Friday, January 16, 2009
James Bond review: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
CUT TO THE CHASE: “This never happened to the other fellow.”
BOND, JAMES BOND: Sean Connery leaves, and after a worldwide search, Australian George Lazenby is given the keys to the Aston-Martin. This raised the question: could the series survive without Connery? The movie did reasonable business, but then Lazenby’s manager convinced him he’d be better off as the answer to a trivia question than as Bond for the ‘70s, and he quit after this film. Rather than settle on another actor right away the producers prevailed on Connery to return, thus delaying the definitive answer to that question.
Quite simply, I really like Lazenby’s Bond. I like how he pulls off the self-deprecating, metacinematic moment when, at the end of the pretitle sequence, when the girl he’s just saved tears off in her Cougar leaving him alone on the beach, he looked into the camera and says the line quoted above.
I like how he approaches the role with enthusiasm and a bonhomie that never cancels out the harder edges of the character: note how quickly he shifts from charm to menace and back again in his hotel-room scene with Tracy. I like how his Bond is game enough to dress in a kilt when the mission requires it, and rugged enough to make you think it looks fabulous. I like how he toasts the Queen when he resigns her secret service.
It helps that the script packs into this one film all the character development they’d been denying the character in the first five films. Bond is personally obsessed with Blofeld! Bond is discontented with his job! Bond falls in love! Bond gets married! Bond is bereaved! There’s actually acting to do here. Part of me wants to see what Connery would have done with it.
But in a way it’s perfect that all of this gets shunted into Lazenby’s one and only outing. The vulnerability and – let’s call it a spade: sweetness – that Bond displays here is wonderful and welcome, but at the same time one realizes that it, like Bond’s marriage, never could have lasted. And if Lazenby had, we’d all be asking what went wrong with his second film. Since he left, we’re forced to think of this as a golden interlude in the series, splendid but isolated. No matter how dark or how farcical the series would get in the future, it wouldn’t matter: we’ll always have OHMSS.
What Makes Bond Bond: When leaving his hotel room after a brawl with a bad guy, he stops by the door to sample the caviar he’d had sent up earlier. It’s not just the fact that he pauses for pleasure; it’s not even the fact that he walks out muttering, “Hmm. Royal Beluga – north of the Caspian.” It’s the insouciant way he plops the caviar on the toast, cavalierly scattering eggs on the tray, and the way the toast so magnificently bends, but doesn’t break, under the weight of the delicacy. It’s a totally accidental moment, but memorable, and very Bond.
What Makes George Lazenby George Lazenby: Not only does he peruse Gumboldt’s Playboy – a winningly Everyman touch – he swipes the centerfold.
BAD GUYS: SPECTRE again, again. A direct encounter with Blofeld, again. This time it’s Telly Savalas. As casting choices go, this was completely insane. Blofeld is really Kojak? Absolutely not.
The thing is, though, it works. Savalas is so perfectly unctuous, in his own gruff way, that you soon enough forget about what Blofeld is supposed to be and start enjoying what this Blofeld is. Which is: nuts, of course, but in a way that’s completely gonzo, and utterly sui generis, right down to the way he holds his cigarette.
His scheme? Something about causing a worldwide epidemic of infertility through poisoned chicken. Who cares? The important point is that in order to carry out this scheme he’s ensconced himself on his own private Alp with a multicultural bevy of nubiles, a psychedelic light show, and a hypnosis-inducing eight-track tape deck. Awesome.
They innovate a bit here by making the evil henchman a woman: Irma Bunt, Blofeld’s stolid second-in-command at Piz Gloria. She doesn’t have the physical menace that, say, Oddjob had, but she is fun to dislike, with her unbending propriety. A suitable obstacle for Bond. She’s less an enforcer than a den mother to Blofeld’s angels, and it’s this authority of hers that's her most interesting trait. The first real female authority figure Bond’s had to face in the films. The dynamic is tense, to say the least.
GRATUITOUS SEX: Diana Rigg just may be the best of the Bond girls. Certainly she’s the first one to match Bond in strength and panache. Watch the way she comes to his rescue as he’s trying to escape from Blofeld’s cronies in the ice rink. It’s beautifully staged and shot: Bond huddling on a bench, turning up the collar on his stolen coat, then he glances down at the ice just in time to see a pair of skates skid into view. He looks up at legs that just won’t quit, and there she is, his salvation. And then he lets her drive.
The seriousness of the Tracy character, and Bond’s relationship with her, is balanced by the deliciously gratuitous sex he has on the mountaintop. He infiltrates Blofeld’s harem, and in the most ironic way possible, by pretending not to like girls. He gives them the pleasure of thinking they’ve turned him. Nice risqué touch, and the international smorgasbord of beauties is a classic Bond phenomenon (although a couple of the cultural stereotypes are downright offensive).
GS: 3 that we know of, although things are a bit hazy up on Piz Gloria.
AND VIOLENCE: This Bond is more of a lover than a fighter. Only occasionally does he start breaking things. That said, when he does, the sequences are quite exciting. The film is slightly sped up when the fists start flying, and the editing is ridiculously fast. It’s more of a b-movie approach to filmmaking than we usually see in the series, but it works in spades.
The best violent bits come on the ski slopes, the first time we see alpine sports in a Bond movie, though certainly not the last. We get a whole series of thrilling variations on the ski chase, including a nighttime duel with Bond on one ski, a daytime chase with Bond and Tracy as the quarry, and a vicious bobsled race. All of this was innovative, the successor to Thunderball’s underwater brawls, and a lot more interesting to watch.
BOYS WITH TOYS: Unusually enough, the film starts with the Q scene, as Q and M engage in some banter about 007’s whereabouts being unknown. This serves to set up the pretitle sequence and the unveiling of the New Bond, but it also happens to be Q’s only appearance in the film. He doesn’t get to brief Bond on any gadgets.
Which is not to say Bond doesn’t use any. There’s the memorable bit with the suitcase-sized safecracker/photocopier – memorable primarily because it gives Bond time to catch up with Hef’s latest. And there’s also his MacGyver moment, when he figures out how to foil the electronic lock on his door at Piz Gloria.
JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Portugal, then Switzerland. All very glamorous and romantic. Although, we must admit that some of the glamor hasn’t aged well: the Lawrence Welk color scheme in the hotel casino, for example.
ETC.: The title sequence is the second-lamest of the series, trumped only by Die Another Day’s: all the clips from previous Bond movies slipping through the hourglass betray an unseemly anxiety about Lazenby’s reception as Bond, and visually they just don’t work. The silhouettes are nice, though… They broke with (what was admittedly only a recent) formula by having no theme song, only an instrumental overture. It’s a good one, in the best traditions of Bond music, but one does miss Shirley Bassey. They make up for it, though, by including a brilliant original song as a love theme, “We Have All The Time In The World,” the great Louis Armstrong’s very last vocal. Overall this is one of composer John Barry’s finest hours. A great score… And it’s one of the series’ finest hours, too. One of the very best of Bonds.