Review: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
When M (Bernard Lee) refuses to let Bond (George Lazenby) go in pursuit of master criminal Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), Bond resigns from Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Unbeknownst to him, Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) has given M papers for Bond’s temporarily leave instead. Whilst attempting to locate Blofeld, Bond gets caught up with Countess Teresa di Vicenzo, AKA Tracy (Dame Diana Rigg), a gorgeous buy despondent daughter of crime boss Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti). Draco, seeing the developing love-hate relationship between the two, wants Bond to marry his daughter and offers up a million pounds to the secret agent. Bond agrees to the marriage, so long as Draco helps him in locating Blofeld’s current location. The bride and groom fall in love anyway. After getting the required information, and posing as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray (George Baker), Bond arrives as Blofeld’s Swiss hideout to discover what he and his second-in-command Irma Blunt (Ilse Steppat) are up to. A host of familiar faces (Joanna Lumley, Anouska Hempel, Julie Ege, and Jenny Hanley among them) turn up as the beauties Blofeld is supposedly ‘treating’ at his snowy medical facility.
A lot of people who probably haven’t even seen this 1969 Bond entry dismiss it because of who it stars. The thing is, if this starred Sean Connery, it’d be the best Bond movie ever. As is, it stars George Lazenby and features the best script for a Bond movie ever, credited to series veteran Richard Maibaum (“Dr. No”, “Goldfinger”, “Licence to Kill”) and Simon Raven (who mostly worked in television and writing novels). It’ll have to settle for being the second best Bond movie ever, since big-headed Lazenby didn’t have the sufficient acting chops and director Peter Hunt (who later directed the not-bad “Wild Geese II”) seemingly didn’t hire an editor on the film. Yep, this is a long one and too long at that.
We open with one of the worst gun barrel 007 themes ever, a cheap piano number. It’s certainly not the finest work composer John Barry (the stunning “Robin and Marian”) has ever done, let alone his best work in the series. It’s interesting that we start on M, Q, and Moneypenny though, as if the usual trio are there to give the new fella their seal of approval. Or back him up with some decent acting, I guess. Although we’re subjected to more of that ghastly piano tinkling, the slow reveal of Lazenby is a clever idea. Dame Diana Rigg is also introduced in rather harrowing fashion, showing early on that she won’t be your typical decorative Bond girl.
Unfortunately, Lazenby then opens his mouth…yeah, that talking thing is not gonna work out well for you, I’m afraid Mr. Lazenby. He got better by the time of 1975’s fun kung-fu flick “The Man From Hong Kong”, but in his debut he’s absolutely no actor. Fair cop though, Lazenby does look a bit like a skinny Connery in the right amount of shadow, while he also has zero issues wearing a tux or punching people in the face. In fact, on the latter he proves very effective. It’s the best thing about Lazenby’s Bond, he’s more than capable in action and the film gives him plenty of opportunity to show it. Being trained in martial arts, he may be quite lanky-looking but he’s very effective in the rough and tumble stuff. If he wasn’t so naïve and egotistical (though he blames his exit from the series mostly on the advice of his agent), he might’ve actually grown into the role in subsequent entries. Here he’s probably unfairly saddled with what at this stage was still Connery’s Bond, just played by the new guy. Oh well, at any rate he’s not as awful as reputed but awful enough to drag the film down into the #2 spot for me. After that little bit of introduction, we’re treated to an instrumental instead of a traditional Bond song to accompany the titles. Whilst the music for the titles is actually quite good (and redeems Barry for the rather weak 007 theme elements to the score)…you need a song. You just do. This one saves the song for later. That said, the ‘shadowy pointy tit and martini glass’ motif for the titles is fun.
Dame Diana Rigg’s Tracy is one of the series’ best Bond girls, and the immediately stunning and elegant Rigg is easily one of the best performers the series was ever graced with. That’s great given she’s given the unenviable task of working with one of the series’ worst performers in Lazenby (who prior to this was merely a model, not a trained actor at all). Tracy has a compelling sadness to her that no other Bond girl had, and in fact she’s no mere Bond girl, she’s a Bond Lady in my opinion. Hunt and the producers were smart to surround Lazenby with genuine actors like Rigg and the underrated Gabriele Ferzetti, who does a very classy job as Tracy’s shades-of-grey father. I also have to say that Lazenby gets to have one of my favourite exchanges with Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny, as 007 gets rather handsy with her. Including her appearance towards the end, it probably represents her finest hour on film. As for Louis Armstrong’s ‘We Have All the Time in the World’, it’s a lovely song, and while I can understand why it wasn’t used for the credits…I wish it had been. Lazenby gets to drive one of my favourite Bond cars, a 1969 Aston Martin DBS. It may look more like a Yank muscle car of the period than a typical Bond car (think “Bullitt”), but it suits Lazenby’s more rugged Bond really nicely. There’s a funny little bit where Bond reads Playboy while waiting for a gadget to open a safe, a nice little in-joke there for those in the know.
