On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
The one with the other fellow. You know, whatshisname. George Lazenby is rarely on the receiving end of kind words, even by those who rate OHMSS highly. I have no problem with his performance; indeed, far from viewing him as a plank who got lucky I’m doubtful whether the emotional through line of the film would have been as effective with Connery. His Bond demeanour had been so established by this point, it’s difficult to conceive of him suddenly falling in love and revealing his vulnerable side (which is no slight on Connery’s skill as an actor, just recognition of the baggage he brings to the role).
Lazenby comes on fresh-faced (at 29, he was two years younger than Connery when he was cast) and free to show Bond in love. Since Dalton, there have been various attempts to invest Bond, essentially a two-dimensional caricature, with an emotional journey. This has taken the form of seeking revenge, dealing with injury, brooding about his deeds, feeling his age. Yet the series’ high watermark for the secret agent as a character imbued with real feelings is in a film with an actor many dismiss as being “a bit rubbish”. It may not be because of Lazenby that OHMSS is the best Bond film but he’s in no way an impediment to it holding that status.
As to why he made just the solo 007, various possibilities have been floated. That Lazenby’s agent nixed further appearances, that George himself felt that Bond’s shelf life was limited in the era of Easy Rider, that Cubby Broccoli was irritated by the young pup’s arrogance, that the press had written him off as a failure in comparison to Connery and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s certainly the case that OHMSS, although cheaper than the previous two movies, made considerably less money than either (Thunderball went through the roof, You Only Live Twice just over half of that, while OHMSS made only half of YOLT’s gross). But it was profitable, and its success were more comparable to the early Moore outings than to Connery’s. Additionally, how well OHMSS would have done with anyone in the lead is debatable; it had a complete downer of an ending, and compared to previous installments was light on action (this is not meant as a criticism, far from it, but it may have contributed).
One of the reasons OHMSS stands the test of time so well is surely Peter Hunt’s direction. Hunt had initially sworn off Bond when he didn’t get the directing gig for YOLT, but was tempted back into the editing suite and then got the prize this time out. Hunt’s Bond would be his most prestigious directorial effort, and he wouldn’t return to the series (he would work with future Bond Roger Moore on several films during the 1970s, though). Hunt enlisted cinematographer Michael Reed to give the film a more realistic look than previous Bonds (concordantly, Hunt eschewed the gadgetry that had become a staple ingredient). The result is a Bond film that couldn’t feel more different to its predecessor. The fights and chases have a visceral quality where previously they were plodding and static.
Then there’s John Barry’s score, possibly the pinnacle of the series, and the beautiful, haunting We Have All the Time in the World sung by Louis Armstrong. If we needed convincing that the romance between James and Tracy was the real deal, the song sells it to us completely. Strangely, it doesn’t play out with the credits where it would have been more appropriate than the suddenly intrusive Bond theme (we, and our hero, are mourning after all). The opening titles, which showed scenes and characters from previous adventures, were accompanied by an instrumental track (Barry considered it would be difficult to cram the film’s title into a set of lyrics), which is as recognisable as any Bond song in its own right.
There had been much debate on how to introduce a new face; reference to plastic surgery was considered. Ultimately, the Bond theme announces the secret agent before we see Lazenby, and the action on the beach plays out with Bond in silhouette. The improvised dialogue,
James Bond: This never happened to the other fellow.
is followed by Lazenby breaking the fourth wall as he looks at the audience. In that respect it might be seen as a precursor to meta-reference happy late ‘70s Moore period, but it represents an isolated case within the film as a whole. Some fans have experienced difficulty attempting to render coherent the lack of recognition between (the new faces of) Bond and Blofeld, having met in YOLT. Such a mission seems like a hiding to nothing, as continuity is one of the series’ lowest priorities.
As noted, and in contrast to previous two films, OHMSS does not fuel its plot by transitioning from one set piece to the next. Bond begins wooing Tracy, after preventing her suicide, and any concern with mission priorities is clearly taking a back seat (Operation Bedlam only becomes evident when he drops in on M). While Bond has a fight or two along the way, an equally action-light shift then occurs both in geography and activity. Bond spends the middle section of the film at Blofeld’s allergy institute, which means that Tracy drops out of the plot completely at this point. It’s a peculiar structure, and no doubt symptomatic of following the book so closely, but it is an effective interlude as long as you find Lazenby palatable and aren’t put off by all the talking.
It’s an astonishing coincidence that Tracy’s dad is someone who can reveal Blofeld’s whereabouts. And later that Bond, having escaped the institute, should bump into Tracy at the crucial moment. The scene is one of those moments you just can’t imagine working with Connery. Bond is bereft and frightened, at the prey of the enemy. And then, his salvation appears. It’s unlike anything else we see in the series, and I think much of that is to do with Lazenby.
Diana Rigg deserves significant credit also, lending sophistication and wit to a role that is quite thinly sketched out (spoilt rich girl who just needs a good man to pull her out of her funk). We only really see her potential in the scene where she converses with Blofeld and reveals her education.
Draco: What she needs is a man to dominate her. A man to make love to he enough to make her love him. A man like you!
