by Marc Kandel
This is a Bond film deftly layered and poignant in a way its predecessors never were and it’s successors still fail to be. The Dark Horse of the 007 films, the George Harrison of the Bond canon, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is a bit odd at a glance, different from the others yet familiar, not quite what we’re used to, but solid at the core.OHMSS (the preferred abbreviation) is the only love story to be found in the Bond world, a very good one that plays true to the main character, never detracting from the deadly, patriotic playboy we have come to know and adore over the decades, yet taking a different path to what has come before by way of adding emotional resonance, a detail heretofore ignored in favor of the predominantly male audience vicariously living out Bond’s unique, unstoppable style of enjoying life through gambling, guns, girls, and little else- and hey, why shouldn’t we? Last time I had a leggy dame and an Aston Martin in front of me was at a car show at the Javits Center in Manhattan- and that velvet rope and beefy security complement dashes all kinds of hopes. Well, I did get the model’s number but she was a miserable whore- and not in the good filthy way. The Aston Martin still sends a holiday card on occasion, so I guess that’s something.
"Gor! Jaymee’s gettin’ ‘itched ‘ee is!"
The plot is something any casual Bond viewer or even a channel surfer who catches ten minutes of Austin Powers (which borrows very heavily from this particular movie) on TBS can pick up: Madman bent on world domination utilizes a roundabout, overly intricate delivery system (in this case, hot, ludicrously dumb, hypnotized 60’s chicks) to saturate the world with biological, mass destructive weaponry, and then holds a gun to the collective heads of Earth for oh…One Hundred billion kajillion dollaaarz.... 007 is asked to clumsily and obviously infiltrate the faux-company that is the front for the evildoers, play on their enormous egos to give it all away, and then stop the plot in an appropriately explosive manner, just in the nick of time. Guns fire, rockets launch, guys ski, there are stunts galore, and a whole lotta fucking gets done (Lazenby racks up an goodly amount of primo trim in this movie, his covert ops becoming in effect a one man bachelor party that must be seen to be believed- though I could have done without the re-use of a terribly cheesy come-on line that wouldn’t fly at the cheapest of local bars much less a Swiss allergy clinic fronting a world domination organization).
Where we veer off from mediocre formula is the introduction of a woman that defies the typical Bond encounter. She is complicated beyond any of the Bond ladies: provocative, lovely, yet at times vicious and disturbing, an intimidating confidence and assertiveness that belies a needful, pained heart, a truly unpredictable, compelling woman rather than a mundane bimbo affecting spontaneity or mystery in substitution of actual personality, a woman in need of being saved- not from some grandiose villain, but from her own willful, wrenching, self-loathing and destructiveness. She has nothing to do with the central plot, and is tied to the spy games through the thinnest of threads, but nonetheless, it is this story, not the espionage, that makes this movie one of the best in the series. Bond does not take a lover, he finds a love; an unprecedented departure from the norm. The execution of this turn of events makes the film a standout by any definition.
And who better to be the bride of the world’s foremost male spy than the woman who turned heads as one of her generation’s premier femme fatales- the stunning, fascinating Diana Rigg: Emma Peel herself, as Contessa Teresa 'Tracy' Di Vicenzo. The film begins with the two meeting each other, and its about as different a Bond/female encounter as one can get, Tracy ready to walk into the sea and die, pursued by thugs who are beaten back by Bond, whereupon Tracy rebuffs and flees her savior, leaving him rumpled, befuddled, and uncharacteristically alone on a dawn stretch of beach, prompting him to deliver one of the greatest jokes and shocks to Bond tradition- breaking the fourth wall and wondering why this never happened to Connery.
I can tell you that my first reaction was naked hatred of this heresy, followed by more than a few chuckles at this audacious slap to convention. It’s a choice that has commandeered my respect over the years, facing off with the audience as telling them things are going to be different- for the span of this one film, its not an empty threat. In fact, more than once the film plants the idea that perhaps this is the final adventure for James Bond. Not under threat of his death, but because change is in the air, and this feels like the last hurrah, the final adventure. A particularly effective moment where this is evident is immediately after Bond tenders his resignation to M, after being placed on another assignment after failure to locate and eliminate the leader of SPECTRE after a prolonged, fruitless hunt. Bond cleans out his desk and what follows is a jarringly nostalgic moment as he empties out trophies from his previous adventures, each item accompanied by strains of the soundtrack to each film- I’ll let you enjoy that moment and pick out the films and tunes yourself- suffice to say it is a wonderful trivia gift to Bond fans, and again, the faintest hint of a goodbye.
Now of course we are all quite aware that this was not the last Bond film, but again, it does stand out as the end of an era- from here on, we say farewell to the razor wit, polished savagery and vivid imagery of the 60’s and the highest quality Bond films, probably until the hotly debated mid to late 80’s (or at least for me, until “For Your Eyes Only” where Roger Moore gave a fully fleshed out Bond balancing the fun of his tenure with fierce intelligence, focused rage, and deadly professional competence- I’m also fond of the lithe, sultry Greek enchantress with the smoldering eyes and erection-inducing voice). Ahem. Back to OHMSS....
