Thursday, 22 December 2011

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Oh look, it's Christmas! All Bond films are traditional festive TV fare, of course, but this is the Christmas Bond and, for better or worse, it's one of many distinctive elements that mark out On Her Majesty's Secret Service as different.

For the last time until Casino Royale, one of Ian Fleming's stories is told on screen. Saltzman and Broccoli had been trying to produce OHMSS since 1964. It was due to be the next movie after Goldfinger, but the legal wrangles over Thunderball displaced it. They wanted to make it instead of YOLT, but it was the wrong time of year for the required snowy mountain locations. Postponed again, it finally made it to the screen in 1969 with unknown model-turned-actor George Lazenby debuting as the new 007 and the ghost of Sean Connery lingering unhelpfully in the background.

The received wisdom is, I suppose, that if he had been available instead of Lazenby, this would be far and away the best Bond film of them all. But I'm not so sure. No, it's not the greatest movie and Lazenby was never going to win any Oscars. And yes, the weird newness of it all discombobulated audiences of the time who thought they knew what to expect from silly old James Bond.

But that's exactly the point. The brilliance of this is that we see the brutish invulnerability of Connery transformed - as much by the excellent story as by the casting - into something else, surprising and unthinkable. I simply can't imagine Connery making this film because I'm not altogether sure he'd have been able to provide what was needed. Maybe, if it had gone ahead in '65, he might have been still sufficiently interested to up his game, but I can't see the '67 version being at all bothered. Either way, his Bond is seemingly pathologically incapable of tenderness and without that OHMSS would be sunk. I firmly believe that for this film, we got the Bond we needed.

When I was very little, five years old, I played James Bond at school with two friends in the playground. Of course, we all wanted to be 007 and so the solution was that one of us would be Sean Connery, one Roger Moore and the other George Lazenby and we'd play all together in one meta team-up. And yes, we argued who would be who, because Sean was best, Roger was okay and nobody wanted to be George. It was playground common sense.

Just one example of how Lazenby and his performance in OHMSS have been unfairly maligned. But the truth is that he is engaging and convincing, albeit within a limited range. Like Craig, he is a beefcake Bond, but he also has a young man's body, full of (occasionally nervous) energy. He fidgets in M's office. He swings his arms when he walks. He throws everything into his punches and kicks in an extravagant and flamboyant fighting style, as if he's not quite in control of himself. It may be difficult to believe the man's a ninja, but he's definitely James Bond. Behind the wheel, in the casino, fighting or drinking, he cuts the mustard. The scene where he faces up to Blofeld is a perfect example. It's not much of a stretch, acting-wise - just "you'll never get away with this" stuff - but that's James Bond sat there, chin out, defiant, resolute, bloody but unbowed.

And even better, he presents emotions and expressions that we haven't seen before. Connery's Bond is a bit of a bastard and I never got the impression he was capable of any act that wasn't self-serving. With Lazenby, Bond becomes a (sort of) gentleman, exhibiting compassion, kindness and honesty. He dries Tracy's tears. He turns down Draco's £1,000,000 dowry by quoting the Bible ("her price is far above rubies"). Most poignantly of all, he flings Moneypenny his hat (instead of a bouquet) at the wedding. She clasps it and they share a single lingering glance. It's beautiful. But swap George for Sean and it would have been an entirely one-sided moment and all the worse for it.

This new Bond is also capable of doubt, anxiety and even fear. On the run from SPECTRE's thugs he tries to lose himself in a crowd of Christmas revellers, dejected, cold, alone and cornered. The perfect opportunity for the future Mrs Bond to show that she is deserving of him, magically skating into view to mount a rescue. This is the point when Bond falls in love, surely? As they run to her car she directs him with the command "Near-side door!" No woman in the series has spoken like that before and I reckon he melts right there.

Yes, Tracy - played by Diana Rigg - is something else. Almost, but not quite a one-off (the series will play with similar scenarios later), she is complete in a way that none of the previous women we've seen so far have been allowed to be. Rider was strong but child-like. Tania, an adoring patsy. Pussy Galore was good at her job but too cold. Fiona Volpe was sexy, deadly and independent, but only because she was a baddy. Kissy and Aki were capable, but demure and reserved. Tracy is given special dispensation by the Bond Universe to be sexy, reckless, fearless, capable, intelligent and even a little bit dangerous. She's also allowed her own opinions and a feisty independence that she looks set to maintain in marriage if the conversation with her father after the ceremony is any guide. She is Bond's match and the love story, although disjointed, is completely believable.

It helps that Rigg - unlike nearly all her predecessors - was both an established actor rather (than a beauty queen) and not redubbed. In more ways than one, Tracy is the first Bond woman to have her own voice.

