond genre that the only way to deal with it is to acknowledge its inherent ridiculousness and proceed accordingly. It is only when the series tries hard to achieve that much-vaunted “realism” that it gets into trouble (1989’s Licence to Kill, for example). Part of the fun of the series is that it knows it's just a movie, and it makes the audience complicit in this. More than once it seems to be saying, “Nothing too serious to be had here, it’s all a bit of fun.”

There are several knowing nods to the audience in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (a janitor whistling the them from Goldfinger, for example), but none is more effective than that of the pre-titles sequence. Stuck with the dilemma of how to acknowledge the presence of a new lead actor in the role, the filmmakers briefly considered a tacked-on explanation that Our Man has undergone plastic surgery. Thankfully this was disregarded, and instead, after routing the bad guys and seeing the lovely Tracy drive away leaving him holding his shoes, Bond looks just past the camera and says, “This never happened to the other feller.” Immediately we’re in on the joke.

And what about George Lazenby? Is he deserving of the brickbats that have been lobbed his way ever since he hung up his Walther PPK? Surely, he got some very, very bad advice when he decided not to re-up with series, but judged on its own merits, his performance is remarkably assured. He has just the right mix of arrogance, ruthlessness, and humanity to make Bond his own. Far more than merely Xeroxing Connery’s performance, Lazenby definitely takes the character into new areas.  It would have been interesting to see his performance grow in installments to come, and it remains sad that this wasn’t to be the case.

Again, in hindsight it's easy to find possible explanations as to why On Her Majesty’s Secret Service failed to find an audience. In the years since, with barely any promotion from the studio and the film rarely if ever appearing on television, its mystique has nonetheless only increased. OHMSS is even ignored by many Bond aficionados, which is a tragedy, as it is probably the single most emotionally charged and unexpectedly fulfilling entry in the entire series. Not bad for a one-shot wonder.

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