After a while though, you start to notice a problem. It’s not going anywhere much, and it’s not going there quickly. Although I like George Baker as an actor, his scene as Sir Hillary Bray, whilst it introduces us to Bond’s family crest and the motto ‘The World is Not Enough’, is ultimately mostly superfluous. I know why it was included, as Bond impersonates the man (but dubbed by Baker because Lazenby is a shit actor who probably couldn’t put on an English accent), but there were quicker ways to get to the same basic idea I think. It’s a problem because after 45 minutes Bond has only just arrived in Switzerland where the bulk of the action will take place. Ironic that pacing is an issue when you’ve got a film directed by former editor Peter Hunt (who edited “Dr. No”, “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger”) and edited by future Bond film director John Glen (who later directed “For Your Eyes Only”, “Octopussy”, “The Living Daylights”, and “Licence to Kill”). This is clearly too much movie, enjoyable as a lot of the film is.
Once we do get to Switzerland, we’re greeted to the very…er…handsome Ilse Steppat as Irma Blunt. In what was sadly her final performance, the perfectly cast Steppat is hilariously butch as the humourless Blunt, co-conspirator with Telly Savalas’ Ernst Stavro Blofeld. I’d go on record as saying that Irma Blunt might just be my favourite Bond henchperson to date, followed by (in no particular order) Tee-Hee in “Live and Let Die”, Fiona Vulpe in “Thunderball”, Jaws in “The Spy Who Loved Me”, Dr. Kaufman in “Tomorrow Never Dies”, Fatima Blush in “Never Say Never Again”, and Xenia Onatopp in “Goldeneye”.
I’ve always felt somewhat uncomfortable with Savalas’ casting in the role previously played perfectly by Donald Pleasence in “You Only Live Twice”. Savalas has his own inimitable style and presence, and the first couple of times I saw the film I liked him but thought him to be too clearly American. But y’know what? The only issue with Savalas is that he’s not Pleasence, and they should’ve kept Pleasence (and the facial scar) in the role here too. Apparently the director and producers felt Pleasence wasn’t right for this more physical version of Blofeld. At any rate, Savalas is fine, even if he holds a cigarette in the most peculiar and distracting way I’ve ever seen. He makes Blofeld more gangster than a typical Bond villain, but there’s still some definite megalomaniacal touches. He’s also more of an intimidating physical presence than any other actor to play the part. The “Austin Powers” films took the piss out of this film and “You Only Live Twice”, but I don’t think it ruined the fun. Blofeld’s supposed curing of girls’ allergies as a way of using hypnosis to turn them into an army of sleeper cell assassins is fun nonsense. It’s also goofy fun watching Lazenby visiting each of the girls nightly as he uncovers the plot. However, you do miss Rigg’s Tracy during these scenes, as she’s sitting on the sidelines for a while after having been so prevalent in the first half.
There’s some really terrific action in the film, especially the second half. There’s a particularly hair-raising cable car stunt that no one in their right mind would dare perform. Nope, not getting me to do that. We also get some nice night-time skiing action pursuit stuff, even though some of the footage looked suspiciously day-for-night to me. By far my favourite action scene in the film is the stock car chase on ice. That was super-cool. A later avalanche scene is one of the best in all of cinema as well. You can faintly hear some guitar in the 007 theme under all the gunfire and explosions at the climax, but the best aspect of Barry’s score is definitely his use of that opening titles music throughout, not the traditional 007 theme. As for the ending, you won’t find a better and more different end to a Bond film. Even with Lazenby’s mediocre acting, it’ll still break your heart.
There’s some truly terrific stuff here, but at over 140 minutes and being anchored by an uncharismatic lead, the film isn’t what it could’ve been. That said, it’s better to have too much than not enough, one supposes. It’s still a top-tier Bond flick though, with a great Bond girl, solid villain, good action, and some surprisingly emotional material towards the end. It’s just funny and a shame that the most emotional Bond film stars the most wooden actor to play 007 to date. Trim the fat, hire Connery and there’s no doubt this would’ve been #1. Hell, modern critical thinking indeed sees it as many people’s #1.