On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Posted: June 14, 2019 in James Bond
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And so we come to the final Bond film of the 60s, and a somewhat unique beast given its atypical length (until Casino Royale this was the longest Bond film by far) unconventional structure (certainly in comparison to most of the franchise) and of course, most notably, the fact that it’s the one and only time George Lazenby straps on the Walther PPK.

If I’m asked to name my favourite Bond film, OHMSS tends to trip automatically off my tongue, but it had been a few years since I’d seen it so, as with each film in this re-watch, I did have a little trepidation going in, would it live up to my lofty expectations, or would it appear I’ve been labouring under a false belief all these years.

Let’s cut to the chase, I bloody love it!

It really is a top-drawer film, a proper film in so many ways, and it’s interesting to compare it to the mishmash that was You Only Live Twice. The script here is far stronger, which helps enormously, and by all accounts this is the Bond flick that adheres most directly to the book (which I really must read again). Peter Hunt’s direction also helps. One can’t help feeling that he’s choosing to direct a film, not a Bond film, and I wonder if the franchise could do with trying that again some time.

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Given it’s his one and only film, let’s talk Lazenby. Old George gets a rough time from critics, he’s wooden, he can’t act, he’s a joke. In all honestly Lazenby could be considered one of the weakest elements of the film, yet also, conversely, maybe it’s strongest asset. In the end however good Rigg is (and we’ll come onto Dame Diana shortly) this film succeeds because of that final scene, and the fact that George sells it in a way many another Bond actor might not have. It’s even more evident after so recently watching YOLT, but just imagine Connery in that final scene. I shudder at the very thought. It’d be like Austin Powers at the start of The Spy who Shagged Me “Way hey, I’m single again!”.

Lazenby won’t ever win a best Bond contest, but he was the perfect Bond for the perfect Bond film. His inexperience and vulnerability make this film work, and sure, he wouldn’t have been half as good in something like Goldfinger, but in OHMSS he’s spot on, and I really wish he’d done one more film, and that the producers had decided to focus on Bond getting revenge rather than the half hearted attempt Connery makes during Diamond’s pre title sequence (but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

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I do love a happy ending…

Lazenby certainly has the look, and it’s amazing to consider he was just 28 when this was made! And really I don’t think he’s that terrible an actor all things considered, and he potentially could have grown into the role. He has the physicality, and convinces in the action scenes, but also the romantic ones. He and Diana Rigg may or may not have hated each other during filming, but onscreen at least they effortlessly play the part of two people madly in love, and however much Diana may have been carrying George at time in those scenes, it really does take two to tango, so I think he deserves some credit.

Yes his delivery of some lines is a little ropey, and he doesn’t have the witty delivery of Connery (or Moore or Brosnan) but he arguably gives one of the greatest bits of the franchise when he’s cradling Tracy’s head in his lap.

tracy3So let’s talk Tracy. Oh my, if OHMSS is my default fave Bond film, then Diana Rigg is my default fave Bond girl, and let’s be clear here, she more as likely always will be. Beautiful and determined, ethereal yet steely, Diana Rigg is nothing short of magnificent, and after all the, let’s be honest, insipid Bond girls we’ve had up to now (excepting Fiona Volpe of course) Tracy is a breath of fresh air. This is a character with true agency, a damaged soul who, lest we forget, when we first meet is trying to kill herself. She’s a risk taker, a woman who, as her father says, has burned the life out of herself by living too fast. This is a woman who gambles with money she doesn’t have and then pays her debt in Bond’s bed, which is her decision, unlike certain other 007’s Lazenby does give her the option of not paying her debt in this fashion. Yes, you could argue she’s a damsel in distress who needs Bond to save her, but I think that’s a flawed assertion. What rises Tracy way above the average is that she chooses to let Bond save her. He doesn’t just rescue her, she lets him rescue her.

And of course she’s quite capable of looking after herself, she skis as well as Bond, drives as well as Bond, and is pretty handy in a fight as well, just see how she despatches Gunther late on—and interesting to note that the Bond theme that started playing when the attack on Piz Gloria began, cuts out just as she kills him, almost like she was 007 (now there’s a thought to rile an awful lot of fans!)

