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Non-Review Review: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

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.

… And I thought Bond was only married to his job….

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.

Bond is back… on his back…

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.

Well, it’s not a top secret volcano lair, but it’ll do…

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.

Try to look like you’re having a good time, George…

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.

You can Count(essa) on him…

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.”

Moneypenny for your thoughts?

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?

Bond is like a new man…

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.

Well, he’s bald… I suppose that’s close enough…

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.

A cold reception…

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.

“You look different…”

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).

Lazenby’s Bond got a frosty reception…

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:

12 Responses

  1. I have a soft spot for OHMSS as it’s one of the first Bond movies I remember seeing. I also think that the plot is better than most other Bonds. Your criticism is totally justified on the Lazenby/Savalas changes though. They just don’t work at all.

    • The plot is decent and it has a lot more character development than any other film in the franchise, but it just doesn’t have the energy that a Bond film needs.

  2. That’s the best summary of Connery Vs Lazenby I’ve ever read “He could have likely done the entire clinic over an evening, twice” – outstanding!

    Didn’t really like this film myself, review going up later tonight. Just far, far, far too boring, and almost like a parody of the previous films. Also, continually harking back to the previous adventures… rubbish!!!

    • I wouldn’t go as far as “parody”, but it just didn’t have the same vitality and energy. On the other hand, perhaps Diamonds Are Forever had too much “energy”.

  3. While I too have a soft spot for “OHMSS,” I must congratulate your work here. A strong reading of a very different Bond picture.

    Your photo captions are a treat as always.

  4. Watching the the movies in order for the first time made this movie sticks out like a sore thumb. In my memory it was a great movie. The openingscene for example seemed mysterious and exciting in my young mind , but upon reviewing it just does not hold up very well.
    When he introduces himself we do not even see his eyes and he delivers the “my name is..” line like some happy camper.
    Basically he goes trough the film being a Bondgirl even wearing a skirt/kilt and using his “male purse”. He gets seduced and has to play the part of whore for a million dollars.Diana literally grabs his hand and drags him along to save him like the perfect role reversal (perfectly mirroring scenes of James dragging along the Bondgirls from previous movies. She drives the getaway car iso James. At the mountain top he is disguised as a gay Clark Kent and acts like a pussy. “Call me Hilly” Seriously? He bores the ladies (and me) with his genealogy talk.
    Than he starts walking/sneaking through the corridors (the whole movie is filled with endless scenes of Bond walking trough corridors and doors).like boy in a boarding school. And we get 2 exactly the same and boring/irritating “sex scenes”in a row
    We are over an hour into the movie when we get our 1st action scene (with Bond actually doing something besides some simple fistfights earlier), but a boring one of James having to crawl/hang on a rope (again twice the same thing in one scene).
    It takes another 20 minutes before we get the Skiing part which I do love and is one of the few highlights.
    And after 2 hrs Bond needs his daddy in law to help him with the big action.
    This movie is just too long. They should have skipped the whole Clark Kent impression and Harem of Hippies get hypnotized(which is just a sleepinducing on the girls as it was on me).
    George has the impossible task of following Sean and he has to do it with a love story wearing glasses, a skirt with purse, smoking a pipe an no gagdets or a decent car of his own to speak of. The poor fellow never stood a chance.
    I now look at this movie as James Bond being head over his heels in love and therefore acting so weird all during the movie. The number of scenes where he is acting like a girl, a gay or a child(and not in the good cheecky way of a naughty kid, but in the childish stubborn or spoiled way) are staggering.
    The last scene is still impressive and saves the movie from being a total bore. It also made James realise he needs to leave his real emotions and love under wraps.

    • I actually don’t mind the plot. But I like Bond as a character. The problem is that his development here is not anything that would happen to the Bond we see elsewhere. It’s not the Bond from From Russia With Love or Goldfinger. He’s more human. I don’t mind that.

      I also like the stately pace, I must confess. It gives everything an epic feel. In particular, I like the weird convoluted structure. Bond confronts Blofeld and escapes in what would be the climax of another film… but then he comes back… and then he gets married. The film, like Nolan’s The Dark Knight, has several logical end points (the capture of the Joker in the truck being the most obvious – it’s a happy Hollywood ending, but then Nolan brutally subverts it), but it pushes past them, and I think it makes the movie a bit more unpredictable to watch, because we’ve been sort of conditioned to how we expect a movie to play out.

      The problem is the actors and characters. Lazenby is, to be blunt, simply not good enough. He was hired, it seems, because he looks vaguely like Connery, but he can’t act. Maybe he would have improved with time, but we’ll never know.

      I thought Savalas was great, but he’s stuck playing the same character as Pleasance. Savalas couldn’t be further from Pleasance. He is only slightly taller, but he looks a lot more imposing, but what kills it is the trappings. Pleasance was a spoilt brat with his toys. So things like the cat work well – it’s a fluffy, delicate thing. Savalas is just a thug pretending to be royalty. I couldn’t see him caring for a cat or any other animal. (Maybe horses, because of the pure blood and social status elements that would appeal to him.) Savalas plays Blofeld as a thuggish gangster, and I really liek that, but then you see him with the cat and it just looks… wrong, somehow.

      To me at least.

      • Think if you watch this movie on its own , it’s not that bad. But if you watch it in the canon it just sticks out too much.

  5. Didn’t like this one at all (“I have taught you to LOVE chickens!”). It’s got all the worst qualities of Moore: po-faced seriousness and stupid plot turns.

    I do think Telly’s Blofeld is very underrated, though; he’s not as intimating as Pleasance, but I’m still sorry to see him go. Most Bond villains are suave gentleman (or ladies) who joust with him over cards, Telly goes all South Central and sprays gats.

    Also surprising was Lazenby; I see faint glimmers of Connery in his performance. He fills the shoes nicely, but doesn’t do anything new with it. (Apparently it was like pulling teeth to get a good performance from him).

    • Pleasant will always be the archetypal Blofeld. After all, Waltz ends up with the scar. I think that’s fair. It’s a surprisingly small role in the context of the film, but he makes such a great impression.

      But I think that Savalas is great in his own right. I’ve softened on him over the years. You’re right, there’s a street toughness to him that I’d love to see another Bond film try to replicate. Perhaps License to Kill came closest with its Miami Vice bad guy; he’d be extravagant in any other franchise, but he’s “rough” by Bond standards.

  6. I do love the slow-burn pacing of OHMSS, and the helicopter assault on Piz Gloria is one of the best action pieces in the series.

    I do agree that it’s hard to imagine Connery or Moore in the role here actually falling in love. Dalton was too young at the time, so I think Lazenby was probably the best they could do.

    • I don’t know if he was the best that they could do. It would have been interesting to see a young Michael Gambon or Oliver Reed in the part, to drop two names that were (however briefly) under consideration.

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