Thursday, November 1, 2012

My Favorite Bond: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Scary Movie Month is over, and it was a HUGE, BLOODY SUCCESS thanks to all of you. But I don't think I'm alone when I say that it will feel good to move and go back to watching all kinds of movies -- if by "all kinds of movies," you guys are also thinking "a lot of James Bond movies." To celebrate the release of Skyfall, we're going to be publishing a series of pieces this month looking back at some our writers' favorite entries in the 50-year old Bond franchise. And I'm up first.

In his recent review of Skyfall over at Hitfix, Drew McWeeny pointed out that part of what makes the Bond series great is the way that the movies perfectly reflect the cultural period in which they were made, from the British invasion coolness of Dr. No to the indulgent Star Wars thievery of Moonraker to the two-fisted, Joel Silver-inspired action of License to Kill. He's absolutely right. But one of the things I've always liked about Bond movies is that not only do they reflect back culture at large, but that they also have the ability to zoom in on each individual audience member and offer something different. There is such a breadth of material over the course of the series that the movies can offer something for everyone.

Because, ultimately, everyone wants different things from a James Bond movie -- and from James Bond himself. That's why when someone says that Roger Moore is their favorite Bond, I can't argue with that person. I DO NOT AGREE, but I can't fault that person for preferring Moore over the others (I can judge, quietly and to myself, but I do not argue). And every actor that has played 007 has brought something different and unique, creating his own version of the character. It's what gives him such longevity -- he's constantly being reinvented, even in small ways.

With 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- my favorite Bond movie -- it's not so much one-time-Bond George Lazenby that's reinventing the character as much as it is director Peter Hunt and screenwriter Richard Maibum reinventing him (yes, I know Ian Fleming wrote the material -- which I have not read -- but it's the way that material is interpreted that makes the movie special). There is a darkness and a weight to the story that hadn't really been present in past outings, and the movie finds Bond much more grounded in the real world, especially compared to the giant volcanoes and Japanese disguises of You Only Live Twice. Even the villain's plan this time around is pretty believable.

The movie finds Bond rescuing a woman (Diana Rigg) from committing suicide and eventually sleeping with her, only to be kidnapped by goons and brought to Marc-Ange Draco, the notorious head of a crime syndicate. It turns out he's the girl's father, and that she's the Contessa Theresa (Tracy) di Vincenzo. Draco offers Bond a dowry of a million pounds if he'll marry Tracy, which Bond refuses -- though he does agree to continue seeing Tracy if Draco will reveal the location of supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (this time played by Telly Savalas). As Bond and Tracy begin to fall in love for real, he heads to Switzerland posing as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray, who has been helping Blofeld claim the title of Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp.

Blofeld has established an allergy research clinic at which he's experimenting on a series of young and beautiful girls, all of whom take an interest in Sir Hilary/007. Upon further inspection, Bond learns that the girls are being hypnotized to go to their respective homes/countries and distribute deadly bacteria -- Blofeld is engaging in a kind of covert biological warfare. Eventually, Bond escapes the clinic (as Bond always does) and reunites with Tracy, but their romance hits more than a few roadblocks.
Let me just say this: I'm not even sure OHMSS is my FAVORITE Bond movie (after all, it contains one of my least favorite moments of the entire series, in which Lazenby references that he's the new guy by BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL and making some dumb joke in the opening scene). I'm not sure I can even pick a favorite Bond movie. That's one of the things I love about the series -- I can watch a different movie for every mood I'm in. When I want a lean and mean spy movie, I can put on Dr. No. If I want something light and goofy or I want to see Britt Ekland in a swimsuit,  I'll watch The Man with the Golden Gun. For a more traditional action movie, I'll watch one of the Pierce Brosnan Bonds. They all have their charms.

But On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a fantastic movie, and one that's only begun getting its due credit as it's being rediscovered in the last decade or so. How much do I like On Her Majesty's Secret Service? I like it so much that I can overlook the presence of George Lazenby in his only outing as Bond (he's not terrible, for the record, but he fails to make any real impression). Lazenby, a former model discovered by Albert Broccoli in a commercial for Fry's Chocolate Cream, was hired to basically be a clothes hanger, and that's pretty much what he is. His suit just happens to be the role of James Bond. He never shows any real interest in being 007 (which is meted out by the fact that he was offered a contract for SEVEN MORE MOVIES but didn't want it and left after just one), and it shows on screen: he's either still uncomfortable with acting or embarrassed by the material, and as a result tends to put distance between himself and the movie. There is James Bond being aloof and there is Lazenby being aloof. It's the latter here.

