Film Review: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

“This never happened to the other guy.”

Uttered by George Lazenby in the opening scene of his only James Bond appearance, these infamous words signified the beginning of a new era for cinema’s most famous super spy. They also encapsulate how Lazenby’s sole Bond vehicle, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS), possessed a strange, almost meta-awareness of the Bond canon. This surreal, disconcerting observation (where he seems to acknowledge Connery’s existence) runs like a refrain throughout the film, which is riddled with a number of disarming little moments.

Of course, the benefit of this is that Lazenby’s sole Bond credit is by far one of the series’ more interesting entries. Although far, FAR from perfect, the film does not deserve its relegated status as a forgettable aspect of the Bond universe. In fact, it demands a popular reassessment.

To start, perhaps it’s best to get the film’s faults out of the way first. Two of the most defining qualities of OHMSS are its insufferable length and its central performance, which doesn’t entirely gel with the film that surrounds it.

Anyone who goes into this movie needs to be aware that it is long, long, LONG! Focusing on a clash between Bond and his arch-nemesis Blofeld (Telly Savalas), who threatens to sterilize the world’s food supply unless he receives a full pardon, OHMSS contains soaring and surprisingly emotional thrills. Unfortunately, it doesn’t know how to structure them. The result is a production that feels occasionally protracted and laborious. It’s big moments also don’t land as hard as they should.

This can partially be attributed to how OHMSS contains the most significant subplot in the entire series. In between his pursuit of the villainous Blofeld, Bond meets a woman named Tracy (played by the absolutely luminous Diana Rigg), and he eventually develops a relationship with her that far transcends the rest of the Bond girl pantheon (with the possible exception of Eva Green’s Vesper). The film’s pairing of this love story with Bond’s epic fight against Blofeld is only semi-successful. While there are intriguing, audacious moments between Rigg’s Tracy and Lazenby’s Bond – particularly the romantic montage paired with a song by Louis Armstrong – ultimately there is something rushed and abridged about their relationship. Insufficient time is alloted to fully develop either of these major plot points, a disturbing fact considering that OHMSS already clocks in at nearly two and a half hours.

The dynamics of both these storylines make very little sense. Bond and Tracy go from being very nearly at each other’s throats (Lazenby’s spy seems to channel the Connery idea that sometimes it IS ok to slap a woman) to happy and saccharine lovers in far too short of a time. Similarly, the history and the uniqueness of the Bond/Blofeld antagonism is thinly-sketched at best. Anyone going into OHMSS without prior knowledge of the preceding Bond films would be hard pressed to view Blofeld as anything either than a big bad of the week.

Other relationships and story particulars are also neglected. Scenes with Bernard Lee’s M and Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny – both carryovers from the Connery era – feel surprisingly superfluous. While they have always been somewhat superfluous, only existing to shoot the shit with Bond before he heads off on another mission, the brevity of their work in OHMSS feels especially raw, particularly when one considers how the film does eventually take its main character into uncharted water.

But what about the film’s treatment of Bond himself? Well, nobody can say that Lazenby’s performance in OHMSS is unmemorable. In fact, it is downright peculiar, even occasionally fascinating. From the opening lines referencing “the other guy” his Bond seems to exist almost outside the film itself. Consider two scenes early in the film. In the first, Bond has just threatened to resign after M has staunchly refused to allow him to continue pursuing Blofeld. Back in his office (Bond has an office – who’d have guessed?) the spy rummages through a desk looking at different items, such as a gadget watch with a hidden garrote wire. The effect of such an interesting and small moment, which is a reference to the favored weapon of From Russia With Love’s Red Grant, is then compounded by a later scene. In this second moment Bond is waiting to unlock a safe. While waiting, he pulls out a copy of Playboy and seems highly amused by looking at the centerfold. This scene is also hardly brief. Director Peter Hunt even depicts Bond carrying the Playboy with him as he leaves the building, smiling to himself as he tucks it away for later use.

The overall purpose of these scenes is unclear, but they do suggest an awareness of the inherent artifice of Bond’s world and the general absurdity of the character. This is something evident in Lazenby’s performance as a whole, which is dominated by a strange smugness. His work possesses an affable levity, and frequently he seems to be relishing the experience of playing James Bond not being James Bond. This is something that doesn’t really work with the film itself, which doesn’t function as an outright parody.

Yet, on the other hand, Lazenby’s performance is also one of the film’s strengths. While he is missing the rugged machismo of Connery, the goofy drollness of Moore, the raging anger of Dalton, the poised elegance of Brosnan and the scary thuggishness of Craig, he brings something else to the table: Bond’s humanity. This is expressed partially in his character’s relationship with Tracy, although she disappears for the entire midsection of the film, which stalls its momentum. More explicitly and successfully, it marks the film’s final third portion: Blofeld’s relentless pursuit of Bond and Tracy down the Swiss Alps, which are shot beautifully. In this long and brutal sequence, we see glimpses of Bond’s emotional spectrum, even emotions like fear, pain and anxiety, often considered unthinkable for this nearly superhuman character. They are present here, which provides On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with a strange and occasionally touching tone, something amplified in its “killer” final scene. It’s a  quality that makes the film a unique installment, and transforms its unofficial refrain, “We have all the time in the world,” into something quite poignant and ironic. If only that statement had applied to Lazenby’s, Rigg’s and Hunt’s connection to the franchise. Yet, as we now know, they were all destined to soon jump ship.

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