James catches up with Tracy later and things go the way things usually go for 007, but again a difference- Tracy does the leaving in the morning, with a rose on her pillow left for James- its something of a role reversal, with Tracy then spurning any further courting from him. Despite this, fate rears its head for the two of them again; Tracy’s father is the head of a European crime cartel that has information on the whereabouts of Blofeld, and a crude bargain is struck with Bond: if he will agree to continue to involve himself romantically with Tracy, who despite her earlier sex with and dismissal of James, appears to have feelings for him beneath her icy demeanor, her father will give James the lead on Blofeld he so desperately needs.
Tracy’s father sees in Bond a suitor capable of taming his suicidal shrew, a match for her in passion, dysfunction and excitement tempered with security that will rekindle a will to live within her. James agrees, at first in the name of Queen and Country to pursue his enemy at all costs, and the courtship is an atypical instrumental interlude (with a fine, fine ballad by Louis Armstrong that sets the stage for the Bond quote of all quotes)- there are fun, quiet moments of pleasure, but it’s a typical get-to-know-you montage- the magic comes later, as James escapes from Blofeld’s compound, only to fall flat on his face at an ice-skating rink, looking up to see a heavenly Tracy standing before him, wry smile on her lips, ready to rescue him for a change, and join him in his adventure. It is here that we see not romance, but love for the first time- not riding around on horseback or on a secluded beach, but in a dusty hayloft surrounded by shrieking winds and death with two people cleaving to each other (a much different setup than the afternoon romp in the hay with Pussy Galore). Only now, faced with this willing companion who can match his enthusiasm for danger as well as romance, does Bond realize the depth of his feelings for this woman- it is the first, and perhaps the last true emotional moment in the series entire.
More I will not say, only that the movie’s conclusion be it known to the viewer or not still ranks as the greatest ending to a Bond film, showing Bond as a human being as well as a larger than life hero. Subsequent films would take a much lighter tone (totally missing the boat on what could have been the revenge movie to end all revenge movies in “Diamonds Are Forever”), and then go darker with the times, focusing more on dragging Bond kicking and screaming into topical relevance (License to Kill) rather than making him relevant through character development, something the Brosnan run touched on at times and could have really explored wonderfully, but left cold in favor of puerile stunts and historical formula (I speak mostly of “Die Another Day” when I say this).
A fresh viewer to this film need not even be weighted down by the albatross that seemed to mire most Bond fans from the original release, namely the fact that George Lazenby was the very first post-Sean Connery Bond- a daunting task indeed for any actor stepping up to this iconic role. Audiences today however, have a number of different Bonds to choose from, each distinctive from the other with more to come, so Lazenby’s lighthearted yet compassionate and cunning portrayal won’t be the shock to the system that it was to a generation reared on Connery’s bullish, unrepentant, raw performances (I happen to be quite fond of both, but yes, will state for the record that Connery is my definitive Bond).
It should be noted that the film was hardly a flop and Lazenby was offered a contract to continue the role, but passed not believing the character would fit with the oncoming Woodstock era. Right or Wrong (well, okay, he was wrong), he still turns in an exceptional performance- witty, debonair, dangerous, just a bit left of campy in some spots where it’s the script more than him, but truly thoughtful, passionate and heartfelt everywhere it matters. Lazenby excels at portraying a Bond caught off guard by his own emerging emotions, and it’s as familiar and as different a Bond as you could ever hope for.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld is an affable yet gleefully malevolent and brutish Telly Savalas steering away from the intriguing, calculating, reptilian Donald Pleasance turn at the role in the prior movie. It’s like replacing a poisoner with a strangler, both horrific and deadly, but with different methodology, Savalas’ Blofeld a beast draped in snobbish class pretensions that Pleasance’s character inherently possesses, needing no titles to be assured of his superiority. Both versions work, but it is Savalas that truly becomes Bond’s nemesis.
Bond has already met Blofeld face to face in the prior film, but this plays as a complete re-introduction for the two characters, their original meeting almost completely ignored. It’s an eyebrow raiser for longstanding Bond fans- at one time the original script did boast the explanation of plastic surgery to disguise Bond as his exploits had rendered him too recognizable, but this was dropped by the producers for fear of accentuating the Connery to Lazenby change to moviegoers. So this continuity blunder is something you’ll unfortunately just have to get over- believe me, it’s a small potatoes against the greater plot, and forgivable in the convoluted history of the franchise.
And of course, we must give a hearty round of applause to Diana Rigg, going above and beyond the judo Girl Friday of Emma Peel to give us a stunningly complex woman who attracts Bond not just as a wanton temptress or damsel in distress, but as an equal, every bit as emotionally distant as he is at the start of their journey, every bit as excited, surprised and delighted at the evolution of their relationship and their discoveries in each other.
In his own way, Bond, at the razor’s edge for so long and perhaps recognizing his own form of death wish, sees a kindred spirit in Tracy, one that complements and balances his- the two are believable together, and one can see that despite the inherent misogynistic ugliness of Bond’s emotional makeup, this is a woman that could believably turn him into a monogamous, dedicated husband. Indeed, a large part of the film is Bond turning his loyalty from country to wife- again, it is an unprecedented turn of events, well played and a fascinating, revealing moment in the life of James Bond.This is a satisfying film on every level, Bond or no. Caution: this is the one that ends up leaving people wanting more than strict formula from their Bond films- but is that even possible at this point?
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=2611&reviewer=358
originally posted: 12/28/05 14:46:51