This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a relatively low-key Bond adventure. The action set pieces aren’t spectacular, it’s mostly confined to one geographical locale and it features a genuinely moving love story. Coupled with the fact that George Lazenby is replacing Sean Connery, you’d be forgiven for assuming that you’d accidentally been given the wrong video at the video store. It’s not that the changes are necessarily bad (though, to be frank, some of them are), just that it doesn’t exactly feel like the smoothest possible transition.
A lot of the problems with the film can be tracked back to its leading man. Lazenby doesn’t feel like he ever should have been Bond. I don’t have an issue with any of the other actors, with each and every one of them feeling in some way like they belonged inside the skin of the suave British secret agent. Lazenby on the other hand plays the part like an unlucky sod who has been given a job that he really doesn’t want to do. There’s no sense of enthusiasm or energy.
You can deduce a lot from his introductory scene. It’s gloomy and desaturated, rather than a feast of colour. Sure, we’re introduced to his lower chin smoking a cigarette, in a reference to Sean Connery’s first appearance at that late night casino. He’s driving a smart-looking sports car along a mountain road, and seems to flirt with another lady in another car for a few seconds. However, clouds hang overhead. He saves a suicidal woman from drowning, but he seems panicked and perturbed rather than suave and sophisticated.
The direction of the scene doesn’t exactly help. Engaging two nameless goons who are somehow able to creep up on Bond on an empty beach, we’re treated quick cuts and sped-up footage. Rather than seeming high-octane or thrilling, the way that footage is shot makes it look like the film is trying to hide something. It makes it look like Lazenby or his stunt double couldn’t manage relatively long takes and were unable to perform the fight at a decent pace, so the film needed to be sped-up.
Throughout the movie, the film never really tries to convince us that Lazenby is the same character as Connery. Maybe he’s not. He never seems as confident or as posh as his predecessor, at times appearing insecure and almost crass. There’s something wrong with a version of James Bond who steals a Playboy centrefold from the office of a Swiss accountant. “I’ll leave you to tidy up,” isn’t delivered with casual disinterest, but like a thug gloating.
There’s an argument that this would be the greatest Bond movie ever made… if it starred Connery instead of Lazenby. However, I’m not sure I buy that. Despite how dull Lazenby’s disinterested performance might be to watch – there’s no joy to be had in watching a guy live out a fantasy he doesn’t want to live out – it suits the character development that Bond undergoes here. It’s hard to imagine any other Bond (especially Connery) considering resignation (they’d just continue the pursuit of Blofeld regardless), and it’s hard to believe Connery would ever fall truly in love, let alone get married.
That said, although Bond does fall in love over the course of the movie, he still goes to great effort to shag his way through the allergy clinic he infiltrates. However, there’s something almost workman-like about the way he goes about it. Lazenby’s Bond is worn out after one girl that evening. “Coming to my room was an inspiration,” he remarks to a girl who snuck into he bed chamber, “and you’ll need to be.” Connery’s version of the character never would have had that difficulty. He could have likely done the entire clinic over an evening, twice.
In fact, Lazenby’s Bond seems almost afraid of girls. It makes an interesting change of pace from Sean Connery’s sexual predator, but it also makes him seem somewhat wimpier and more insecure. Don’t mistake this for the film being any less sleazy, though. After all, the Contessa literally introduced by her breasts (at the casino) – okay, we’ve already met her, but still. Lazenby appears to be caught off-guard by the Contessa. His banter with her – “please stay alive, at least for tonight” – is somewhat awkwardly delivered, like he doesn’t know what to say.
The movie represents perhaps the first time a Bond girl is sleazier than Bond himself. “I pay my debts,” Tracy assures Bond, who just bailed her out of considerable embarrassment. Connery would have used that as leverage to get the woman into bed, like he did with the nurse in Thunderball, but Lazenby seems taken a back by the suggestion. Tracy’s aide even suggests that the Contessa “attend night school” on Bond. As a whole, the women in the movie seem much more forward than Bond himself. It is almost as if the movie’s libido has been moved away from the eponymous spy. We’re even treated to the image of a patient trying to eat a drumstick sexily.
On the other hand, though Bond shows slight hints of not being the selfish and sexist cad he was in earlier films, there’s still a fair amount of sexism on show. Tracy’s father actively tries to offload his daughter on Bond, even offering him “a dowry” of $1m or information on Blofeld to marry her. At the climax, after Tracy has made a more decent action showing than any Bond girl to the point, her father curtly knocks her unconscious when she objects.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child,” he remarks to Bond, shining with the virtue of good parenting. He’s a role model, that one. Especially his observation that Tracey needs what might be termed “the Pussy Galore approach.” He states, “She needs a man to dominate her, to make love to her enough to make her love him!” After the slight deconstruction of Thunderball, we’re back to the notion that he only “has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing.”
At the same time, the movie seems intent to compare Lazenby to Connery, constantly drawing attention to the change. “This never happened to the other fella,” Bond assures us at the end of the pre-credits sequence. There’s even a sequence with Moneypenny which is designed to assure the audience that things have not changed too much. “Same old James,” Moneypenny remarks, attempting to put our fears to rest, “perhaps even moreso.” However, even this interaction seems wrong, somehow. Lazenby certainly seems more “hands-on” than Connery with the secretary – or more direct about it, anyway. To quote the great Maury Zoolander, “Tushie squeeze!” Though it is nice that the movie finally acknowledges Moneypenny and the work that she does. It’s touching that both M and Bond acknowledge Moneypenny and how she’s good at managing the office. “What would I do without you?” they both ask.
