Xmas Favorite Title Theater: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

As every James Bond purist knows, the best film in the series that most reflects the spirit of the Ian Fleming novels is ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. As the last 007 production of the sixties, it shows the tonal and cultural shift of the films from secret agent wit to spy camp spectacle. Intended to be produced right after THUNDERBALL (1965), the movie was pushed ahead until after YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967) and one can only wonder how OHMSS would have turned out with Sean Connery in the lead. The plot likely would have been jettisoned in favor of the overwhelming sets and gadgets that were reducing Bond to a side character, boring its superstar in the process.

scg122508_1059_07When Connery announced he was resigning from the series, one of the largest talent hunts in motion picture history led to just one man: 25 year old Australian ad model George Lazenby. Timothy Dalton had passed on the part when offered, claiming he was too young. A pity. Hard to believe that “Cubby” Brocoli couldn’t find one person on planet Earth who could be tough, charismatic and act, but Lazenby did have a screen presence, even if his thespic ability was limited. Former Bond editor Peter Hunt was given his one and only shot at directing him in what Hunt hoped would be true to the Fleming novel; toning down the jokes and widgets in favor of a human adventure tale.

To that end, Hunt surpassed himself, delivering the most uniquely directed 007 film of the decade. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE reflects the era’s mod psychedelia and acts as a French press for all the previous cinematic Bonds. The producers made up for Lazenby’s inexperience by giving him the Best Bond Girl Ever, Diana Rigg, fresh off her popular stint on THE AVENGERS. Rigg epitomized the black cat-suit bad-ass sex kitten so indigenous to the 60’s spy genre. And she could recite Shakespeare before judo-chopping the bad guy. Of course James Bond would fall in love with her.

tracybondAnd that’s the basic story of Fleming’s saddest novel, with 007 in bored pursuit of SPECTRE and Blofeld until he discovers that the madman has holed up in the Swiss mountains, plotting a fake geneology along with bacterial warfare. As portrayed by Telly Savalas in a more suave take on the role than the previous “voice of doom” archetypes, he remains the best representation of Bond’s ultimate nemesis. He’s particularly effective in the obligatory expositional speech to 007 after he’s captured. Bond also finds himself involved with a troubled Contessa, Teresa Di Vicenzo, the daughter of a powerful Corsican gangster, who seeks to have Bond marry his wayward scion. All roads lead to tragedy as 007 finds out that his life can never be separate from his dangerous path as secret agent savior.

Major kudos must go to Peter Hunt for sticking close to the novel, yet giving the film all the exotic glamour the series was known for. His handling of the obligatory “M” and Moneypenny scenes is terrific, with Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell getting a chance to flesh out their usual stock parts. I also love the introductory conversation between Bond and the gangster Draco (straight from the book and well-played by Gabrielle Ferzetti), with even Lazenby pulling his weight. Richard Maibum’s script is his finest, sticking close to Fleming’s narrative. I also dig the most risque line of the series up to that point: “Just a slight stiffness coming on.” OHMSS is also the most seasonal Bond outing, with a palatable Christmas ambiance that gives the movie a wintery texture missing from the others. Aptly, this is the last time that the films would have that defining 1960’s Panavision style courtesy of cinematographer Michael Reed.

jb06ohmssNext to Hunt’s audacious direction, probably the most original of the series, the most important aspect to OHMSS is John Barry. Unarguably his finest Bond score, Barry outdoes even himself with an epic soundtrack filled with lyrical melodies and rousing action cues, utilizing disparate sonics from Louis Armstrong to Moog synthesizers (even the opening gunbarrel theme is performed on a synth). There’s even a wonderfully cheesy children’s song, “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Born?” that’s a yuletide favorite of mine and Craig Kennedy…And for the first time, Maurice Binder’s famous main titles would play without a pop vocal as the producers wisely let Barry come up with a magnificent instrumental theme driven by fuzz guitars and brassy horns. Preceded by George Lazenby’s great ice-breaking line, “This never happened to the other fella,” the credit sequence is a perfect example of the brave experimentation that characterized the film. The theme is also perfectly used in the “Escape From Piz Gloria” ski chase that IMHO is still the greatest shot and edited action sequence in the series.

Along with all that, the movie ends on a shattering image that mirrors Fleming’s last line in the novel. It’s also a fitting coda to the first decade of the cinema spy genre and reflects the romantic pessimism of the EASY RIDER and MIDNIGHT COWBOY generation. For me and others, OH HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is the best James Bond film; the one most representative of Ian Fleming’s dark and beautiful world.

