Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Brandon Peters dissects the 007 series part 06: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

With Skyfall dropping in theaters in just a few months, along with the 50th anniversary of the James Bond series, a close friend and fellow film nerd, Brandon Peters, has generously offered to do a comprehensive review of the entire 007 film franchise. Today is the sixth entry, with an extra-detailed look at one of the more controversial films in the James Bond series, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. I hope you enjoy what is a pretty massive feature leading up the November 9th release of Skyfall. I'll do my best to leave my two-cents out of it, give or take a few items I have up my sleeve (including a guest review from my wife as she sings the praises of her favorite 007 film, you won't believe what it is). But just because I'm stepping aside doesn't mean you should, as I can only hope for robust discussions in the comments section. Without further ado...

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Director: Peter Hunt
Starring: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Ilse Steppat, Bernard Lee
Rated PG

You’ve got sharp eyes and beautiful…earlobes.
                                ~James Bond
Kills: 14
Bond Girls:  Tracy di Vicenzo, Ruby Bartlett, Nancy (no last name given)
Car:  1969 Aston Martin DBS
Locales: Portugal, Switzerland
Odd Villain Trait: Blofeld has no earlobes
Song: “We Have All the Time in the World” performed by Louis Armstrong

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS from here out) delivers the first 007 film to fuel  long conversations regarding its worth and where it stands in the pantheon of the series.  George Lazenby makes his sole appearance as the first Eon James Bond not played by Sean Connery.  For the longest time, this entry was regarded as one of the worst.  In the last 10 years or so it’s grown in esteem to the point where there are a good number of 007 devotees going so far as to claim it as the best film in the series.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) is hidden away atop Piz Gloria in Switzerland fronting a clinical allergy research institution.  With the aid of his Rosa Klebb clone henchwoman Irma Blunt (Ilse Steppat) he plans on brainwashing 12 women from around the world (Angels of Death) to distribute bacteriological warfare agents upon returning home.  He also is keen on claiming he is the Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp.  And to this day I still really have no idea why it’s such a big deal to him (readers?).  Meanwhile, the daughter of a known mob boss catches the eye of James Bond.  Her father, Marc Ange-Draco, offers his daughter’s hand to Bond for the sum of 1 million pounds.  Bond isn’t interested, but agrees to continue to court her in the event he is given information regarding Blofeld’s whereabouts.  The info leads 007 to  a law office leading having information that connects Blofeld to a genealogist Sir Hilary Bray, whom he has been in contact with regarding his possible coat of arms.  Bond assumes Bray’s identity leading him to Blofeld’s facility in Switzerland.

I’m not going to start by talking about James Bond.  When you really look at OHMSS, it really isn’t his movie (OHMSS makes the mistake and forgets that for a long stretch, hurting the fillm).  The gem and absolute anchor of this film is its Bond Girl, Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg).  She is an true beauty and an extremely compelling character.  For the first time in the series we get a Bond girl with looks, charm, and genuine substance.  She is the one who goes through a full character arc over the course of the runtime.  It is her whom we are hoping to see prevail, whom we bite our nails for during the chase.  The film begins with her desiring nothing from the world and trying to leave it, but being forced to continue to live in it.  Tragically, it ends with her murder just as Tracy beginx living for the future and looking to explore all the mysteries of life.  Diana Rigg gives the best performance of any woman in a 007 film to this point (and maybe ever).  Tracy starts as an unstable and damaged woman, estranged from her father and intrigued with being involved in dangerous situations. 

We get our first glimpse of Tracy as she races past 007 to the beach in hopes of drowning herself.  Bond saves her, but his heroics are short-lived when he is confronted by two goons while Tracy escapes.  Tracy’s true introduction into the film is stroke of genius.  James Bond is dealing baccarat at the table in his hotel casino.  We get a while to watch him as he plays.  Then, from off-screen, we hear a voice chiming in to the game.  Then we see the female hands laying the ante down and the camera pans up to see Tracy, looking dashing and with her own sense of swagger.  It is a complete call back to how we were introduced to James Bond in Dr. No and much like his entrance to the baccarat game in Thunderball.  It’s letting us know right then and there, this girl is different from the ‘bimbos’ that have come before.  She is somebody and actually means something.  She plays a nice game with Bond at first, trying to look dangerous and uninterested, but you can tell she is sort of taken with him.  She plays Bond like he’s played his women in the previous films.  While some of the words in the script may attempt to suggest different, Rigg’s acting conveys her wearing the pants in the relationship.

