Posted by: dougery | April 12, 2011

Better Late Than Never: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Odds are you have no idea who George Lazenby is. If you do, I’d say there is about a 110% chance On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the reason. The two are an excellent match for one another, a pairing that largely boils down to a good film and a likable enough actor being saddled with too much unfortunate baggage to ever truly succeed.

The title alone borders on abhorrent. Where is the nerdy gut-punch of Dr. No? The poetry of From Russia With Love? The instantly unforgettable  unintentional comedy of Thunderball? All we have here is James Bond’s goddam job description. There is also a kind of uniquely British way it skirts the real issue at hand. As if the film is too polite or unsure to confidently introduce itself. Instead it comes up with the nanciest way possible to say “dude’s a killer spy.” Like many Bond movie titles, it would never fly today. I’m surprised it did then. And this is a shame because the movie has a lot of winning qualities, insecurities and all.

Just like Lazenby. But unlike a poor title overshadowing a decent film here we have a decent actor buried alive by the avalanche that is, was, and would be again: Sean Connery as Bond. Connery became so iconic as 007 that Cary Grant himself could not have succeeded as his immediate predecessor (you know, if the latter were then young enough to take hold the Walther PPK). To a great many Bond is Connery, and any substitution is merely a pale facsimile.  This too is a shame because there are a lot of things that Lazenby does well, subtlety among them, that Connery just can’t. Yet instead of highlighting his strengths, the newcomer is forced to hide behind some ridiculous costumes and perform that Cardinal Film Sin, breaking the fourth wall.

“This never happened to the other fellow.”

The infamous line Lazenby says with more moxie than it deserves, says a lot about OHMSS. It is simultaneously brazen about its change in leading man and too cowardly to let the new guy make a name for himself. Lazenby gets the lines, one-liners that would work for Connery, but then this Bond isn’t Connery, something it just turned to the camera and admitted, so why pretend?

Critics of the era savaged Lazenby for being “not good looking enough.” I find this mystifying and kind of funny. Lazenby is pretty much Don Draper, both in looks and calm assurance. And he very nearly pulls of that kilt thing–a tough thing, that. But nobody can/would/will ever look good in a skin tight powder blue speed-skater/ski suit. Perhaps somebody was just hoping all of these ruffles and spandex would distract you from recognizing the man beneath them, the man you wish was Connery?

Plot wise, Lazenby is the ideal choice. If Bond is gonna marry, it isn’t going to be Connery. Likewise, in a scene that walks the tightrope between melodrama and honest emotional pay-dirt, Connery could never have pulled off those lines that conclude the film’s tragic final moments. In a very strange way, Lazenby is almost too good an actor to play Bond. Or maybe it is Connery that is just bad enough?

Of course Bond’s antagonist, Ernst Blofeld also gets recast. But the villain is overshadowed by the hilariously awesome (and thoroughly apropos) conceit of his “angels of death.” You see Blofeld is holding the world ransom for two things:

a) amnesty for all his past crimes and
b) to be recognized as the true Count de What-have-you.

The two things that this character is so concerned about, the sins (and successes) of its past and proving that it is, beyond a doubt, the genuine article are also the film’s primary objectives: assuring the audience (which it has literally ransomed) that Lazenby is Bond, Savalas is Blofeld, the movie is as good as its forebears, etc.

Blofeld’s method is also indicative of the franchise’s insecurity. One femme fatale will not do. So let’s try, um… 10. Enter the ‘angels of death,’ a group of women purportedly allergic to various mundane foods who seek treatment at Blofeld’s allergy clinic (yes, really, that is the front for his mountain stronghold) and instead receive subliminal prompts to become his agents who would distribute bacteriological doom upon the world’s crops.

All in all we have a troubled film that is also strangely honest for all the wrong reasons. But is it entertaining you ask? Well… I did fall asleep about a half hour in. But I was eager to finish it the next day and I’m glad to have done so. Just as every movie Johnny Depp and Tim Burton team up for deliver diminishing returns, so too were the Bond films under Connery et. al. Lazenby proves a misused but oddly effective injection of fresh blood. Too bad he didn’t sign that rumored 7 film contract because he was convince the secret agent genre wouldn’t last.

Bond Grade: 005 (out of 007)

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Responses

  1. I haven’t seen OHMSS, but I think you nailed how to make a good Bond movie: write for the lead actor, to his strengths. Make Bond him, rather than the other way around. That’s why for all their ridiculousness, the Moore movies somehow work, they fit Moore’s relaxed vibe so well. And I think that’s why the Brosnan movies went off the rails. Goldeneye was a perfect fit for him, but all the rest were way too Moore-esque. Similarly, I thought Casion Royale fit Craig to a T, but Quantum of Solace, with its moodiness, didn’t really suit Craig’s strengths (which is, basically, to be a ruthless killer just-this-side of evil).

  2. I look forward to those modern day Bond films. As I’ve written, I know Goldeneye the N64 video game like the back of my hand. The movie, not so much. 6 down, 16 to go.

  3. Oh, Goldeneye the game. So much of my youth spent crushing blocky Russians with a tank.


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