Thursday, May 3, 2012

At Your Secret Service, Ma'am

ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE

Please visit the James Bond Film Restrospective for all the Bond reviews. 

On Her Majesty's Secret Service has more pluses than minuses in the James Bond series.  In many respects, it should rank among the best Bond films so far (OHMSS being the sixth Bond film and the first not to feature Sean Connery).  We can get into how good or bad George Lazenby was as 007, but that will come later.  Right now, let's tackle On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

007 is missing!  MI6 is looking for him, and we find Bond (Lazenby) on the beach, rescuing a beautiful woman from walking into the ocean, only to be beaten up and left there by said beauty.  While gambling in the casino the next night, he finds the same beauty there.  She is Countess Teresa Di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), a woman who loves to live on the edge...and has a death wish.  However, she intrigues 007 and vice-versa.  Soon, Bond's attraction for Tracy gets the attention of her father, powerful underworld figure Marc Draco (Gabrielle Ferzetti).  Far from being displeased, Draco is thrilled and encourages a romance.  Tracy is at first hostile but over a period of time (a montage where Louis Armstrong sings We Have All The Time In the World), they genuinely fall in love. 

However, duty calls.  Bond returns to MI6, but he is displeased to hear he's been taken off Operation Bedlam.  However, his resignation is not fully accepted: M (Bernard Lee) giving him instead two weeks leave.  While not officially part of Operation Bedlam (which is about tracking down nefarious SPECTRE head Number One, Ernst Stravo Blofeld), Bond does come up with the goods in a curious way.  Blofeld, it seems, wants to establish his nobility and be officially listed as Count De Bleauchamp.  For that, Blofeld seeks the College of Heraldry, and via that Bond can infiltrate the bad count's secret health clinic.  Disguised as the mild-mannered professor, Bond finds himself surrounded by a bevy of beauties from around the world (talk about International Love), all there seeking treatment for various allergies.

Bond quickly falls into bed with two of them (who seduced whom is open to debate), but Blofeld, we find, is not fooled, and neither is his hench-woman, Fraulein Bunt (Ilsa Steppat).  Blofeld discovers Bond's identity when in an uncharacteristic move Bond makes a small mistake in genealogy.  However, Blofeld decides to keep Bond alive, and even helpfully fills him in on Number One's latest scheme: he will release Virus Omega, which will bring infertility to various plants and animals unless his demands are met.  Bond manages a daring (and lengthy) escape on skis and is rescued by Tracy, who happens to be nearby at the same time.  While hiding out in a barn, James Bond does the unthinkable: he proposes marriage!  Even more shocking, she accepts!

The rest of On Her Majesty's Secret Service is spent having M deny Bond's suggestion that they lead a raid on Blofeld's clinic, so he does so anyway (with Draco's help).  After defeating Blofeld (who does escape), James and Tracy are married, much to the sadness of Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell).  As they leave the wedding, rejoicing in their future plans, Blofeld and Bunt race behind them, shooting at the car.  Bond survives, but Tracy...

There are moments in OHMSS that are amazing cinematically, with director Peter R. Hunt going for an almost experimental style.  There is a quick scene where Bond is remembering how Tracy was taken by Blofeld's minions after the master criminal caused an avalanche.  We see it, then we see Bond looking out a window, with Tracy's capture reflected on the outside.  It's a brilliant shot that ties the two scenes masterfully.  When Bond attempts a second night of passion with the patient named Ruby (Angela Scoular), he finds it's Fraulein Bunt.  Rather than focusing on the dour Teutonic woman (which might have been played for laughs), the sequence is shot in almost a dream-like manner: Bunt rises quickly, so quickly it looks like several Bunts appear continuously, and the scene plays so fast we don't get a respite to fully grasp how fast Bond is captured. 

Curiously, some of the fight scenes also play out a bit like this, focusing less on the actual fight than in giving the audience bits and pieces.  These scenes work out beautifully.

Another point in OHMSS that works well is Richard Maibaum's screenplay (with additional dialogue by Simon Raven).  There is gentle and sly acknowledgment of Connery's departure (such as when at the end of the opening sequence Lazenby comments, "This never happened to the other fellow"), and clever wit (such as when Tracy replies to Bond's comment that she should play it safe, "People who want to stay alive play it safe").  In the dining room scene at the clinic, where Bond talks about how his family crest has four bezants (which he explains to the harem as Golden Balls), the sexual undertone is patently clear. 

We have to go to the performances, which have some of the best in the series so far.  At the top of the acting list is now-Dame Diana Rigg, who creates a fully rounded character in her mob princess turned reformed wife.  Rigg exudes beauty as well as brains in her Tracy, a woman who can match Bond's bravado with her own cunning but who gives her a vulnerability behind the tough exterior.

I go on record as saying that whenever a Bond Girl is also a legitimate and respected actress (and not just a pretty face), the character becomes more alive, more real, and more memorable.  Both Rigg and Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore from Goldfinger) created memorable and more importantly fully-rounded characters.  I think it is because they were not there just for decoration (although both are quite beautiful), but because they had extensive training and acting experience pre-Bond. 

