Saturday, May 19, 2012

BOND-A-THON: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

There are those, including people for whom I have infinite respect and whose judgement I trust implicitly, who have a lot of time for ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ – who, in fact, consider it one of the high points of the series. If anyone of said inclination is reading this review, it’s probably best that you exit The Agitation of the Mind and I’ll see you in about ten days’ time for ‘Diamonds Are Forever’.

For anyone still reading, you might be expecting a rampant piece of ‘OHMSS’ bashing. But, even though the film is often referred to at chez Agitation as ‘On Her Majesty’s Shitty Service’, it’s not simply a matter of being scathing for 1500 words and having done with it. There’s a lot of good stuff about ‘OHMSS’ and I find myself wanting to like it more than I actually do. It’s just that the problems with the film are significant enough to counterbalance all the things about it that work and work well.

But before we get into the pros and cons, there’s some behind-the-scenes stuff to consider. During production on ‘You Only Live Twice’, Sean Connery announced that he was retiring from the role. Had the producers, at this point, decided “hey, you know what, Sean Connery is James Bond, nobody’s going to fill his shoes, let’s just wrap this whole thing up here and now and move onto some new and different projects”, I don’t think anyone would have blamed them. In fact, as much as I like a couple of the Roger Moore Bonds, I could easily live in a world in which they didn’t exist. Likewise the Brosnans. Ah, but then there’s the criminally undervalued work Timothy Dalton did, and Daniel Craig’s triumphant reinvigoration of the character in ‘Casino Royale’, so maybe they were right to press on regardless.

Plus, of course, Bond movies made fuckloads of money at the box office, and profitability is the deciding factor in any business decision.

It was 1967, two years before ‘OHMSS’ saw the inside of the movie theatre, and producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman approached Timothy Dalton to take on the role. At 21, Dalton felt he was too young. He would assume the mantle of Bond two decades later in ‘The Living Daylights’. Other actors were considered before Broccoli and director Peter Hunt, graduating from second unit work on previous productions, decided on George Lazenby. An Australian – cue the first flurry of controversy: a non-English actor playing Bond! – Lazenby was a male model whose only acting experience was restricted to commercials. Perhaps Broccoli or Hunt felt that – as Terence Young had done with Connery – he could be groomed for the role. Certainly Lazenby had the physicality. In a test shoot, he inadvertently broke a stuntman’s nose during some rough ‘n’ tumble. He knew martial arts. He had a ruggedly handsome look that matched the character’s ruthlessness.

Contrary to a still prevalent opinion, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ was neither a financial flop or a critical disaster. It hauled in a whopping $82 million from a $7 million budget (it was a considerably cheaper film to make than ‘You Only Live Twice’) and, in some quarters, earned very appreciative reviews. Nor was Lazenby ousted by the producers after the public didn’t take to him. $82 million in ticket sales, at an average of $1.50 for a ticket in 1969, suggests that moviegoers took to him pretty fine. Moreover, his original contract who have tied him to seven Bond films. In point of fact, Lazenby announced during production that he was only going to play Bond once, a decision often attributed to his agent’s belief that the character wouldn’t fare well with more sophisticated and liberated 70s audiences. His agent’s name was Ronan O’Rahilly. I can only assume that Nelson from ‘The Simpsons’ drives past his house every day, points and goes “Ha ha!”

So, with all that in mind, let’s move onto the film itself. ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ marks the last time that a Bond film had any real fidelity with its source material. In fact – disregarding ‘Thunderball’ which is essentially the film of the novel of the unproduced screenplay – it’s easily the most faithful adaptation. Hunt carried a copy on set at all times. He also decreed that the gadgetry and the OTT “boy’s own” action heroics were off the menu. He was determined that this iteration of Bond would present a more human character.

The plot – and this is tricky, because in the sequence of novels ‘OHMSS’ marks Bond’s first face-to-face encounter with arch-nemesis Blofeld, whereas in the filmic canon the two had already squared off ‘You Only Live Twice’ – has Bond become romantically involved with Teresa “Tracey” di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), the half-English daughter of Italian mob boss Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti). Bond loses no time in exploiting his potential father-in-law’s underworld connection to track down Blofeld (Telly Savalas). Draco points him to a lawyer’s office in Switzerland. Bond burgles said premises and discovers that Blofeld, passing himself off as a French count, is in correspondence with the London College of Arms, whom he is prevailing upon to legitimize his title. Bond consults with genealogist Sir Hilary Bray (George Baker) and, posing as Bray, arranges to meet Blofeld in the mountain-top clinic he’s running in the Alps.

With me so far? The novel – one of Fleming’s longest and ropiest – lurches all over the place in its first half, from Bond-meets-mafia-dude’s-daughter to Blofeld-wants-to-be-a-nobleman to brainwashing-in-the-high-Alps. It also – and I’ll switch on the blinking neon SPOILER ALERT sign for the rest of this paragraph – boasts his most downbeat ending: Bond does the unthinkable and (shudder!) gets married, only for his bride to die in a hail of bullets courtesy of a Blofeld-engineered act of revenge. It’s an effective ending in the novel and it sets up the Bond-goes-to-pieces opener of ‘You Only Live Twice’ very well … not to mention the big Bond-gets-mediaeval-on-Blofeld’s-ass set piece towards the end of the book. It’s a pretty audience-unfriendly ending for a movie, however – particularly a movie as firmly routed in the blockbuster/escapist entertainment mould as anything featuring 007 as is main character. Hunt’s idea – scuppered when Lazenby jumped ship – was to end with Bond and Tracey driving off into the sunset together and hold back her death for the pre-credits sequence of the next film. SPOILERS END.