She’s also quite capable of turning on the charm, and the scene where she quotes James Elroy Flecker to beguile Blofeld is so joyous I think I could watch it on a loop all day.

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“Who loves ya baby!”

Ah, Blofeld. Savalas is an interesting choice, the very antithesis of Pleasance, and not remotely like Charles Grey who’ll be up next, but if he perhaps isn’t an urbane foe, he does at least make for an intimidating one. You can’t imagine Donald Pleasance or Grey in a bobsleigh after all. He’s not the best Blofeld, but he might well be the most dangerous. His grand scheme is bonkers, and it’s nice that even he acknowledges that his price is ridiculous!

As Tracy’s father Draco Gabriele Ferzetti has the kind of easy charm that places Draco on a par with Kerim Bey or Tiger.

Ilse Steppat is wonderful as Irma Bunt, albeit there are shades of Rosa Kleb to the character. I hadn’t realised that she sadly died just a few days after the film’s release. She was only 52.

Tragedy would also befall another cast member, albeit later in life. I won’t go into Angela Scoular’s demise here, but I will say that Ruby Bartlett was a joy, can you imagine a Lancashire gal like that turning up in a Bond film these days?

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This certainly never happened to the other fella!

There are some other famous faces in amongst Blofeld’s angels of death of course. Catherine Schell would go on to play Maya in Space 1999, and before eventually winding up as Patsy in Ab Fab,  Joanna Lumley would of course follow in Diana Rigg’s boots by being in the (New) Avengers.

The recurring characters get a few nice moments, in particular Lois Maxwell plays nicely against Lazenby, and there’s a nice moment between her and M (such a shame Maxwell didn’t get the job as M, imagine that dynamic when Bond came in for his assignment!) Q’s wedding day advice to Bond is quite amusing as well.

The action scenes are top notch here, although you do have to wait a while, 007 doesn’t kill anyone until we’re 90 minutes in. This gives the film room to breath of course, and allows for the courtship of Bond and Tracy, Casino Royale will attempt the same thing, only slightly less successfully as it will be squeezed in near the end.

Eventually we get ski chases, and car chases, helicopter attacks and Lazenby sliding along the curling track firing a submachine gun, and we get that bobsleigh chase as well. Not to mention Bond’s escape from the cable car control room is quite hairy as well.

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Bond also gets to do some actual spying, breaking into Gumbold’s office and his safe before making off with his copy of playboy, and then going under cover as Sir Hilary Bray.

And okay, here’s where we get one of the film’s several contrivances. Why doesn’t Blofeld recognise James?  I mean they have met, that both men look different doesn’t negate the fact that technically they’re the same men they were in YOLT. Maybe 007’s had plastic surgery (an idea that didn’t make the final script) maybe Blofeld banged his head when he was escaping that exploding volcano or maybe, like Lois Lane, Ernst Stavro is easily fooled by a pair of glasses?

In the end it doesn’t spoil the film one iota, and nor does the convenience of Bond happening to bump into Tracy at the ice rink.

I’ve said this is my favourite film, and features my favourite Bond girl, but it also features my favourite Bond tune. No, not We have all the time in the world, though Louis Armstrong’s song is a doozy. I’m referring to John Barry’s instrumental. A wonderfully evocative and exciting track that still gets my heart pumping to this day, and yes I even like it better than the James Bond theme!

You can quibble about the producer’s decision to hark back to the previous films all day—scenes from the past films play over the titles, when Bond is considering resigning his draw is full of all manner of props from other films (though how he got Honey’s knife off her I’ll never know) and we even get a man whistling Goldfinger as he cleans Draco’s office—and you can be annoyed at Bond breaking the fourth wall for the one and only time, but I really don’t care, and Bond’s “This never happened to the other fellow,” like the title track, never fails to make me smile.

A Bond film like no other, with a Bond girl like no other and, most importantly of all, an ending that knocks the stuffing out of you, OHMSS really is magnificent.

Now on to the seventies and the return of a familiar face…

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Comments
  1. OHMSS is one of the finest Bond films, in my top three and always a joy to watch. Great review.

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