On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

The unique case
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1969
Director: 
Peter Hunt
Starring: 
George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas
The Setup: 
James Bond falls in love while on the case.
Discussion: 

So while writing my review of the latest Mission: Impossible, I was thinking how it would be interesting to have a spy film with some real emotional content, and that got me interested in seeing this again. And I loved it! This is the one and only Bond film made with model and commercial star George Lazenby, after Sean Connery left the part. It was made by a director who had been editor and second-unit director on the previous Bond films, and wanted to make a more serious film that did away with the gadgets, and stayed close to the Ian Fleming novel. And it is the only film to deal Bond a serious emotional blow—until the Daniel Craig films, which do delve into the emotions [and refer strongly to this film], but even those seem somehow flippant in comparison, with “emotions” there as another selling point. And finally, it is often said about this film: If Connery were in it, it would be by far the greatest Bond film of all time. So let no time be lost!

Bond is driving by the sea. He stays in shadow as we see his car, hands, cigarette, but not the man, trying to conceal the new actor but focus on the Bond touches. He sees a beautiful woman walking into the water, and drives the car onto the beach [where it screeches to a halt with a loud tire squeal—in the sand]. Bond saves the girl and brings her up on the beach, where there it suddenly a gun to his head! So our super-spy didn’t notice the people walking up to him on an empty beach. Well, he was busy. Bond and assailant are about forty feet from the water, but notice how they RUN to the water in order to have a fight in the surf. After the fight, the woman takes off in his car, leaving him there on the beach, at which point he turns to the camera and says: “This never happened to the other guy!”

We have some credits, which are just a touch disappointing, as they consist mostly of images from the previous films descending through an hourglass, although we do have some excellent tableau of silhouettes, such as occur at the title. This is also a—rather excellent—instrumental theme, as the movie will make the unusual choice of having its song mid-movie.

Bond meets the woman again in a casino, Tracy, and she takes him to her room to thank him for saving her life. The next morning, he is kidnapped and taken to meet Draco, who I think shows up in a few other Bond films, who is Tracy’s father. Tracy is the average problem child of the European crime syndicate kingpin, and is rebellious. She is played by Diana Rigg, best known as Emma Peel from The Avengers, by the way. Not THOSE Avengers. Draco offers Bond $1 million to marry her. Bond refuses, but continues the romance so that he can learn the name of the head of SPECTRE, which will be Blofled, whom he has met in previous films.

Around now is when it occurred to me: This movie is the only one that offers you an early Bond film but without Connery, so you have the unique experience of being able to SEPARATE the Bond elements from the Connery elements, which were so inseparably intertwined in the previous films. [I am also implying that the movies went in a different direction when Roger Moore took the role.] And then: George Lazenby. He is very handsome, and you can see that they wanted someone with a vague resemblance to Connery, in his physique, jaw and width of his head. He also has what appears to be what we can only described as a hair patty sitting atop his head. It is just that: a patty. Of hair. Sitting on his head. Sometimes it looks like a pillow, or a pad. From some angles it becomes obvious that Mr. Lazenby is either wearing a toupee, or has a wicked comb-over-and-forward with extensive sculptural reshaping. But anyway, Lazenby isn’t that bad, although he’s not overwhelmingly great, either.

We proceed to Bond going to meet M and flirt with Moneypenny—who is truly driven into paroxysms of ecstasy by Bond’s manhood—and is relieved of the Blofeld case. Bond quits, and there’s a little scene in his apartment in which he goes through objects from past movies as we hear the themes of those movies—meant to tell us YES, this is the same character!—and then un-quits and gets two weeks’ vacation, which he uses to go back and romance Tracy. Once he has the name of Blofeld and still is interested in her, she knows it must be real! We have a romantic montage set to Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time In the World,” which was his last recorded song, and is one of the more beautiful Bond songs, and certainly the most tender, especially given its ironic use. The title phrase is something Bond and Tracy keep saying. Soon Tracy is telling her father of the affair, although she won’t go so far as to say Bond loves her—let alone will marry her. She just says “Whatever happens, there’ll be no regrets.”