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10 Responses to “Xmas Favorite Title Theater: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)”

  1. Wow.

    I have to admit, I’ve probably always focused too much on George Lazenby’s “limited” acting chops whenever I watch this (and it’s been a long time since I last viewed it). I agree with your general take, even if I wouldn’t consider the film the best Bond film–it’s ultimately the closest to Fleming’s spirit. And Telly Savalas, while not what I would picture as Blofeld, nevertheless shines in his–indeed–more “suave” interpretation of Bond’s great nemesis.

    Diana Rigg is so marvelous, though. What a great actress. I love your points in her favor as the Best Bond Girl Ever, and how she could quote Shakespeare before judo-chopping the bad guys. (I just watched Theater of Blood with her and Vincent Price for the first time a few days ago. Ever seen it? A real treat, especially in the Shakesperean vein.) She was adorable in The Avengers, and she’s wonderful here.

    Peter Hunt’s direction is tops. I love how well-choreographed all of the action beats are.

    It is the saddest Fleming novel. I’m sure you’ve heard of this story, but I found it interesting to hear that Lazenby actually teared up a great deal in the first take of the last scene. Hunt told him that “James Bond doesn’t cry,” so it was cut out. I’d love to see that take, however.

    Again, it is the most seasonal Bond outing, and I’m sure it’s a fine way to combine two splendid things: Christmas and 007.

    (Did you receive my email yesterday?)

    Merry Christmas, Christian!

  2. Terrific piece!

    It was so needless to say… ;)

  3. I agree, terrific piece. Great movie, too. It took me awhile to warm up to this film, but now I rank it right up there with the best of Sean Connery. Best soundtrack of the Bond films (though I still think the theme from “Goldfinger” tops them all.) It definitely fits right into the “New Hollywood” exploding in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s.

  4. Damn wordpress freeze deletd my original comment. I don;t know about you, but i paste everything in word now so i don’t lose all that brilliance. huh?

    thanks alexander. i oversell OHMSS a bit, but it really is my favorite Bond. In the odd way GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER is my favorite Godzilla movie and SKIDOO my favorite Preminger. i really appreciate that the story is close to Fleming’s novel.

    But Hunt has to take some blame for Lazenby’s performance. He said he didn’t give him much direction as to keep him vulnerable, which sounds good, but Lazenby needed a director to guide him. There’s too much ADR work on him, but somehow, the dubbed scenes at Piz Gloria works because nobody dubs it better than the Bond films.

    And yes Bob, nothing beats the GOLDFINGER theme.

  5. And yes, it would be great to see Lazenby’s tear take. There must be lots of unseen footage still around…

    And I adore THEATER OF BLOOD.

  6. Yes, Christian, ever since this summer when I started writing those MovieZeal noir reviews, I realized how much smarter it would be to use Word for all of my reviews. Before that I merely typed them into the “New Post” option. I can’t believe I did that for my first three months of blogging. Nearly lost my massive Dark Knight review that way. Oh well, live and learn.

    Interesting–you’re right, Lazenby needed a sure, steady hand at the helm. And I agree that the dubbed scenes at Piz Gloria work. I still can’t believe the amazing job of dubbing the Bond films have done.

  7. Good thing you didn’t lose the DK review…I lost my Chuck Heston tribute which I’ve been unable to rewrite. For now. I like to go “bareback” as Diablo Cody says, but one has to make sure. I copy and paste like a mofo.

    Even Ferzetti was frickin’ dubbed but you wouldn’t know. I know Lazenby was not pleased with being revoiced by George Baker, and it seems almost like a jab at him by Hunt. It would be great to hear that original voice track, yes?

    And of course, the first time I saw OHMSS was the 1976 ABC broadcast where they re-edited the film and ADDED a Bond narrator by an unknown actor. Weird. But I never forgot the music. Info here: http://www.shatterhand007.com/OHMSSNarration/OHMSS76NarratedVersion.html

  8. Wow, I just read all of that from your link! How fascinating.

    I’d love to hear the original voice track, no question.

  9. […] It wouldn’t be Christmas without bringing up my favorite James Bond film. As THE FUTURIST reminds us, December 18 marked the 40th anniversary of the release of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, everybody’s favorite oddjob-man out of the series, featuring the sole appearance of George Lazenby as 007. I’ve gone on record here before about this singular entry in the 007 series, coming at the tail end of the 1960’s, reflecting that year’s darker tinge to the fading psychedelic glow from the Summer Of Love. From my previous OHMSS post: […]

  10. […] It wouldn’t be Christmas without bringing up my favorite James Bond film. As THE FUTURIST! reminds us, December 18 marked the 40th anniversary of the release of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, everybody’s beloved oddjob-man out of the series, featuring the sole appearance of George Lazenby as 007. I’ve gone on record here before about this singular entry in the Bond series, coming at the tail end of the 1960′s, reflecting that year’s darker tinge to the fading psychedelic glow from the Summer Of Love. From my previous OHMSS post: […]

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