Here’s what’s fucking great about ‘OHMSS’. For the most part, it looks terrific – classically shot, beautiful production design. At least two of the action sequences are as good they get – principally a car chase involving a stock car rally, and a helicopter attack on Blofeld’s eyrie that’s properly tense and exciting. Diana Rigg turns in one of the best performances of any Bond girl in the fifty years of the franchise: alternately vulnerable, hard as nails, brittle and yearningly romantic, Tracey is a fully rounded character, light years removed from the set dressing that most Bond girls provided. Telly Savalas reimagines Blofeld as a dapper and quite sardonic individual who clearly enjoys being a sociopathic bastard. In all the years of megalomaniacal Bond villains, only in Savalas’s performance has the pursuit of world domination seemed so appealing as a career opportunity.

And let’s use Blofeld as a segue into what’s wrong with it. In the latter stages of ‘OHMSS’, Blofeld threatens to unleash a chemical agent designed to wreak havoc with the world’s agriculture unless his demands are met, one of which is amnesty for his part in ‘Thunderball’. This preserves the continuity of the novels, but is so dismissive of the celluloid chronology that it’s almost an insult to the audience. “What’s that you say, audience? They’ve met before. Well not played by the same actors, they haven’t. So shut up and eat your popcorn.”

That’s the first thing that irritates me about ‘OHMSS’. There’s also a few scenes that are so badly edited – Bond’s hand-to-hand with Draco’s bodyguards; some ‘Where Eagles Dare’ stylee business on a cable car (is it day? is it night? is it snowing or isn’t it?) – it’s almost impossible to reconcile Hunt’s earlier work as an editor. Speaking of editing, at two hours twenty minutes – it would remain the longest Bond film till ‘Casino Royale’ beat it by four minutes in 2006 – ‘OHMSS’ drags in places and could have done with more stringency in the editing suite. I’ll let the dodgy back projection in the skiing and bobsled sequences slide – it’s no worse than in any of the mid-to-late period Roger Moore outings.

And finally we have Mr Lazenby. I really don’t want to go down the facile critical route of “George Lazenby can’t act = ‘OHMSS’ is a write-off”. I don’t want to do that because I don’t believe that Lazenby was necessarily a bad actor. His performance in Aldo Lado’s atmospheric giallo ‘Who Saw Her Die?’ three years later is definitely not that of a wooden amateur with no range. And he certainly nails the tragic final scene of ‘OHMSS’. He just doesn’t seem right as Bond, although I can’t help but feel that he was sabotaged by the filmmakers in this regard. From the breaking-the-fourth-wall pre-credits payoff (“This never happened to the other fellow”) to the ill-conceived scene where Bond, in his office, surveys mementoes of previous missions (as snatches of the theme music from previous films warble on the soundtrack), it’s as if Hunt and co. were doing their damnedest to bring in reminders of Connery rather than letting Lazenby be his own Bond.

It’s perhaps worth noting that Hunt treated Lazenby pretty shoddily on set, and that – although he went on to helm a couple more box office successes with ‘Gold’ and ‘Shout at the Devil’ – Hunt never returned to the Bond franchise. ‘OHMSS’ remains a transitional Bond movie. It was the last time for two decades that audiences would be offered the Bond of the novels. The next eight movies would develop the character into an indestructible sarcasm machine and indulge in some creative decisions much worse than anything on display here. (Oh the joys of what’s to come on this moviethon.) What works in ‘OHMSS’ works very well; unfortunately, these elements fall considerably short of being the sum of their parts.


Tim said...

Having just written my own review of this film, finally, the first thing I did was to scurry off to read yours (I've decided to catch up with your series in actor-by-actor chunks as I get through them), and I have no idea if you're reading comments so far but:

This. Is what criticism is all about. I came here loving OHMSS quite a hell of a lot, and damned if you haven't made me wonder whether I actually do. I mean, of course I do - I watched it just 12 hours ago and loved it as much as always - but you have cause me to seriously re-evaluate my feelings about why. Your arguments are impenetrable (except that I really like the fight with the bodyguards, assuming you mean the beach scene), and you've given me a new perspective that I feel an intense need to grapple with for a while.

For this, you have my very real thanks.

Neil Fulwood said...

Hi, Tim. Funnily enough, I returned to my review having just read yours and been struck by how many of the same things we picked up on - Rigg as the Bond girl supreme; the distracting insistence on continuity; the plodding world domination element. Thanks for your comments. My reference to the fight with the bodyguards isn't the beach scene - which works brilliantly until that awful "never happened to the other fella" line - but his second dust-up with them prior to entering Draco's office.

Thanks for your comments. 'OHMSS' offers perhaps more than any other Bond movie in terms of critical engagement/analysis. In fact, I already feel like I need to apologise upfront because you're going to run into a lot of glib, facetious prose as I work my way through the Moore outings.