To be fair, the movie has attract its fair share of defenders in the years since its original release. The standard argument is that Bond appears more human here. There are points when Bond doesn’t seem entirely sure what to do. At the ice-rink, pursued by Blofeld’s goons, the character seems genuinely terrified. On the other hand, this version of the British superspy is scared by a guy in a polar bear mask. Really? A guy in a polar bear mask?
The movie plays a bit with the fourth wall. It’s not the first time the series has done this – for example, we can hear the title theme playing on a radio in the background of From Russia With Love – but it seems quite noticeable in a relative low-key entry. Aside from the references to the change in actor, we also see a character whistling the Goldfinger theme and see the trophies that Bond keeps in his desk drawer (complete with theme music from each film playing in the background).
So, enough about Bond, what about the rest of the film? When I was younger, coming fresh from You Only Live Twice, I remember being disappointed with the scale and style of the film. It looked like it was made for television in comparison to some of the more lavish productions. The set pieces are hardly spectacular and, in my opinion, poorly handled. From the chopped together opening fight sequence to the horribly blue-screened avalanche chase, everything feels like it was almost done on the cheap.
The presence of Telly Savalas doesn’t necessarily help. Even more than Lazenby makes a bizarre choice to succeed Connery as Bond, Savalas makes a bizarre choice to succeed Pleasance as Blofeld. “It’ll take more than cutting off your earlobes, Blofeld,” Bond warns him, “to turn you into a count.” But apparently that’s all it takes to turn Donald Pleasance into Telly Savalas. Pleasance is 5″6 (and seemed much shorter), while Savalas is 5″10 (but looks even taller). Pleasance gave the leader an ambiguously European accent and played him as subtly menacing mastermind, while Savalas plays him like an over-confident American mobster.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that Savalas is a weak actor. In fact, he makes a great Bond villain, seeming genuinely threatening without ever going over the top. He plays perfectly to a particular Bond villain archetype, but it seems quite different to the archetype evoked by Pleasance. He would have made a great Bond villain in his own way, but saddling him with the name of Blofeld seems unfair. Sure, he’s bald and you can put him in that grey outfit, but he never feels like the same character he was in the previous film. On the other hand, Savalas gets more of an opportunity to define the character (both with more screen time and less time in the shadows) than his predecessor ever did. He does a decent enough job, but he doesn’t feel like Blofeld.
It’s become quite common in recent years to refer to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as a more “grounded” adventure, and to act as if it’s a more honest espionage thriller than the other Bond movies. The argument is that Blofeld’s threat of germ warfare is far more serious than kidnapping spaceships or stealing nukes, and it is – to a point. I do like the idea that Bond faces the threat of engineered sterility just as he gets married, it seems almost fitting.
However, Blofeld’s means of delivering his threat is just as ridiculous as crazy plastic surgery or a spaceship-eating machine. Here he plans to hypnotise women from around the world into becoming his “angels of death”. It’s just as hokey and crazy as anything else in the franchise – the fact that it’s in the service of a more chillingly realistic goal is doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.
On the upside, the movie does have bits that recommend it. For example, the relationship between Bond and Tracy – as forced as it feels at first, what with her suicide attempt – does evolve and feels genuine and organic, thanks to the hard work of Diana Rigg. The movie has a refreshing cynical perspective. The system fails Bond, Blofeld wins – he gets amnesty by playing the system. Although Bond is able to fix the odds by playing outside the rules (calling in a favour from Europe’s second-largest crime syndicate), there’s still a bitter sting to the end of the tale.
The ending is known to just about everyone at this stage, but I won’t spoil it for the handful of people who have managed to get through their lives without having the twist revealed. It’s a powerful moment, and one which still holds up after all these years. In fact, it’s one of the few moments in Bond history that the series itself acknowledges from time to time (and the series is known for playing fast and loose with continuity – for example, in this very movie, neither Bond nor Blofeld recognise each other, despite having met before, Blofeld should recognise Bond at least).
I’d argue that the moment would be more powerful if it had been acknowledged in more than a passing fashion in any subsequent film. You Only Live Twice as a book written by Fleming followed this story directly and dealt with the consequences of this film’s climax, but that story was filmed first (and the plot was certainly amended by Roald Dahl). It would have been nice to see the story handled on screen, because the element certainly isn’t pushed to the fore in Diamonds Are Forever, the movie which directly followed this one.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is an impressive film on its own terms, but it doesn’t feel like a Bond film. It’s so different from what came before and what would follow that it feels like a movie that could be easily breezed over. There are some fun and interesting elements – the film feels like more of a thriller than most Bond films – but it’s ultimately let down by its leading man. Lazenby never for one second seems like he’s having fun – and it’s hard to blame him, stepping into a role made iconic by another actor. Still, it’s hard to get too bothered about a film where the lead actor seems actively disinterested.
The following bloggers have reviews of this film up as part of James Bond January:
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