Soon they drop off Bond as though he’s going to pick up some bread for dinner, but he goes up and cracks a safe. Construction workers across the street deliver a safe cracker/copy machine that he uses. We see Bond perusing a porn magazine in the office, and in a great touch, wordlessly steals the centerfold on his way out. Anyway, somehow he ends up at Blofeld’s snowy mountain lodge. In here, we see that the Bond coat of arms has the phrase “The World Is Not Enough,” which became the title of a later film [with a bang-up title song by Garbage]. His character was also officially made Scottish, in reference to Sean Connery, in the novel, and he appears in ruffled shirts and a kilt here. I personally have never been an adherent of the kilt revolution, and ruffs, ruffs… too many ruffs.

SPOILERS > > >
At Blofeld’s hideout are a bunch of beautiful women, which include Joanna Lumley, who would go on to Absolutely Fabulous, and Catherina von Schell, who went on to be shape-shifter Maya on Space:1999. They eat this bizarre dinner in which one has a plate of only potatoes, one only chicken, one two ears of corn… and I thought it was really odd, until I understood that Blofeld is supposed to be working on allergies, and these women are all supposedly allergic. Note that the black woman gets only bananas. One of the women writes her number in lipstick on Bond’s inner thigh, and when asked if he’s okay, says “Oh, just a slight stiffness coming on.” Later, he sleeps with one woman, and, when returning home, finds another woman in his room. He sleeps with her, too.

Anyway, soon he meets Telly Savalas as Blofeld. Bond has met Blofeld in previous films, but in the novel, he hadn’t, so in the film, Blofeld has to pretend never to have met Bond before. Blofeld, for the millennials out there, is the inspiration for Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films. Soon Bond’s cover is blown, and then follows a fairly good ski chase down the mountain, which includes several real accidents the actors experienced. You will see Telly Savalas bash pretty hard into a tree, for real. Once in town, there’s a quite nice car chase, as Bond escapes with Tracy [who was in town] doing some daredevil driving behind the wheel. Note how Bond sweetly kisses her on the cheek repeatedly as she’s driving… I guess because this is a woman who can leap into action when needed? But it’s sweet and part of the unique Bond we get only with this film.

When Bond and Tracy shelter in a barn, he asks her to marry him. After the story is resolved, they do marry, at which point we see Moneypenny in tears. After the wedding, they drive off. While parked on the side of the road, Blofeld comes by and shoots up the car. Bond is fine, but Tracy is dead—MINUTES after the wedding! Bond holds her dead body, tenderly kissing her hand, and says “It’s okay… we have all the time in the world.” Then that’s it—the film ends!

So to me, this is the main feature of the film. The rest of it is a quite good Bond film, but the romance, wedding and death is what makes it, and what separates it from all other Bond films. For once, we see Bond actually fall for a woman, and prepare to give up his spying, but it’s the death that gives this film a power none of the other films have. It seems to say that it is simply not possible for Bond to ever marry, or even be happy. The film simply ending on this shockingly down note—no epilogue, no moving on—also generates a real shock that makes the film essentially unforgettable. Fun, fun, happy, happy—BAM. It casts Bond as trapped in a life that, while filled with lots of excitement and sex, can never include any long-term happiness, and this adds more depth to the character than pretty much the whole rest of the series combined.

Now, the Daniel Craig Casino Royale kind of tried to do the same thing, it’s just that they mucked it up. He falls in love and is going to give up being a spy—both films make it out that quitting would be easy and possible—but it all gets complicated as she is revealed to be a spy, he turns on her, she dies, and only later, in one tiny, mumbled piece of dialogue that is easily lost or missed, it is revealed that she sacrificed herself to save him. He has no big reaction, and, for me at least, the whole would-be emotional angle is a bust. The new film, Spectre does an excellent job of having the female lead actually mean something and have a real relationship with Bond, which is perhaps the biggest positive of the film, although no other Bond film does it to this extent.
< < < SPOILERS END

So there you go, a completely unique film in the Bond canon, and one definitely worth watching. You get to separate everything about early Bond from Sean Connery, you get a great musical theme, you get a great song, you get a one-and-only performance by a new Bond, you get a better-than-average Bond film, and you get an emotional layer that was never before and never again within the series. And is a rarity among spy films in general. If you’re into spy action films, this one is pretty essential.

Should you watch it: 

If you like Bond, you must. For others, not so necessary.

Comments

Of the Bond films, this is among my favorites. Lazenby doesn't quite have the acting chops to pull of the emotional content of the movie though he tries very, very hard indeed. For physical presence (action and fighting scenes), he is perhaps the most believable Bond. Diana Rigg all but steals the movie as the love of Bond's life, and it's completely believable that if a woman could steal his heart, then she'd be the one.