BOND: Revisiting ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal has all the time in the world.

By its very nature, the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service (OHMSS) is a peculiar beast. OHMSS was the first, last and only film to star Australian George Lazenby as James Bond. It was also the only Bond film to be directed by long time Bond film editor Peter Hunt, as well as being amongst the most faithful adaptations of any of the original Ian Fleming Bond novels. Somewhat controversial when first released and now heralded as something of a Bond film classic, the question remains how successful was the last Bond film of the 1960s?

To answer that question, let's start by looking at its Bond. The fight scenes and action sequences throughout the film are proof that, at least on an action level, Lazenby was well suited to the role. Looking beyond that though one thing becomes apparent: his performance is wooden at times, largely due to his admitted inexperience. There are moments with the more experienced cast members where that lack is all too obvious, his scenes with Bernard Lee’s M in particular standing out for that reason. It also doesn't help that Lazenby spends a good portion of the film impersonating Sir Hillary Bray, looking ridiculous in virtually every costumes he's in, and being dubbed by actor George Baker. Yet his scenes with Diana Rigg's Tracy (especially where the two meet in Bond’s hotel room and the final scene of the film) show just how much Lazenby had potential. Despite his wooden performance at times, Lazenby does well for the most part, but seems ill-suited to this particular film, but more on that later.

Diana Rigg, just off her famous role as Emma Peel on TV’s The Avengers, steps in the much different role of Tracy aka Countess Teresa di Vicenzo. Rigg, a classically trained actress in her own right, shines in far and away the best written role of the sixties Bond women. Her and Lazenby share a good chemistry together which makes their on screen relationship all the more believable. Rigg's Tracy though is not only an emotional character, she is also a tough one, as displayed in the various action pieces she takes part in. Of special note is the fight between her and henchman Grunther during the battle at Piz Gloria. Between both the emotional and the physical, Rigg as Tracy might very well be the best female lead of the series’ sixties run, if not it’s now considerable history.

Telly Savalas is the second actor to play the villainous Blofeld. though he’s something of a weak point for the film. Savalas does well in the action sequences, especially the fight between him and Bond on the bobsled run towards the film's end. Where Savalas comes across less credible is when he tries to play the sophisticated side of Blofeld, coming across as miscast in the role of a villainous snob. The result is a better Blofeld then seen in You Only Live Twice but still an ill-suited one.

OHMSS has an intriguing supporting cast as well. There's two fine performances from Gabriele Ferzetti as Tracy's father Marc Ange Draco and Ilse Steppat as Blofeld's hench-woman Irma Bunt. Making short but welcome appearances helping Bond on his quest to find Blofeld are George Baker as Sir Hilary Bray (who also dubs Lazenby's Bond for a good portion of the running time) and Bernard Horsfall as MI6 agent Campbell. Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, and Desmond Llewelyn all give good performances in their roles especially in the cases of Lee and Maxwell. Yet there’s a big aspect of the supporting cast that doesn't quite work as well, namely the various girls who populate Blofeld's mountain base such as Angela Scoular as Ruby Bartlett who overacts his her way through her screen time. Despite that, OHMSS still features one of the best supporting casts of any Bond film.

The production values, while smaller in scope then those in the two previous Bond films, suit the film well. The production design of Syd Cain lends the same realistic feel his sets gave to From Russia With Love and have the same effect. Meanwhile, the cinematography of Michael Reed makes this one of the visually pleasing Bond films, especially when joined by Johnny Jordan’s sprawling airborne camera work. Indeed the use of montage to quickly get across the deepening relationship between Bond and Tracy, with Louis Armstrong's beautiful rendition of John Barry's song We Have All The Time In World, is one of the most beautiful sequences to have ever appeared in a James Bond film. The direction of Peter Hunt, the long time editor of the series, is well suited to virtually every scene; from his stylish introduction of Lazenby's 007 to the tragic final scene. As a result OHMSS is incredibly strong in production values because of, not in spite of, its more low key nature.

Making up for that low key nature of the production values are the action sequences, which are nothing short of stunning. Starting with the beach fight in the teaser sequence and ending with the battle for Piz Gloria and the fight on the bobsled run, the films action sequences stand out as original and exciting, something most action sequences lose as the film they appear in ages. In particular the ski and snowbound sequences stand out even fifty years later due to that very fact. OHMSS is an action film and brilliantly succeeds as such.

Of course, OHMSS is more than that. It's one of the most faithful adaptation if any of the Fleming source novels, even though it does make some changes for film. Some of those have odd consequences, like adding the fight in the film's teaser which is exciting to watch but makes very little sense plot wise. But what comes across the most is that this is one of the most human and emotionally real Bond films. It's focus on the relationship between Bond and Tracy makes certain of that fact. Yet despite that, OHMSS is a well constructed film that brilliantly rides the fine balance between action sequences and emotional moments.

In a way though, this is the biggest problem that OHMSS faces. It feels like this is the film that the series has been building to ever since Dr. No back in 1962. Yet, OHMSS introduces a new Bond into a new situation with an old villain played by a new actor. Somehow it just doesn't gel together the way it should. The new Bond means that this character, going into a new situation, is someone we have no emotional connection to, certainly not in the way that we would if previous Bond actor Sean Connery has stayed on. In fact the greatest shame is that Connery couldn't be convinced to stick around to do this one, last film. It needs a Bond we know and love and, despite how good Lazenby is for the most part, we don't have the attachment that is needed to make the film work. It's a fine Bond film but it's worst possible situation to introduce a new Bond into the mix and it shows.

One last note is John Barry's score for the film. Barry had gone from strength to strength as the series went on and OHMSS represents something of a pinnacle. Barry puts everything he's done and takes it up a level with both the action pieces of the film, based around an incredible instrumental main title theme, to its emotional moments based around the song We Have All The Time In The World. The main title theme in particular is an amazing piece of Barry score, especially when combined with the title sequence of Maurice Binder that uses clips from previous Bond films to show that we are indeed watching the same series of films as before. Barry's OHMSS score is a triumph not only for Bond but for the film score as a genre and stands out highly amongst Barry's myriad of scores.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service feels like it ought to be the ultimate Bond film given the strength of much of its acting, its production values, script and John Barry's score. Sadly, the weakness of its Bond and Blofeld along with certain members of the supporting cast show that OHMSS isn't quite perfect. This isn't the film you introduce a new 007 into and  it suffers as a result. It is however a very good Bond film but not quite the classic it has become regarded as, though it ranks up among them thanks to the work of all involved.

Revisiting Dr. No
Revisiting From Russia With Love
Revisiting Goldfinger
Revisiting Thunderball
Revisiting You Only Live Twice

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.  

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