Monday, November 24, 2014

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

  It's the end of the 60's and James Bond has a new face. The face of George Lazenby in point of fact. I was never a fan of his looks or his singular turn as the titular double-o agent. However, I paid much closer attention to the movie around him this time, and without a doubt it's one of the best. Like any Bond flick, it certainly has it's downsides, but the director knew what he was doing. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is slick, stylish, and grand- not unlike an epic from the 50's. Complete with excessively edited fights, and softly lit romantic moments, OHMSS feels a little dated. Moreso than it's immediate predecessors (You Only Live Twice, and Thunderball), but it also has that classical feel to it. Bond feels like a legitimate person here, fallible even. Capable of genuine love. Which is a dynamic hardly explored again until 2006's Casino Royale. It suits the character in a dark way. Behind the skirts, martinis, and car chases is a tragic character waiting to be explored.

  Unfortunately we wouldn't really get to see that side of him explored until the aforementioned Casino Royale, but it worked out perfectly and we had plenty of memorable 007 films in the meantime. Anyways, OHMSS is pretty great. A little slow around the middle, unfortunately too because this time isn't spent towards the budding romance between Tracy (Diana Rigg) and Bond. Instead this odd interim kickstarts the main plot, pitting 007 against Blofeld (Telly Savalas) once again. Yet by the time we get here, it feels like the movie has started several times already. You'd be forgiven for thinking the main plot revolved around Bond girl Tracy. She's crucial to the story, in a roundabout way, but not directly. Not enough to open the movie with. Having said that... it was a cool opening.

  Aside from the weird story structure, there's Lazenby himself. I don't really like him as Bond. I don't think he did a bad job per se, and I don't think Connery would've been any better in this particular story, however his absence is sorely felt. I think this would've been the ideal time to bring in Roger Moore. Maybe hand off a few of his later movies to Dalton. All would've been right with the world.
Moreover, Lazenby didn't sound ready for the part either. He quit the role before the movie even premiered, rebelling against the producers in a variety of passive aggressive fashions. He was certain that Bond had no place in the 70's, and he felt mistreated on set. Yet this was also his first movie, and on top of that, he was stepping into the well worn shoes that already rocketed one newbie to stardom. I can only assume he felt more people would listen to his opinion on things given that he was cast as Bond, yet the direct opposite was true. They cast a face, an accent, and a trademark swagger. Unfortunately for him, that was all.

  I have even more nitpicks, but they don't necessarily detract from the quality of the movie, which otherwise is pretty damn good. Lazenby does an admirable job nonetheless, though his wardrobe is frequently loud, occasionally ostentatious, and unfortunately his fights lack the grit of the Connery brawls. At the very least, he's got the swagger down and can throw a mean punch. His back and forth with Tracy is fantastic, and I heard extra effort was put into their dialog. It really shows honestly. You could pluck OHMSS out of the franchise entirely, and set it on it's own and it'd be a perfectly fine spy thriller. A great one even. It's a genuine romance story couched in tragedy and secret agent trappings.  Diana Rigg plays Tracy as the kind of woman that Bond is only ever going to find once. There's a scene where Bond is being hunted by the villains, he's genuinely scared for his life, and Tracy swoops in like a guardian angel- saving his life.

  Usually Bond is an infallible superman, even when he's inches from death he always has a quip or a trick up his sleeve to get away just in time. We really believe he would've died there if not for her. It was and still is largely unconventional, and then to have her drive the car in the subsequent chase sequence? Completely unheard of. She's as much of a hero in this movie as Bond is. She never feels overblown like a super-hero though, and neither does Bond. What's even better is that neither of them need to in order for the movie to work- and boy does it work. They're solid and well rounded characters. Especially Tracy. Not to mention, Rigg and Lazenby have fantastic onscreen chemistry, which is probably the main highlight of the movie for me. As Bond, his performance is debatable, but as a British secret service agent who falls in love under dire circumstances... he's great. OHMSS is a great Bond movie, but it's even better that it sorta feels like something else as well.

  It feels like a standalone entity in the franchise. It's probably more watchable out of any sort of continuity whatsoever. Whereas Dr.No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger feel like their own trilogy (to a somewhat lesser extent, it's perfectly fine to extend that into a quintrilogy to include Thunderball and You Only Live Twice) OHMSS doesn't quite move to the same beat. It's tone is different, it's momentum is different, it just feels like it's own thing. Despite having all the trappings of a classic Bond flick, OHMSS sets itself apart, discreetly... but it does- and that is not a bad thing. It's easier to enjoy it when you're not expecting a sequel to the Connery films. It is it's own beast, and should be appreciated as such.  I hope I'm not putting anyone off from watching it, because it's still a great 007 outing. From a thrilling escape from Blofeld's lair, culminating in a breakneck ski chase, to the explosive climatic raid, sending Bond, guns blazing, into the depths of Blofeld's sinister laboratory... the movie is a blast. Once it gets going, it keeps going.

  In the end, OHMSS manages to throw out a twist that will subtly define Bond's character for good. Whenever you question his behavior or his motives, you have to recall the end of OHMSS. There's no happy ending in store for Bond here, and even saying that is saying too much. Suffice it to say it adds a layer to his character that only the best of the movies even flirt with. Most Bond movies are content to be simple actioners, rarely do they get as personal and as dark as OHMSS. The vibrancy of the movie, and the tongue in cheek nature may be offputting to some, standing in stark contrast to the darker tone they belted out at times, but that's what makes OHMSS so worth seeing and talking about. I found a new appreciation for this movie, and I recommend it to anyone who never thought much of it before, or to anyone who's never seen it. It's an odd movie, and an odd entry in it's own franchise, but if you give it it's due diligence... it can end up being one of the most memorable and moving 007 movies to date. It left me shaken... and more than a little stirred.

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