ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE celebrates its FIFTIETH anniversary this year.
You haven’t watched this one? Why not?
OHMSS is a serious contender for best Bond film.
Fantastic action and stunts. Good quips. Return of Spy Time. No Bond Bloat. A major villain. A difficult, complex heroine. A love story that works. A great ending. A plot viewed as one of the closest to the original book.
This review is slightly spoilery, but I’m deliberately not going to spoil it all.
The director, Peter Hunt, was the editor of previous Bonds, and made some very particular changes. He wanted this to be a different Bond.
The first scene after the new gun barrel sequence is Q discussing radioactive lint with M. M isn’t too interested – it’s like the film is immediately positioning itself as a grittier Bond, with less of the silliness.
We then have the shadowy figure driving along a coastal road. We see part of the face as he lights a cigarette. A female overtakes him, and he follows. Using the scope from a rifle concealed in the glove box he sees her walk recklessly into the sea. Exiting the car, we see the new Bond actor George Lazenby, as he removes his tuxedo and gun and runs into the waves to stop her.
The photography is great, and the stereo sound works well. He places her on the sand, gets “My name is Bond, James Bond” in early, before some goons attack.
The fight is cut well and looks tough. A splashy punch up in the waves, Bond kneeling on the goon to keep his head underwater. Some neat hand-to-hand with the other goon.
But the mysterious woman (we meet her soon as Tracy) has returned to her car and zoomed off.
Bond quips “This never happened to the other fella”, and glances at the camera as the titles and theme music start. This got a great reaction from audiences who either didn’t know Australian actor Lazenby at all (or if they did, it was from his male modelling photos or his performance in chocolate ads).
The film doesn’t have a theme tune sung by a contemporary artist but the brilliant instrumental OHMSS by John Barry.
The opening titles feature a cocktail glass and its reflection full of Union Flags, while silhouetted nudes pose as if mimicking a coat of arms. (Plot point for later). The glass then becomes a sand timer, where we see glimpses of previous Bond films, villains and girls. A clock even appears, working backwards.
We’re going back to a different Bond, the film seems to insist.
One of big changes was tightening up the action and fight sequences. Peter Hunt’s editing of the Orient Express fight on From Russia With Love is brilliant, and that bruising, muscular fighting reappears in OHMSS, an early fight in the hotel suite starts with a jump scare and is filmed and edited for maximum impact (by John Glen who would himself move on to direct Bond in a few years).
I’d suggest that this style of energetic fight editing didn’t reappear until 2006’s Casino Royale.
WIDE-SCREEN AND COLOUR
The film uses the wide-screen format very well, with some great compositions, not only in the exterior scenes but also interiors.
The colour also pops (in a very late 60’s way) when Bond is around the colourful girls. And when he’s in the cold cities, the film looks grittier. Of course, the romantic montage is colourful too.
Hunt also uses the camera and lighting well in many scenes. Great use of close ups and low angle shots at time and great crane shots. There are also some non-Bond like changes in focus and blurs. One shot even has Bond staring out of M’s window while his memory of a recent event is represented by the reflection of that incident in the window.
CONTESSA TERESA “TRACY” DI VICENZO
Tracy’s proper introduction after the titles is at a casino, where she is obscured at first, only heard until the leans into shot. A nice call back to Bond’s first appearance in Dr No.
Tracy is a mystery. We first see her driving without care. Then trying to walk into the sea. Then gambling with money she doesn’t have. Then she’s in Bond’s room in a gown, sneaking his gun from his jacket. They spend the night together, then come morning, she has left him sleeping, having paid her gambling debt but taken his gun.
Tracy and Bond falling for each other shouldn’t work, either as partners within the story, or as a plot device. But they do. She is running from something, perhaps her upbringing, perhaps her cold crime lord father Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti). We learn she is indeed a Contessa, yet the Count she married has since died through suicide. She needs help, and Draco thinks that Bond is the one to do it. Draco promises Bond £1million in gold when they get married. Bond isn’t keen, instead he wants to know about Blofeld’s location.
And there it is. Nearly 25 minutes in and it’s all Tracy. Only then does the spy story kick in – Bond has been obsessively, and unsuccessfully, searching for Blofeld for two years since Japan (I like to think he’s trying to avenge his Japanese “wife”. Poor Aki).
MONEYPENNY AND M
Cut to Bond entering Moneypenny’s office, throwing his hat expertly onto the coat stand, nuzzling into her. He later kisses her. Actually kisses her!
M removes Bond from his mission, speaking over him dismissively. Fuming, Bond asks Moneypenny to write his resignation letter then goes to his office – where he clears his desk of props from previous films (accompanied by the music from that film). An end of an era indeed.
Bond is called back to M. “Request granted”. Brutal. But Moneypenny has saved the day, having told M that Bond only wanted to weeks leave. Possibly the best Moneypenny scenes Lois Maxwell had.
In a great looking scene, Tracy arrives at a bullring to celebrate her father’s birthday, sees Bond, gores her father into admitting he has a lead on Blofeld in Switzerland and tells Bond he doesn’t need to follow through on his “deal” with Draco. Tracy is sharp here, formidable, but still fractured and vulnerable.
What follows is the romance montage to the strains of Louis Armstrong’s We Have All The Time In The World. She obviously is drawn to Bond. Bond responds as a man, not an assassin, for in this film we see him resign, disobey orders and we realise he is obsessed with his pursuit of Blofeld. Maybe he should leave the spy game.