Be that as it may, Rigg's Countess goes through a full range of emotions: from suicidal at the beginning to happy in marriage and in love by the end (which makes her fate all the more tragic).  Taking over Donald Pleasance as Blofeld from You Only Live Twice, Telly Savalas has a good mix of menace and camp (occasionally sliding into the latter) without really overdoing it.  Steppat's Bunt has three strikes against her: her dour German had very little to do apart from minding the girls, she was a bit reminiscent of Colonel Klebb from From Russia With Love, and she looked a bit too much like Joan Crawford in her final films.  OK, the last one can be called a ball, but for some reason I thought I was watching excerpts from Night Gallery when she was on the screen.  Still, when she emerges from the sheets, it is a tense and frightening moment.

Now, on the subject of George Lazenby...I think he did as good a job as he could given that OHMSS was his first film.  I suppose he's nice to look at but I thought he was extremely casual as James Bond, especially when the scene required a bit more suspense.  One particular scene I recall is when he is breaking into the offices of Blofeld's lawyer to get the plans for his 'clinic'.  Rather than take this seriously and be on the lookout, Lazenby's Bond ambled and strolled around the office.  Even worse, he sat around while a machine unlocked the combination and had time to look over a Playboy Magazine.  It might be my imagination, but I don't think James Bond needs that type of material: his whole LIFE is one big Playboy Club (with occasional killings). 

In short, Lazenby did decently for a non-actor, but it truly is difficult to get a good idea of how good or bad he would have been since OHMSS was his one-and-only outing as 007.  I won't get into the 'what-ifs', only 'what-is', and judging from OHMSS Lazenby was not very good but not as bad as one might be led to believe.

What keeps OHMSS from rising to the heights it could have are twofold.  One, the actual plot varies from Point A to Point B and a bit to A-B.  For example, the idea about bringing destruction by releasing the Omega Virus is almost secondary to the film.  We never get to see the virus tested out and the only way we know what's going on is through courtesy of Blofeld being nice enough to tell us.   The MI6 agent shadowing Bond is never given a name on-screen and in truth he seems to be doing more work than Bond is.  It's only by the thinnest and most implausible of threads that the love story between Bond and Tracy is tied to the story of Bond vs. Blofeld.

A small digression to the plot (the A-B part) is the mention of Operation Bedlam.  Bond is ostensibly removed from the operation (which is never spelled out) but he keeps getting involved in it.  Moreover, M doesn't seem to mind one bit.  How Operation Bedlam mixes with Blofeld's daring plot to eradicate whole plants by having beautiful women release the poison via his post-hypnotic suggestion stretches things to the point of farce.  Granted, I am aware the plans of criminal masterminds tend to be on the grandiose side but the whole thing seems excessively elaborate. 

Second, the film at 142 minutes is by far the longest of the Bond films so far, and it feels it.  There was an inordinately lengthy chase scene in the middle of OHMSS involving a daring ski race AND a car race that seemed to go on and on and on.  The entire sequence in the clinic with Bond bed-hopping also appeared to be a distraction from what he was suppose to be doing.  The fact that he was bonking TWO women one right after the other brought the entire concept of James Bond being able to seduce any woman almost to the point of parody (and did the entire chase involving skiing, car racing, and an avalanche). 

I'll leave how closely OHMSS came to being parody aside for the moment.  Now I'll focus on some points of logic in OHMSS.  First off, why is Bond wearing a kilt?  Minor thing perhaps, but it does seem rather odd.  Second, if we are to believe there is continuity between You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, shouldn't Blofeld recognize Bond quite easily despite his disguise?  Add to that, why does being publicly recognized as a Count be so important to Number One?  He's Number One for Heaven's sake...shouldn't he aim for something a bit higher?!  The business of Blofeld being desperate to show he's the true Count De Bleauchamp and this allowing Bond entry to his secret lair does seems rather elaborate and slightly ridiculous. 

Still, putting that aside, OHMSS has a strong positive: there is at the heart of all this a genuine love story, with Diana Rigg showcasing a range that few Bond girls past, present or future would achieve.

I think a greater focus and intertwining of the two stories (Bond's romance with Tracy and Bond stopping Blofeld from destroying the world), along with a more experienced actor than George Lazenby would have made On Her Majesty's Secret Service one of the top Bond films.   I also think a major trimming of the film would have improved it.  Finally, a real James Bond theme song would have worked.  Why the decision was made to have just an instrumental theme at the opening rather than a proper song is a puzzle to me.  From what I heard, We Have All The Time In the World would have made a beautiful opening title song.  A slight complaint, perhaps, but one I have nonetheless.

However, there is enough in On Her Majesty's Secret Service to think that the film mostly succeeded in telling an interesting story with heart.  You might need all the time in the world to get through On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and put aside the fact that Lazenby was perhaps not the best choice for the role as 007, but the film is a credit to The Queen's Man.  

Next James Bond Film: Diamonds Are Forever

DECISION: B+

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