On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

*. Five movies may not sound like a lot, but Bond movies had become such huge media events that Sean Connery had had enough (for now). What’s remarkable, at least to me, is that the producers took the opportunity to actually do a bit of a franchise reset with the recasting of the lead role. It’s not just that George Lazenby is a new face. This feels like a different Bond movie, right from the start.
*. What’s also surprising is that they gave the keys to such an established and profitable property (not to mention the Aston Martin) to someone who had never been in a movie before and indeed had no real acting experience at all. Lazenby was chosen after being seen in a chocolate bar commercial. That his performance here has gone on to become a fan favourite says something about just how good your acting chops have to be in such a vehicle. As director Peter Hunt (who had worked on all the previous Bond films but would only take the helm for this one) put it: “I am not saying he [Lazenby] is an actor. There is a great deal of difference between an actor and a film star.” Very true.
*. Pauline Kael thought Lazenby “quite a dull fellow.” This is too harsh. He does have charm and physical presence, even managing to pull off a ruffled dicky and a kilt. But he is lacking the sparkle we associate with a true star, like Connery. He also gives a faint air of feeling somehow superior to the proceedings. And self-assurance is a quality that cuts two ways.
*. In any event, he was one and done as Bond, which is just another of the things that make this film sui generis in the canon.
*. The other big thing that sets it apart being the fact that it’s “the one where Bond gets married.” And here we can say that at least he married the right girl. Right both in the actress, Diana Rigg, and in the character, Tracy.
*. They’d originally wanted Brigitte Bardot for the part but I think Rigg, best known for being Emma Peel on The Avengers, is perfect. She is full of fire and fun. I love how she works her mouth in the scene where she’s driving around the ice-bowl smash-up derby, even getting her tongue in action at one point. And she really sells that fight at the end, perhaps drawing on her TV work. I just didn’t understand why they had to make such a big deal out of her cleavage. Rigg was all legs.

*. As for Tracy, she seems just the kind of privileged yet empty wild child that Bond might fall in love with. She needs an intervention, and frankly so does he. They’re both damaged goods, though stylishly so. I don’t think Lazenby and Rigg have much personal chemistry (my understanding is that she didn’t have much time for him), but on screen they work well enough, and their chemistry is, I think, helped by the fact that she’s the experienced actor.
*. Another change of pace is actually a throwback. The arc the Bond movies were on was heading toward ever sillier plots, stunts, and gadgetry, but here, while the plot is indeed silly (though it sticks pretty closely to Fleming’s book), the gadgetry is done away with and there’s more emphasis on old-fashioned fisticuffs. Lots of fisticuffs. It’s a very physical movie. Even Tracy gets slapped and then finally knocked out with a punch by her loving father (who had helpfully told Bond earlier that “What she needs is a man to dominate her.”)
*. This sense of being grounded but still spectacular when it needs to be received a big boost by the production coup of being allowed to film at a revolving restaurant in the Alps just before it opened. This would be Blofeld’s lair Piz Gloria, a name that the restaurant would later take as its own. This isn’t some Ken Adam set but a real place, and it feels like one. Some locations don’t have a studio substitute, even at Pinewood.
*. Sticking with Blofeld’s eyrie, the climactic attack with the helicopters coming in high out of the rising sun shows why Peter Hunt was the right guy for the job. It’s built out of a series of terrific shots that are ahead of almost anything we’d seen in a Bond movie before. This is great stuff.