Luckily, he's compensated by the performance of Diana Rigg (the original Emma Peel on The Avengers), who is a fantastic, warm and human Bond girl who doesn't have a name like Holly Goodhead or Minnie Suxdix. If she doesn't work, the movie doesn't work. She works. I've also grown to appreciate Telly Savalas as Blofeld; he's been written off as being dull or ineffective in the role, but that's not entirely fair. No, he's not as colorful as Donald Pleasance (playing the original Dr. Evil), but that's because he's inhabiting a different universe than that incarnation of Blofeld did. Savalas isn't a larger than life villain. He's more subdued (some might say too subdued) because the movie is. There's something much more believably threatening about a Blofeld this matter-of-fact and unshakable -- but, again, that sounds like a knock against Pleasance in You Only Live Twice. It isn't. His performance matches the spirit of that movie, just as Savalas' matches the spirit of this one. I'll agree that Pleasance is more memorable, but the guy with the secret underground lair is always going to make the bigger impression.
I won't spoil some of the major plot developments that I think make OHMSS such a great movie, but I will say that it's one of the only times in the entire series where there are consequences for being James Bond. It's also one of the few times there was any attempt at establishing continuity, even if it's only referenced for a few seconds at the beginning of For Your Eyes Only (and why that is, I can't say, since it has nothing to do with the story that movie is telling). Casino Royale would mine a lot of the same territory 27 years later, but lacks the lightness and "fun" spy stuff that can make Bond so enjoyable. On Her Majesty's Secret Service has that -- the ski chases, the Louie Armstong love montages, the the goofy scenes in the allergy clinic in which Bond has to fight off a bevy of horny girls (some of these scenes might as well be from an Austin Powers movie; Lazenby has the ruffled shirt and everything). What it's missing is high-tech gadgetry, but isn't that the same kind of back-to-basics approach for which everyone applauded Casino Royale?

Just imagine if Sean Connery had ended his run as Bond with On Her Majesty's Secret Service instead of Diamonds are Forever (I'm not really counting Never Say Never Again): not only would the movie have a better lead actor, but Connery would have brought along with him all the iconography of the character instead of Lazenby attempting to invent something new or imitate what came before. More importantly, the direction that this installment takes the character would have carried more weight if it had been one consistent actor all the way through -- our attachment isn't the same with Lazenby, because we're still adjusting to him in the role and trying to make our minds up about whether or not we like him. With Connery, the final few moments of OHMSS would be even more devastating than they already, and a perfect way for him to close out his run as Bond. His arc would be complete, in a way, leaving the character in a perfect position to be taken over by another actor. Had Connery done the movie, I don't think there would be any question about On Her Majesty's Secret Service being the best in the series.

The film's director, Peter Hunt, only made a handful of movies over the course of his career, and this is his only directorial entry in the Bond series (as opposed to guys like John Glen and Guy Hamilton, who directed a couple of times each). He had worked as an editor and second unit director during the Connery movies, though, and it shows in the way that the film's action is shot and cut. With the exception of the awful "Yakety Sax" fight that opens the movie, the action in OHMSS is fast and brutal -- it's some of the most grounded since Dr. No, and it would remain that way until some of the Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig entries. The ski chases are thrilling and feature some incredible stunt work (and some terrible rear projection photography, pretty much a staple of the series). More than anything, though, this is one of the few Bond movies that feels like the unique vision of a single filmmaker. Most are helmed by skilled journeymen -- directors for hire -- but Hunt manages to put his own stamp on the material. It's a movie that feels strangely both of its time and ahead of it.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is interesting if for no other reason than for where it lies in the canon with the fans: half of them place it among the worst of the Bond movies, while the other half swear it's one of the best. It all comes down to what we want from 007. Some folks can't see past Lazenby, and I can't blame them. But some of those same people are writing the movie off because it has become fashionable to do so. Lazenby is an easy punchline -- the Pete Best of the Bond franchise. Other folks don't care for it because it doesn't have the things they want from a Bond movie. The gadgets. The cars. The quips (there are a few here, and they are awful). The meaningless sex. No, the romantic relationships in OHMSS mean something, and maybe people don't want that kind of gravity in their 007 adventures. For me it makes the movie. James Bond may have all the time in the world, but On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of his finest hours.
And now, some bonus Bond picks! I recognize that with the exception of one or two picks, these choices won't be very popular. Again, one's feelings towards just about every element of the franchise are very personal. One man's Dr. No is another man's Moonraker. I just don't want to know the second man.