The other guest stars are good too. Gabrielle Ferzetti is excellent as Tracy's father, the gangster boss Marc-Ange Draco. Charismatic, funny, stylish he's the best and most likeable man Bond's run into since poor Kerim Bey in FRWL. And it always surprised me, post-Kojak, that Telly Savalas should pop up as Blofeld, but he makes a good job of it: there's a chill unctuous menace behind the sophistication. These characters are convincing and effective because it's the emotional decisions they make that drive the story. Yes, there's some notional biological warfare plot, but it's almost entirely redundant. Blofeld's real motivation is his search for legitimacy, the idea being that his past crimes can be absolved and that he can be accepted into polite society as a Polish count. That he chooses to try and achieve this by holding global food-production to ransom is what makes him a super-villain of course: a permanent outsider, face pressed against the window of civilisation, the bully who wants to play but can't understand why the other children always cry and run away. For a James Bond film this is practically Ibsen.

Everyone else is also trying to plug the gaps in their incomplete lives. Draco is a concerned parent, determined not to helplessly stand by and watch his daughter's self-destruction. Bond and Tracy, perhaps, don't know what it is they're missing until they find each other. Even Moneypenny has a hole that can only be filled by one man.     

Most shockingly of all we meet, for the first time, an ordinary person. Amongst the harem of beautiful guinea pigs in Blofeld's mountain laboratory is curly-haired Ruby Bartlet, a chicken farmer's daughter from Morecombe Bay, Lancashire. Her accent is quite the most exotic thing to appear in the series so far but she's so normal, it's as if she's wandered in off the set of Coronation Street. It's a little thing, but it's a sign of how Britain has changed during the Sixties and a welcome and refreshing blast of modern life.

There's another welcome change here too as, for once, Bond's legendary effect on women is justified by the context: a group of suggestible young women have been locked up in a mountain lodge for months with only Frau Bunt for company when in walks young, buff George Lazenby in a kilt. I think they can be forgiven for having their heads turned, even if he is pretending to be a tweedy old bookworm.

Yes, there's an odd decision. Why take your new Bond and subsume him inside a different character all together for half an hour? I have to say I was surprised to discover that it is only thirty minutes that Bond has to pretend to be Sir Hillary Bray, Sable Basilisk of the College of Arms, for in my memory this sequence seemed to take up half the film. I think the problem is that Peter Hunt, the director, felt he had to dub over Lazenby's lines as Bond/Bray, replacing his voice with that of George Baker (Inspector Wexford to you) who plays the real Bray. It distances the new Bond from us at a time when we need to be getting more familiar with him.

As soon as his cover is blown, things really go up a gear with a terrific set of action sequences that play to Lazenby's strengths as a physical Bond. Firstly a tense escape via the gear wheels of a cable car winch, then a blistering night time ski-chase backed by John Barry's incredible OHMSS theme, this passage is a highlight of the series. 

It's not, though, for that that OHMSS is remembered. This is 'the one where his wife dies'. Tracy's death is shown just as it appears in the book, but the original plan was not to have it in the movie. If Lazenby had stayed on - and, contracted for seven films, he would have done had he not become disenchanted with being James Bond - then the plan was to have Tracy killed at the beginning of his second film. When Lazenby announced part-way through filming that he had had enough, the decision was taken to stick to the book's ending.

But it didn't go down well. Such is the shock of the drive-by killing in the last few minutes that it elbows aside details like James Bond getting married, or being played by George Lazenby. Audiences could cope with a new Bond. They were prepared to see him fall in love. But they didn't like the downbeat ending and there were boos at some showings. It was seen as a transgression that could not be tolerated in a James Bond film.

In Fleming's books, Tracy's death marks for Bond the beginning of an inexorable break down and he slowly unravels over the course of the remaining novels. It's a shame in some ways because the later books suffer as a result, struggling under the weight of it all. But at least, as a series, these stories are dramatically coherent and characters evolve over time with some degree of realism. This option wasn't available to the film series - without Lazenby around to develop his character and once the audience's reaction to OHMSS had been absorbed, the producers had no choice but to turn away from the continuing drama. Tracy's death is scandalously dealt with in the opening minutes of DAF with a few right hooks and a mouse trap but the emotional consequences for Bond don't even reach beyond the end credits of OHMSS. As soon as George Lazenby's Bond fades from the scene, it's somehow over and done with.

Until Casino Royale and Daniel Craig, I think it's fair to say that OHMSS was seen as a dead end in the Bond franchise. Lazenby gets the blame for this, and I'm sure most people assume he was dropped or fired for being mistakenly cast. He wasn't (and if you don't believe me, look here to see who else was considered). But without him, the emotional weight and impact of the film couldn't be sustained. Despite the odd grimace by Moore or Brosnan, the rest of the series is inoculated from the trauma because Tracy's death becomes something that only affects Lazenby's Bond as if, in his one-off appearance, he took an emotional bullet on behalf of all the others. And because we never see him again, it's impossible not to conclude that Lazenby's Bond, like Fleming's, never recovered which is why Roger Moore had to come back and avenge it for him.