Diana Rigg carries this film in a way no other female has or will.  You really can’t take your eyes off of her because she just commands you to watch.  The film suffers greatly when she gets benched for almost an hour of the film.  This comes when Bond investigates Blofeld’s facility as a gay man (“allergic to women” – one might think with this cover he’s thoughtful and keeping loyal to Tracy) and is met with the Angels of Death.  This whole part of the plot almost feels like a pornographic parody of the 007 series when watching it.  It’s an allergy clinic full of some of the most exotic gorgeous shallow and dumb women of the world, swooning over the first man who stops by.  After the connection and believability of the Bond/Tracy relationship, it just doesn’t feel right when Bond sleeps with 2 greatly inferior women. One, played by Angela Scoular, creepily looks like Ash’s possessed girlfriend in the Evil Dead.  She has always given me the willies. Ick.  The only thing this makes you do is wonder about Tracy, miss her presence and make you like James Bond much less.  I know this film follows the novel very closely, but as You Only Live Twice had shown just before, things CAN be altered to great lengths in this series.  This whole series of events in the film is played for some suspense and sneaking around, but the film is generally uninteresting once you discover the big plan.  The Angels of Death seem rather harmless and Blofeld’s diabolical debauchery doesn’t feel threatening at all.  The only thing in jeopardy is Bond’s safety.  And once he gets caught it, only then does it get actually suspenseful.

Australian model George Lazenby was chosen to fill some of the biggest shoes in film history.  The film is his first and for the most part, it shows.  Part of his attitude of being a big shot for being 007 and knowing it comes across in most of his scenes.  It’s almost like you can hear him thinking “Yeah, nailed it. Good job George” after line deliveries.  It’s funny too, as a good 45 minutes of the movie he’s dubbed because the director didn’t find his impersonation of Hilary Bray good at all.  His strongest scenes are the ones he shares alone with Diana Rigg.  I’ll give her “all the credit in the world” for getting this out of him.  Overall, George Lazenby is merely serviceable at best.  He definitely cannot take ownership and carry a feature like Connery did in Dr. No (luckily for Lazenby, he’s got a better movie surrounding him).

You’ll hear many say that if Sean Connery was 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service this would hands down be the best film in the franchise.  I disagree.  I don’t think Connery’s Bond would work in this feature at all.  For one, you never felt a “real” connection between his Bond and the girls in his series of conquests.  And this is a crucial factor of OHMSS.  He also brings a sense of confidence and heroism to his features.  George Lazenby’s inexperience actually lends him a hand to helping make OHMSS story work.  For the first time we get a sense of vulnerability with Bond.  And no, it’s definitely not because the words in the script say so.  Lazenby’s swagger appears as only a front.  In the scene at Marc-Ange Draco’s office where Bond is boasting how he enjoys the single life, you almost get a sense that he doesn’t truly believe it but if he keeps saying it he will. 

During the escape from Blofeld’s facility when he gets to the ice rink and sits to hide from Blunt and an array of henchman, you get the sense that Bond truly is scared he might not get away this time.  Also his relationship with Tracy gives the impression that he is truly amazed with her and that she is in the driver’s seat (literally too) for their relationship.  I’m not trying to tell you Lazenby is giving an amazing performance or those scenes were played as intended.  These important moments that he manages to deliver are not fitting or the qualities of Sean Connery’s James Bond.  It would look and feel really awkward and out of character plugging his James Bond in to this film.

Lazenby is definitely the same James Bond character Connery left us with.  Aside from retaining the same MI:6 supporting cast, the movie takes many moments to remind us of this.  The lame opening credits (however the instrumental theme song is BAD ASS and severely underused in the series) sequence serves us with a clip show of everything but Sean Connery that had come before.  The fourth wall is broken multiple times through dialogue to wink to the audience that “Yes, we have a new actor but this is the same 007”.  We even get a scene in Bond’s office where he is going through is things, but it is all memorabilia from the previous films with little pieces of their theme songs played as he looks at them. 