Favorite Bond: Daniel Craig

Favorite Bond Credit Song: "Nobody Does It Better," Carly Simon (runner-up: "You Only Live Twice")

Favorite Bond Girl:  Pussy Galore (runners-up: Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies, Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) in The Man With the Golden Gun and Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye; yes, she had a terrible-but-hilarious character to play, but it's one of the first times in the history of the franchise [since Ursela Andress came out of the water] that a Bond girl made you sit up and say "Who is THAT?")

Underrated Bond Movie: The Living Daylights

Underrated Bond Credit Song: "Tomorrow Never Dies," Sheryl Crow

Bond Movie I Shouldn't Like But Do: The World is Not Enough

Least Favorite Bond Movie: Die Another Day


  1. Great piece, Patrick. About a year ago I re-watched all the Bond films and OHMSS was one I had little to no memory of, so I went into it a little apprehensively as I’d heard so much negativity about it over the years. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it and I’m glad to see over the last few months there have been several positive reappraisals of the film. It does have its problems: I think it’s too long and does drag a little in the middle; and that fourth wall breaking moment you brought up is truly terrible. With that said there was so much to like too: the fight scenes have real weight to them (I believe some of this is down to Lazenby’s inability to pull his punches properly on occasion); Diana Rigg’s performance is brilliant and I thought the ending was superbly done.

    It’s nice to see you pick The Living Daylights as underrated. After I’d finished going through them again it was my favourite of all the Bonds. It’s got some humour, but not in excess like the later Moore outings, while having some real grit to it. I also really liked the relationship between Bond and Kara, it was so different to how we are used to seeing him behave towards women in the previous films and felt like a breath of fresh air. It’s a shame Dalton only did the two films, as I thought he was excellent in the role. I agree on Die Another Day, it is easily the worst, there is so much wrong with it. There really did need to be a drastic change in direction for the franchise after that if it was to carry on.

    1. Thanks, Stuart! I've really come to like The Living Daylights in recent years. As a kid, I thought Licence to Kill was the "good" one and LD was "boring." As I've gotten older, my position has completely reversed. And I, too, love the relationship between Bond and Kara; it was disappointing to see (during some general research) that so many websites name her as one of the worst Bond girls.

  2. Timothy Dalton, horribly under appreciated Bond. But I feel like I'm less and less in the minority in saying that as time goes by and people appreciate what he brought to the table. My wife (god bless her) thinks he was saddled with the backwash of the Moore era (lordy, do I not like the Moore era) and I can see that; Dalton's trying to play Bond, the damaged killing machine, but the stories are still these silly cartoons.

    1. People are definitely reevaluating him as a good Bond these days. It's interesting how Daniel Craig's portrayal owes more to Timothy Dalton than probably any other Bond and he's celebrated while Dalton is dismissed. I think it's for exactly the reason you point out -- with Craig, the movies actually match the character. I think they sort of tried to "edge" the series up with Licence to Kill, but the more times I see that movie the more it feels like a miscalculation. I like The Living Daylights a lot more.

  3. I love that you can be all over the place about Bond because, as Patrick says, each movie has scenes/actors/moments that mean a lot/little to each individual viewer. Consistency isn't the series' strongest suit (though its eons more solid than a "Friday the 13th" or "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise) so it shouldn't surprise that fans' reasons for liking/disliking scenes/moments from X/Y/Z movie are all over the place. It's fun! :-)

    So, while I can say without irony that Sean Connery is the best actor to personify the character, I can also say that Timothy Dalton is my favorite actor to play James Bond because The Living Daylights is my favorite Bond movie of all time (the musical score by John Barry, his last for the series, helps a lot). Or that, while I recognize how cartoony/loopy the Roger Moore era of Bond was, that my favorite run of Bond movies were the one's when Uncle Roger was at the helm because those were the Bonds I went to see as a kid in the theater that made the biggest impression on me. The only exception is "Live and Let Die" which to me is unwatchable, but some people swear by it.