The info from the Swiss Banker leads Bond to impersonate heraldic historian Sir Hilary Bray on a trip to an exclusive Swiss mountaintop resort, to provide cost of arms information to the head of the facility.
Bond is met at the station in Switzerland by Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat) who takes him by carriage then helicopter to the resort. There Bond meets the residents, a group of females who aren’t allowed to talk about themselves.
Before long we learn that it is Blofeld running this clinic, and that despite what the girls think, this is NOT a laboratory creating allergy cures.
- A great silent scene with Bond infiltrating an office, hoisting in a safe-breaking device and photostat machine, copying documents from the safe, then casually strolling out as the office reading a gentleman’s magazine as the manager reappears.
- I love the part where he rips out the lining of his pockets to protect his hands when climbing onto the cable car.
THE SET PIECES
The action scenes are fantastic, and for brevity I’ll avoid doggedly retelling them in detail. But they include two stunning by ski chases, the cable car excitement, a car chase/stock car chase, a helicopter attack and even, get this, a bobsleigh chase.
STUNTS AND SECOND UNIT MAGIC
The stunts in this film are brilliant: high falls by seasoned stunt performers, skiing by Olympic athletes (one of whom, Willy Bogner also filmed the ski chases on skis, often backwards!) Aerial shots of the ski and later bobsleigh chases were filmed by Johnny Jordan suspended beneath a helicopter (Jordan had lost his foot as a result of an accident when filming aerial scenes with Little Nellie in You Only Live Twice but was back for more – and his footage is fabulous).
NODS OF APPROVAL
- LOCATION SHOOTING. The wintery locations are great and there are scenes with the performers driving cars! Against insurance demands Diana Rigg (formerly of UK spy series The Avengers – and known today by many as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones) did the driving in the stock car pursuit.
- Some lovely moments with M, Q and especially Moneypenny at the ceremony at the end.
- Bond, lying on his belly on the ice, sliding towards camera firing a machine gun. Another moment that audiences loved.
Bond throws a knife, hitting Draco’s wall calendar on 14th September.
Draco: “Hmm-hmm. But today is the thirteenth commander.”
Bond: “I’m superstitious.”
Bond, leaving the goon on hotel room floor after bruising fight:
“Gate crasher. I’ll leave you to tidy up.”
Passes caviar and eats some as he leaves:
“ Royal Beluga, North of the Caspian.”
- Breaking the fourth wall: “this never happened to the other bloke”
- The romantic montage
- A cleaner whistling the theme from Goldfinger!
- Bond in a kilt. While this is explained in the film and is a call-back to Bond’s background in the books, it is slightly odd to see Lazenby wandering around in traditional Scottish garments, for no plot reason.
- The unfortunate necessity to use back projection during main actor close ups in acting scenes. There are times I’d just rather see the stunt performers do the skiing.
- Tracy gets hit twice. Firstly, slapped by Bond, being the “anti-hero” near the start as the film tries to establish the tougher side of Lazenby perhaps? Then she is, well, punched unconscious by her father near the end.
- Blofeld is played well by Telly Savalas, yet it is odd hearing the American accent. Also, there is a plot discrepancy as Blofeld doesn’t recognise Bond despite having met him in You Only Live Twice. Neither does he have the facial scar from that film.
OHMSS is to some degree an oddity. While I love most of the changes, I can also appreciate that for some, the departures from the Bond format that has worked for eight years and five films may have been a step too far.
Today, we’d call it a soft reboot. It is still a Bond movie at its core, and if the producers had followed through with the changes, and the story, who knows what we could have gotten next. Indeed, the Bond Vendetta storyline wouldn’t really come back for two decades with Licence to Kill (seen as too hard at the time, and in the aftermath of the next soft reboot Casino Royale, where Bond is relentless in tracking down the conspirators in the much-maligned Quantum of Solace. If you are a QoS hater, you are, I’m sad to say, wrong.
Perhaps OHMSS was ahead of its time. Perhaps for some it was a misfire, a reboot that went wrong. Perhaps audiences just don’t want continuing stories, Bond in love, or Bond on a revenge mission. (Which will be interesting if some rumours about Bond 25 are true).
George Lazenby, despite signing a multi-film deal, walked away from the franchise after OHMSS. His agent had advised him that Bond was out of date and announced his departure before speaking to Broccoli or Saltzman. Lazenby even turned up at the premiere with long hair and beard. He had occasionally annoyed producers with his on-set comments and behaviours and had been plagued by interviewers and newspapers keen to compare him to Connery and to dig up (or exaggerate) gossip about tensions on set to sell copies. By many accounts of those in the production Lazenby made a good Bond. As Lazenby said himself: he should at least have made a second appearance. Especially after the way the film ended.
The end is not like other Bonds. It’s great. It’s bold. It promised much. Watch it and judge for yourself.
The film made nowhere near the money earned by You Only Live Twice but was still one of the highest earners of 1969. Reviews were mixed. Time would be kinder to it.
The credits teased Diamonds are Forever, but EON Productions needed a new Bond once more. Lazenby was out. Their next pick, Roger Moore was unavailable with his TV show The Saint.
What could Harry and Cubby possibly do next?
|Produced by: EON Productions
Presented By: Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli
Director: Peter Hunt
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum (+ Simon Raven)
Composer: John Barry
Production Design: Syd Cain
London Premiere December 1969