So, he’s the same Bond.  Got it.  Then how in the HELL does Blofeld not recognize him when he arrives in the false identity of Sir Hilary Bray.  He’s wearing glasses and speaking with a different voice, BUT IT’S JAMES BOND WHO JUST SCREWED UP YOUR VOLCANIC BASE IN JAPAN!  The real reason is, this script was meant to be the follow up to Thunderball.  Apparently one of the rewrites had Bond getting plastic surgery because his face too well known by SPECTRE and to explain Lazenby, but it was scrapped.  Instead, they did NOTHING!  So when you’re watching the films in order, pretend that over the 2 years since You Only Live Twice they completely forgot what each other looked like.  Oh and while you’re at it, close your eyes whenever Telly Savalas holds his cigarette.  It has driven me nuts for years.

This film plays out a whole lot like a thematic follow up to From Russia with Love.  Mostly a suspense, plot driven story that ends in a few back-to-back action sequences.  Early on there’s a super suspenseful scene in which Bond is trying to crack a safe before the lawyer returns to his office.  The music and everything just gets you biting your nails.  Still does for me to this day.  The end action begins with Bond escaping by skiing (mark this down, this is the first time we see snow skiing, because it’s going to happen a few more times) down the mountain being chased by Blofeld and his henchmen (also on skis).  The stunt work is really good, the rear projection is really subpar at times. 

There’s a turning point when Bond returns to the little town square (which happens to play the same creepy children’s choir “It’s a Small World”-like song both times it’s visited) and tries to hide at an ice rink.  While sitting, Tracy (who has followed him to Switzerland) skates up to him.  From the moment Bond see’s her you can tell he knows she’s the one.  She now joins the chase and the film is back on track, moving toward the best car chase so far.  It goes down narrow roads and winds up in a stock car destruction derby.  Adding Tracy to the mix really ups the stakes in this elongated escape.  You’re not on the edge of your seat so-to-speak, but you really are pulling for Bond and Tracy to get away because SPECTRE just keeps coming nonstop.  They take refuge in a barn where 007 makes his proposal to Tracy.  The next morning we pick up with another ski chase as Blofeld has found the barn.  An avalanche happens and Tracy is kidnapped by Blofeld.  In a stupid character decision, they make Blofeld pull the whole Jabba the Hutt “you will learn to love me” scenario with Tracy.  It’s quite absurd, out of left field and should have been cut.  But it is not for long as 007 returns with Tracy’s dad and her men to destroy Blofelds facility and rescue Tracy in the third level of Cillian Murphy’s dream. 

The film ends with the wedding of James Bond and Tracy.  While the happy couple has pulled over to grab flowers, Blofeld and Blunt drive by and shoot at Bond.  Bond quickly reacts to get to the chase, but is stopped in his progress as he notices his beautiful bride has been shot in the head.  Bond cowers over her claiming “We have all the time in the world” as the WORST musical cue possible hits.  Instead of a nice somber instrumental to roll through the credits or even a reprise of Louis Armstrong, the upbeat 007 plays, disrupting whatever downer mood you were in and making you think “what the fuck”?  It’s almost offensive to the viewer’s emotions riding on the scene.  Who in the world thought this was a good choice?  This is not a “Bond is back on it” moment.  This has always bothered me, makes one leave end the film on a sour note.

For the longest time my generation grew up with the preconceived notion this was one of the worst Bond movies.  I remember going to rent it for the first time and my parents question me as to why I would want to rent THAT one.  “It stinks”, “He only did one movie, and he was bad”, “It bombed” are some of the common phrasing you heard to describe this film back in the day.  For one, it was far from a bomb.  The film was the second highest grossing movie of 1969 and made well over its money back.  On my first viewing as a young lad I found it boring and fell asleep during it.  I wasn’t too big on what I saw of Lazenby and didn’t care to finish it.  When I was older rewatching License to Kill a character mentioned Bond “was married once, but that was long ago”.  And I was curious as to when this happened.  I found it was OHMSS so I revisited it.  I was surprised, it didn’t suck.  I probably was so surprised that the film was good, I overrated it over the years.  And this is probably what happened with many others like myself.  I still think it’s a solid film, but not the greatest in the 007 series.  This film lives and dies by its Bond girl, Diana Rigg.  From the 45 minute mark to about 1hr35min the film ranges from ‘eh’ to ok, but generally not too interesting.  Savalas’ Blofeld is sinister, but nothing to write home about.  Once the escape from the allergy facility begins it escalates from slightly boring to extremely exciting.  To me, this is the one film that’s truly about the Bond girl (even though it takes about an hour intermission from that), and it makes it stand out in the series and one you definitely have to see at least once.

Brandon Peters will return in Diamonds are Forever

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