    One of the things I miss most from the 'classic' era of Bond ('62-'89) was the family atmosphere that the production company/filmmakers brought to the task of making these films. Peter Hunt, "OYMSS" director, was the influential editor of the five previous Bond movies and the man most responsible for the franchise's sped-up, frames-skipped action/fight scenes (a technique current action hacks still use). His reward for being such a good editor was directing "OYMSS," whose failure to live up to the box office expections of the series removed Hunt from the series. John Glen was also an editor of Bond movies through most of the 70's; he ended up directing the latter Moore era and the two Dalton Bond movies. Ever since "Goldeneye" different directors take over each Bond movie (what is likely to happen to "Star Wars" now that Disney has bought the franchise) and, while that keeps the perspectives/styles different and fresh, I miss that all the Bond movies were written by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson (the original producer's son-in-law) primarily to keep the series away from any potential copyright run-ins with Kevin McClory's screen credits claims.

    Totally agree that, if it were Connery playing Bond at the end of "OYMSS," it would be the series/actor/characters' finest moment with a true sense of closure. The callback at the start of "For Your Eyes Only" had more to do with the scene that follows (the end of Blofeld to try to rid the series from the constant legal threats by Kevin McClory, hence the reach back to an old plot point that the series' producers could use without fear of Kevin claiming it was his idea). I place "OYMSS" squarely in the middle of my Bond pecking order, leaning toward the top half instead of the bottom half. The movie is being a little too goofy (the whole Sir Hilary voice-over thing) and experimental, stuff that would have been hard to pull off even with Connery playing Bond. With a clearly green and aloof Lazenby front and center (he's not awful, just too different from Connery to make the transition tolerable) the movie suffers. When Riggs and the supporting cast stand next to Lazenby the movie stands on more solid ground, and personally the end still gets me because I really get to like Tracy. That this moment isn't even hinted at/referenced in "Diamonds Are Forever" is a sign of how badly received/perceived "OYMSS" was at the time of its release. Ironically, ever since, Lazenby has played 007-like characters often (anyone remember him in the short-lived NBC series "The Master" when his Bond-like character fought alongside Lee Van Cleef's master ninja? No?) because he kept getting asked to spoof the one thing he'll always be remembered for.

  4. Great start to what I'm sure will be a great series, Patrick! While I can't say much about OHMSS, because it's one of the Bond movies I haven't seen, I'm glad to read your thoughts on it, and it has certainly gotten me into the Bond mood. I might check out OHMSS now.

    I'm super excited for Skyfall, and based on the early Rotten Tomatoes buzz (for whatever that is worth) it sure seems like it's going to be one of the best Bond films yet! I have faith in Sam Mendes to treat it well.

    Might we expect a podcast when Skyfall is released? Hmm...

  5. Great article Patrick!

    I couldn't agree with you more.

    It was only the other day I was saying to a friend that if Sean Connery had been in OHMSS it would have been the best of the series.

    If you like Bond you should check out this documentary from the UK.

    John Barry makes some interesting comments about the score and George Lazenby.

    Keep up the good work


  6. Awesome article. I'm a Dr. No fan, as far as my favorite, but it does tend to change. I like that it has very little in the ways of gadgets or one liners and is a pretty gritty, straight forward spy flick. I also have to give lots of props to Goldeneye for being the first one I ever saw in the theater and showing me how awesome Sean Bean is, and Casino Royale is a near perfect movie to me.

    I confess, though, that I have not seen most of Roger Moore's movies. As a teenager, I was never interested in his era. Now I've bought them all, so I'll be checking them out, so it'll be interesting to see how I regard something like Moonraker compared to the others.

    November is going to be awesome.

  7. There's no doubt that Connery is terrific as Bond, but one issue I have with those early ones is they just can't get the character of Felix Leiter right. Leiter is all kinds of awesome in the books, a character that is tough but also has a great sense of humor. He makes a great foil for Bond, and doesn't let getting several bits of him chomped off by a shark to keep him from getting involved in Bond's adventures. So what do the films give us?

    Jack Lord is stiff and humorless in Dr. No. However, he's at least competent.

    Cec Linder is way too old and rather dense in Goldfinger. He has more of a sense of humor, though.

    Rik Van Nutter is just right physically for the role in Thunderball. But he's really just a thick-headed sidekick who never knows what to do next.

    Norman Burton brings the humor back for Diamonds Are Forever, but he's too much like the angry police chief in McCloud, tut-tutting over our irrepressible 007. Also, Burton is way overweight (but then so was Connery in this one).