Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1969)

6. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

For a number of reasons – He was tired of the character, he was afraid of being typecast, his paychecks were steadily rising – Sean Connery was adamant that his tenure as James Bond was over. Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli rightly figured that Bond was bigger than any one actor. The quest was on for the next James Bond. Eventually, Eon Productions settled on an untested, inexperienced male model named George Lazenby. At the same time, a new director, series editor Peter Hunt, was brought on. The resulting film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” has a divisive reputation among fans, as does Lazenby. Some regard it as one of the best, others consider it mediocre. Where do I, humble Film Thoughts reviewer, fall on that scale?

Following the events of “You Only Live Twice,” MI6 is hot on Blofeld and SPECTRE’s tail. M fears Bond might be getting too close and forces him to resign. Meanwhile, Bond rescues a suicidal girl on a beach who turns out to be the daughter of a powerful crime boss, Draco. The man wants Bond to seduce his daughter, the same girl on the beach and is named Tracy. The spy only agrees if Draco gives him information about Blofeld’s current location. Two unexpected things happen next. Blofeld is discovered posing as a count in the alps, brewing a new sinister plot to create a bacterial bio-weapon with which he can hold the world hostage. Secondly, Bond falls in love with Tracy.

Before moving on, let’s discuss Maurice Binder’s latest opening credits sequence. The iconic nude women, silhouetted in black, make their second appearance, this time posing against a blue background. They stand before a massive hour glass, where scenes from the previous films fall forward. Bond, also silhouetted, runs around and pulls a Harold Lloyd by dangling from the arms of a massive clock. While not as groundbreaking as “Thunderball’s” opening, it’s a stylish bit of fun in its’ own way. The opening song, meanwhile, breaks from tradition. Due to the unwieldy title, the film forgoes a title song. Instead, a driving, powerful bit of instrumental music from John Barry plays. It’s a great piece of music and the film’s score is rightfully built around it. The movie’s actual theme song, “We Have All the Time in the World” by Louis Armstrong, appears later. It’s a lovely romantic number and, though his voice isn’t as strong as it once was, Armstrong sings it with utmost sincerity.

Now the issue at hand. How does George Lazenby? The film cheekily addresses the new actor’s appearance. M and Q discusses the agent’s current whereabouts. As in “Dr. No,” we first see his hands, sneaking a cigarette out of his case. After bravely fighting off two attackers on the beach, Lazenby’s face is revealed, where he breaks the fourth wall by admitting “This kind of thing never happened to the other fellow.” All of this is a cute acknowledgement that the role has changed hands. Lazenby, with his heroic jawline and cleft chin, certainly looks the part. He is, in a way, more athletic then Sean Connery, tumbling around during the fight scenes and climbing tall heights. The story calls for Lazenby’s Bond to impersonate a scholarly genealogist, be outsmarted a few times, and fall in love. I can’t imagine Connery’s Bond, a rough and merciless blunt instrument, doing these things. However, Lazenby is not as confident with the post-murder one-liners. “He had a lot of guts” would have been poetry coming out of Connery’s mouth but feels awkward in Lazenby’s. A few times, like when he has to slap around a woman, George seems uncomfortable. Lazenby is not a perfect fit in the part but he’s more romantic and suave, less murderous and unforgiving, then the previous actor. He’s certainly not as wooden or ill-fitting as his critic say. Given a second chance, Lazenby would have grown into the role excellently.

Director Peter Hunt promised utmost fidelity to the source material, carrying Ian Fleming’s novel onto set with him everyday. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is, consequently, more grounded then the previous few Bond films. Q only puts in two brief appearances. The closest thing Bond has to a gadget is a wire he used to open a door with. The story revolves mostly around Bond sneaking and spying. The film is more character-driven with less theatrical action. Weirdly, while the approach is less outrageous, there’s still a hugely silly aspect to the story. Blofeld’s plot to spread his agriculture killing plague depends on brainwashed college girls with food allergies. They are hypnotized during sleep, given orders to, say, love chicken. Considering how concentrated the rest of the movie is, this super pulpy plot point really sticks out.

Far more effective is the story element that, at first, appears to be merely a subplot. Bond’s interaction with Tracy di Vicenzo is strained at first. She runs away from him, steals his car, and points a gun at him. Like all women, she quickly falls into James’ arms/bed. However, there’s something different about Tracy. Though his attempt to seduce her is all business at first, he quickly develops genuine feelings for the girl, as conveyed during an effective, romantic montage. Tracy proves herself to be Bond’s equal. She actually rescues him during one moment before being behind the wheel during an intense, hectic car chase. She has a brutal fight scene with a henchman, tumbling the guy down the stairs before slamming him into a wall of spikes. It’s appropriate that fiction's most beloved male spy would fall for Diana Riggs, who played fiction’s most beloved female spy. Riggs and Lazenby have fire-cracker chemistry, as displayed during a highly charming scene set in a barn. If Bond was going to truly fall in love with one woman, she would have to be incredible. Riggs’ Tracy fills this tall order with ease.