What a charming father! See, what Draco really wanted was Connery. Gabriele Ferzetti played Morton in the previous year’s Once Upon a Time in the West and, despite being the head of a crime syndicate and extolling generally odious views (including offering Bond a bribe to take his daughter), he makes him a warm and welcoming figure. Later he even comments, “Spare the rod and spoil the child, huh?”
Draco: She likes you, I can see.
James Bond: Just give me the name of your occulist.
Undercover Bond, posing as Sir Hilary Bray, is highly amusing and plays wittily on the Bond machismo. We’ll never know if Lazenby’s original vocalisation was any good, but George Baker’s dubbing is very pleasing, lending the actor a self-mocking manner (it’s particularly funny given how bland Baker’s roles generally are).
Bond/Bray: Frauline, I should warn you. Guns make me nervous.
Bond/Bray: I’m afraid I’ve never had much to do with young ladies.
And the following exchange, as one of the “harem” writes on his leg under the dining table (Ilse Steppart follows in a line of idiosyncratic henchwomen, Rosa Klebb being the most notable up to this point).
Irma Bunt: Is anything ze matter, Sir Hilary?
Bond/Bray: Just a slight stiffness coming on… in the shoulder.
Bond/Bray: Just a slight stiffness coming on… in the shoulder.
The “Angels of Death” include Catherine Schell, Julie Ege and Joanna Lumley (“Course, I know what he’s allergic to”). Given the best lines, and the most screen time, is Angela Scoular as Ruby.
Blofeld: Do you remember how when you first came here you hated chickens… I have taught you to love chickens. Their flesh, their voice.
This is the closest the series gets to psychedelia, as lights flash over Bond. Although, it echoes the brainwashing undergone by Harry Saltzman’s working class Bond, Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File.
It’s interesting how willing this film is to reconfigure Blofeld; he becomes almost a cult leader here (under the guise of science). Blofeld’s plan is so bafflingly elaborate that picking away at it could unravel the entire film. It’s hard to say quite why the deficiencies in logic never come into focus as a serious problem (possibly because the love story is foregrounded), but it should be noted that it is this adaptation that hews closest of all the films to the Fleming novel (the 10th in the series).
Why specifically does Blofeld need these women to distribute his virus/chemical warfare agent that can sterilise the world’s food supply? What can they do that no one else can? Do they hold certain key positions? If not, couldn’t he pay henchman to do the same thing? Or wicked attractive ladies who would will do it for a fee, bypassing the brainwashing thing? Of course, then we wouldn’t enjoy the conceit of Bond checking in to Blofeld’s Alpine clinic incognito. As for Blofeld’s demands, that he should be able to retire with an amnesty and be recognised as nobility (a count; he’s had his earlobes removed to “prove” his heredity), perhaps this was Fleming’s assumption that secretly everyone wants to be up to be treated/respected like royalty? Whatever the reason, coming from Blofeld it seems like a battier idea than world domination because it’s so small fry.
When it comes, the escape from Blofeld’s institute is thrillingly shot (as is the preceding cable car sequence), ending in the aforementioned reunion with Tracy. And it’s here that the film makes its individuality most evident.
Bond: I’ll have to find something else to do.
Tracy: Are you sure, James?
Bond: I love you, and I know I’ll never find another girl like you. Will you marry me?
Not only is he opting for a monogamous life, but he’s also prepared to turn in his licence to kill. After that, the concluding action requirements almost seem unnecessary; Tracy is captured, Bond is told that Blofeld’s ransom will be paid and he is forbidden to intervene. Bond and Draco to attack Blofeld and rescue Tracy, culminating in a bobsleigh chase. The occasional trad-Bond bad taste jokes seems unnecessary, dictated by formula and thus less necessary to a film that has followed it’s own path (“He had a lot of guts”, notes 007 as a Blofeld goon is consumed by a threshing machine, “He’s branched off” when Blofeld is caught in a tree branch).
Picking a best Blofeld is not an easy task as the performances of the main trio are all so different (if we exclude Max von Sydow and the voice/hand-only performances in From Russia with Love and Thunderball; and John Hollis’ cameo in For Your Eyes Only). Pleasance is most indelible, but gets limited screentime. Savalas is the most personable, less the arch-villain and more the mob boss aspiring to a higher status. While Savalas is very watchable, I probably don’t think of him first when the character’s name comes up. As for Charles Gray, I shall revisit him shortly.
The marriage scene in Portugal is charming, Moneypenny catching Bond’s hat (instead of the bridal bouquet) and Q making a gadget-free appearance. Peter Hunt prepared the ending in such a way that the credits could roll as Bond and Tracy set off on their honeymoon. Then Diamonds are Forever would begin with Blofeld’s drive-by attempt to kill Bond, but hitting Tracy. As it is, the downbeat choice proves heartbreakingly tragic. It’s a surprisingly brave decision and, beyond the one-off presence of its star, underlines the singular and incomparable status of OHMSS.
Bond: It’s all right, it’s quite all right really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world.
So the ‘60s end on an emotional, if not qualitative, downer for Bond. Before pitching into 12 years of eyebrow-raising, the producers managed to woo Connery back for a last stand that would do a curiously accurate job of predicting the decade’s obsessions and excesses. That’s Vegas for you. OHMSS, meanwhile, is unequalled in the Bond canon. Other films have more impressive action, effects, leading and supporting performances, but none of them can match it for heart.