Monday, September 3, 2012

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

Director: Peter R. Hunt
Producers: Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman
Writer: Richard Maibaum
Cinematographer: Michael Reed
Composer: John Barry
Editor: John Glen
Theme Song:"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" by John Barry
James Bond (George Lazenby) rescues a suicidal woman from drowning, only to discover she is Tracy Di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), the daughter of Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), the leader of Union Corse, a major European crime syndicate.
Sensing that Bond's presence is having a positive impact on Tracy, Draco offers to pay Bond £1 million pounds to marry her. In return, Draco agrees to help Bond find Blofeld (Telly Savalas), now posing as a French Count running an Allergy Research Institute in the Swiss Alps, where he is brainwashing a group of ten young women, whom he dubs the Angels of Death, into spreading a bacteriological weapon throughout the world.
Initially one of the most hated films in the series and now one of the most beloved, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a solid entry in the franchise, but it falls short of being great, primarily due to first-time director issues. While former series editor Peter R. Hunt's visuals and locations are excellent, his stylistic choices in the action scenes and the mixture of footage with real skiers and the actors in obvious bluescreen are far too jarring to ignore and, more importantly, the pacing drags often in the second half; at 2 hours and 22 minutes, this is the second longest Bond film and it shows in the scenes with Bond posing as gay genealogist Sir Hilary Bray and bedding Blofeld's Angels of Death.
Fortunately, minor technical issues and a lagging second act are the only real flaws, for everything else makes for a damn fine film. Richard Maibaum, the series regular writer, does some of his best work here, developing a great spy adventure that emphasizes intellect and deduction over gadgets and fisticuffs while also giving the characters genuine personality and dimension beyond the typical Bond stereotypes. Maibaum also tones down the humor, relying more on sly remarks that outright jokes. Furthermore, Blofeld's plot, while it seems smaller in scope, is actually quite clever and his use of the Angels of Death is an inspired, twisted idea.
In addition to a great story, the film also boasts two incredible performances from Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas. Rigg, best known as Emma Peel from The Avengers, is a captivating presence not only because she's attractive, but because she's a worthy woman for Bond and showcases tremendous range, perfectly capturing Tracy's emotional arc and her relationship with Bond, while also keeping her smart and resourceful. As for Savalas, his Blofeld lacks the creepy menace Donald Pleasance gave him, but he makes up for it by imbuing the character with an understated intellect and sly, witty menace that makes him every bit as dangerous. Special mention also goes to series regulars Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn and Lois Maxwell for taking full advantage of their expanded roles.
Then there's George Lazenby, the Australian model infamous for this one-time portrayal of Bond, which continues to inspire heated debate amongst fans. For myself, I can say without doubt that Lazenby has been severely underrated; yes, he lacks Sean Connery's sexual charisma and machismo and he has his moments of stiffness. But for the most part, Lazenby is quite charming and confident as Bond, with good line delivery and a sly sense of humor. Lazenby is helped immensely by the fact that, for the first time in the series, Bond is written as a real human being, one who is vulnerable and capable of feeling doubt, fear and love; this is best expressed in the final scene, where Lazenby's delivery of the line "we have all the time in the world," combined with his facial expressions, are heartbreaking and make you wish that Lazenby got another shot at Bond. 
Despite its initial reputation, On Her Majesty's Secret Service has rightfully taken its place as one of the best films in the series. While it lacks some of the frills Bond fans are accustomed to and suffers from an elongated running time, it's more than made up for by Hunt's stellar direction, Maibaum's elegant, character-driven script and a trio of strong performances by Lazenby, Rigg and Savalas, not to mention the best ending to any Bond film.



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