Yes, Roger Moore. He may look and sound like a tubby middle-aged Scotsman, but DAF is really the first Roger Moore Bond film - they just hadn't cast him yet. In a panic, the producers wrenched things back to what the public demanded and for most of the next eighteen years both Bond and his films would be light-hearted, flippant and louche.

OHMSS, pushed to one side, became the experiment that no one wanted to mention. But not only is it one of the very best Bond films, it's also the template for the utterly brilliant modern Bond we have in the Craig films.


* * *

Pre-Credits Sequence: The introduction of the new 007 is carefully done and with some style - right up until Lazenby sticks his dimpled jaw through the fourth wall and reminds us there used to be some other James Bond. 

Theme: Many hold this to be Barry's best Bond score but his OHMSS theme is definitely completely brilliant: a throbbing muscular instrumental over which Binder has dumped some angular purple spatchcocked graphics.  

Deaths: 28. In fact no one dies at all for the first, what, hour and a half?  

Memorable Deaths: Two henchmen fall off the precipice. Another goes into the snow-grinding-whatever-it-is machine. Oh, and Mrs Tracy Bond is shot in the head. Spoilers!  

Licence to Kill: 5. He's trying to cut down.

Exploding Helicopters: 0. But this isn't about exploding helicopters.

Shags: 3. Although for the first time we see him get it on with the same woman twice in one film which makes me realise I'm counting sexual partners not acts. 

Crimes Against Women: Bond smacks Tracy across the face. It must be love. Caddishly, he re-uses the same shtick on Ruby Bartlet as he does on Catherine Schell. There are some patronising 'Good girl!'s to Tracy as she saves his ass, but he does mean it kindly.

Casual Racism: Each of Blofeld's patients comes from a different country and is allergic to something horribly stereotypical - hence the Chinese woman eats nothing but rice; the African, bananas; the Indian, naan bread. 

Out of Time: Bond's safe-cracking photocopier is perhaps the most cumbersome spy gadget ever. Everything is very 1969 with garish d├ęcor in the hotel and some far out fashion.

Fashion Disasters: George can get away with a lot (the kilt and the tweeds for example - and he totally rocks a cardigan somehow) but the brown and orange golf suit is horrible. And what the hell does Blofeld think he's up to in tight leggings and skull cap? He looks like Rumpelstiltskin. 

Eh?: Just the one thing: how the hell does Blofeld not recognise Bond the minute he walks in? Or did YOLT not really happen?  

Worst Line: Lazenby should never have been given lines like "Hmm, Royal Beluga. North of the Caspian." because they make him sound like someone trying to be James Bond. Worse still, he's talking to himself, so it sounds as if he's trying to make himself think he's James Bond. And then there's "This never happened to the other fella." Again, thanks for drawing my attention to the fact that you are not James Bond.

Best Line: Moneypenny's convinced though. Bond asks her, "what would I do without you?" "My problem," she replies, "is that you never do anything with me..." And Marc-Ange Draco gets lots of good lines, the best of which is his mild exhortation to 007: "Do not kill me, Mr Bond. At least, not until we've had a drink." Bond gets several saucy asides which, surprisingly, are pretty funny and not cringe-worthy. I'll leave you to remember/find them yourself because it'd take too long to set them up.

Worst Bond Moment: If you don't think George can handle the romantic scenes then it'll be all of those. For me, it's when he starts declaiming to M on lepidoptery. He bothered to master all these useless subjects and never learned to defuse nuclear bombs? (He'll have remedied this before TSWLM, don't worry.) And let's not mention Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? shall we?

Best Bond Moment: The first ski-chase is one of the all time great Bond moments. If you don't cry when Bond throws his hat, bouquet-style, to Moneypenny at the wedding then you are a monster.  

Overall: Tender, poignant, romantic, heart-breaking. Exhilarating music and chases, raw and visceral fights,  beautiful, beguiling women and a charismatic villain. This is excellent.


James Bond Will Return: ... in Diamonds Are Forever. But not like this.



4 comments:

  1. A great review of my favorite Bond movie. I read every word. At the theaters I attended when Bond said, "This never happened to the othe fellow." audiences cheered. As for me, if I could be Bond, I'd be Lazenby.

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  2. Hi Paul, thanks for reading. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

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  3. Lazenby to Craig continuity well illustrated: http://youtu.be/vMC5UKaa2vg

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  4. Thanks for the link Tom, good video!

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