*. Here’s another thing that’s new, and even perhaps unique. In the scene where Bond is running through the town being pursued by Irma Bunt and Blofeld’s agents we’re aware of something that Danny Peary picked up on. This Bond is “actually scared.” He even startles in fright at a man in a polar bear costume. You can’t imagine the “other fellow” getting frightened like that. And it all leads up to the scene where Bond, vulnerable and huddled into his coat so as not to be recognized, has Tracy skate up to him in all her leggy glory. It’s a bit of magic, and I can’t think of another moment like it anywhere in the Bond canon.
*. A more realistic, darker, and more cynical Bond movie. Not as much fun, but then fun wasn’t on the menu. Though it’s certainly not without its silly moments. People firing machine guns while skiing downhill? That’s silly (though it looks just as good here as it would in The Spy Who Loved Me, with both scenes being supervised by Willy Bogner). Falling into the snowblower was also silly, but a bit shocking for the time. I wonder if it was the inspiration for the similar scene at the end of In Order of Disappearance.
*. Blofeld’s plot to send his bevy of brainwashed bimbos out into the world as Angels of Death is also silly. It’s in Fleming’s novel, but it plays like any number of other spy movies with psychedelic hypnosis subplots (The Ipcress File, Our Man Flint). I also had to shake my head at Blofeld’s motivation. He just wants amnesty and recognition of his status as a count? As Tracy points out to him, she’s already a countess and it’s no big deal. “A very curious thing, snobbery,” as M puts it.
*. I like Telly Savalas as Blofeld. He suits the part much better than Donald Pleasence. He’s darker and more dangerous, and even funnier too in his own way. I don’t think Blofeld is as unhinged as Pleasence played him in You Only Live Twice. This Blofeld is more down to earth and charming. But locking Bond up in what is literally the only room in his cloud-top castle that can be escaped from strains credulity just a bit.
*. John Barry’s score gets a lot of praise, and much of it is on point, but I miss having a theme song. Of course with a title like that Barry knew it would be impossible (thinking, correctly, that the lyrics would make it sound like Gilbert and Sullivan), but the opening credits here, with their recap of scenes from previous movies in the series, just seem dreary to me.
*. Then there is the song “We Have All the Time in the World,” which is sung by Louis Armstrong. It went on to become a hit but I don’t care for it. It plays too much like what Roger Ebert identified as a film cliché around this time. In his review of Play Misty for Me (1971) Ebert called this the Semi-Obligatory Musical Interlude, which is “the scene where the boy and girl walk in the meadow and there’s a hit song on the sound track.” It’s movie shorthand for a couple falling in love. Useful from a practical point of view, but still a cliché.
*. I mentioned the lack of gadgetry, but there is in fact a safecracking machine and a portable photocopier. The latter being the kind of thing you now buy for $20 at an office supply store. Yes, times change, but I still wondered why Bond was bothering with printing out duplicates of all the papers when he could have just taken pictures of them with the miniature camera we later see him using. I guess a portable photocopier just seemed too neat a novelty to resist (in the next movie, Diamonds are Forever, the use of a card key was a similar novelty that has now become mundane and ubiquitous).
*. The Angels of Death are credited by nationality. But who was the Australian girl? Or the American, German, Irish, or Israeli? They’re not wearing national costumes.
*. Though it received mixed reviews when it came out it’s gone on to be considered one of the best of the Bond films, with many fans ranking it as their favourite. I wouldn’t put it that high but I would place it in my top 5. Despite its hefty running time it moves really well, is technically accomplished (Steven Soderbergh thought it “the best Bond film and the only one worth watching repeatedly for reasons other than pure entertainment”), and perhaps most remarkably it successfully readjusts the formula to go with a new star. It’s different from the other Bond films, but in a good way.
*. I have to end on a personal note. James Bond meant a lot to me growing up. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the first Bond movie I saw, in a hotel room in the ’70s on a black-and-white TV set (though as best as I recall it was not the televised version that was recut and that apparently had Bond providing narration). For years I thought it had been filmed in black-and-white. Anyway, I was just a kid. I think this was even before I had read any of Fleming’s books, and though I can’t remember exactly what I felt at the time I did go on to become a fan. So while I’ve forgotten a lot of these movies over the years, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the few that has stayed with me. I guess you never forget your first time.

23 thoughts on “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        I think having your wife die in your arms due to gunshot wounds on your wedding day can be summariesed with ‘didn’t have much luck with women’ with a degree of understatement…

      2. tensecondsfromnow

        But lucky in passing, meaingless relationships. Maybe it balances out…or maybe Bond’s dalliances are the reason (ie bad karma) that he doesn’t enjoy a nice quiet marriage?

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    And your thoughts on Joanna Lumley’s performance seem to have been edited out. What is it with your denial of one of Britain’s biggest stars, an actress with more career re-inventions than Madonna?

    1. Alex Good

      She does a good job as the English girl here, being brainwashed. But I checked out her impressive filmography on IMDb and I’m wondering what, out of all that, she is best known for. Why is she such an icon in your neck of the woods? I mean she’s not Leprechaun big, but she’s clearly very big.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        Massive MTA in the 60’s. Bond girl. Huge tv star via The New Avengers and sci-fi drama Sapphire and Steel. Comedy icon for AbFab. Political master who kicks ass in parliamament. Face of many good causes. Lumley is like the queen, but elected due to public opinion. Any one of these things would be enough make her a household name. In the UK, speaking negatively of Joanna Lumley is an offence punlishable by death. She rules this country.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I think I saw a couple of episodes of The New Avengers, many years ago. But the rest of it I’m not familiar with. Oh well. I’m glad she went on to do so much. I won’t speak ill of one of your icons.

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