Even then, our James Bond is not one for monogamy. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” surrounds the spy with a bevy of beautiful women. Even while posing as an effete, celibate man of science, Bond is irresistible to the opposite sex. Most of Blofeld’s self-named “angels of death” are defined exclusively by their nationality. One’s African, and suggestively eats a banana, a sight that’s tasteless for a few reasons. One is Asian, one is Irish, so on and so forth. Of the girls, Bond only sleeps with two, the only two with any real personality. Angela Scoular’s Ruby wears bookish glasses but actively hits on Bond, writing her room number on the inside of his thigh. Scoular is funny, beautiful, and probably deserved more screen time. Catherina von Schell is lovely and has a decent screen presence, even if she doesn’t do much beyond going to bed with Bond and curling a little. These sequences are light and comical, if slightly overlong.

James Bond is not the only reoccurring character to gain a new face. Last time, Ernst Stavro Blofeld was played by Donald Pleasence with a scarred face, a steely gaze and a robotic voice. This time, Telly Savalas creates a wildly different interpretation of the character. The iconic scar and Nehru suit are gone. Blofeld only strokes his trademark white cat in one brief scene. Savalas’ Blofeld is more charming, pouring wine for the captured Tracy. He’s far more physical, skiing down a mountain and getting into fistfights with his adversary. He’s even more forgiving of his henchmen’s failures. Pleasence was a shark, precise and unfeeling. Savalas is a snake, cunning and suave but no less vicious. The recasting, in keeping with the characters’ tendency towards plastic surgery, was done because the film called for a more physically imposing actor. As great as Pleasence was, Savalas does a fantastic part in the job.

This time, James Bond jet-sets to the Swiss Alps. The villain’s mountain top lair provides plenty of beautiful scenery. The snowy mountain sides makes certain attributes required. There has to be a skiing scene. Heroes and villains have to sail through the air, snow trailing behind them. The extended downhill chase is a highlight, especially once Bond looses a ski, having to get by on one. The effects aren’t always seamless and Lazenby is obviously not actually skiing several times. An avalanche has to happen as well, which makes for an equally exciting sequence, one that James and Tracy barely escape. Not all of the alpine-insisted moments are great, such as a surprise cameo from a man in a polar bear suit which is thankfully brief. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” set a precedence, with every future Bond actor having at least one snow bound adventure.

The action is generally stellar in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” The early melee battles Bond has are quickly paced and bone-crunching. The fight on the beach is a strong note to start on and features plenty of judo flips. I especially like the fight where Bond decimates Tracy’s hotel room while tossing a goon around. The film features an excellent car chase that climaxes with the vehicles interrupting an auto race. This sequence is nicely extended, milking the action for as much as excitement as possible, and ending with a big explosion. My favorite suspenseful moment actually features little punching or exploding. Bond has to sneak out of Blofeld’s mansion. He manages this by climbing up through the giant gears of the ski lift’s mechanism. He nearly gets crushed several times before making it out onto the giant cable, which also almost goes wrong.

What I like most about “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is how incredibly efficient it is. This is the longest Bond film up to this point, at 141 minutes. However, it never drags or feels too long. The pacing is elegant, the movie rolling along smoothly. The structure is beautifully composed, one plot point cleanly building into the next. By the time the film reaches its huge finale, with an army of mafia goons invading Blofeld’s lair with flamethrowers and machine guns, the audience is salivating with excitement. There’s some great action here, such as Bond dodging a tossed canister of acid. The last battle between Bond and Blofeld, which occurs on a speeding bobsled, features some impressive stunts. Lazenby’s stunt double gets tossed off his sled before catching up with the villain, who then grinds Bond’s helmeted head against the speeding ice. It’s a fairly spectacular conclusion to a fantastically executed film.

“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the most romantic of the series, has an appropriately romantic conclusion. James and Tracy’s wedding is a lovely sequence. Moneypenny sheds a tear, Q makes quips about hats, and people dance around the flower covered car as they drive away. Lazenby and Riggs’ romantic banter carries on as they drive. The effectiveness of these moments is building towards the sad, inevitably tragic end of the movie. Minutes after becoming Tracy Bond, bullets rip through the air and take her life. Bond leans over his suddenly gone wife, in shock, before collapsing into tears. It’s an uncharacteristically down-beat ending, one underscored by the incongruent scream of the traditional Bond theme afterwards. Bond crying is an unexpected sight but Lazenby pulls it off. The end genuinely tugs at my heart, because his pain seems so real and because the audience loves Riggs as Tracy so much.

“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is truly one of the most fantastically formed of the series. However, it’s plentiful virtues have been frequently overlooked because of the controversy surrounding Lazenby’s departure. Before filming was over, he had decided this would be his sole appearance as the characters. Lazenby’s later statements to the press; that he believed Bond would be irrelevant in the post-hippy, enlightened seventies; did little to help the perception that his ego motivated the decision. The film was still a huge hit, becoming the highest grossing film in Britain that year. However, it still grossed less then any of Connery’s efforts. This, along with the contemporary reviews that heavily criticized him, seemed to justify the public’s perception that Lazenby didn’t deserve the part anyway. Today, fans still don’t agree much on George Lazenby but “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is rightfully regarded as one of the best of the series. Even with the puffy shirts and the kilt. [Grade: A]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

No comments: