James Bond Overdose Part 6 – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

For some, this is the Star Trek V: The Final Frontier of the James Bond canon, the strange terrible oddball that is only ever purchased so that one can have a complete set. For others, this is the “Trial of a Timelord” arc from Doctor Who, a misunderstood masterpiece that deserves boatloads more love.

I’m not sure if I’d take such an extreme view, but this is definitely a movie to be discussed. George Lazenby, an Australian model-turned-actor, took over the role from Connery who decided he wasn’t a fan of the role anymore, and then did not return for any sequels, citing differences with the filmmakers. And so, not only were audiences faced with a new Bond, but they weren’t really given much time to get to know him. AND, on top of all that, audiences got to see a different, vulnerable side to Bond that many responded well to. Many involved with the project said that Lazenby could have been the best James Bond ever if he had stayed and accepted the seven picture deal he was offered. But none of that happened, and so we are left with a single, odd, imperfect-but-intriguing movie that just sits there, begging to be explained.

Plot-wise, it doesn’t quite fit into the timeline established by Connery’s films. In this film, Bond (Lazenby) is still on the hunt for Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), whom he has never met. After serendipitously meeting the unstable-but fascinating Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), daughter of renowned crime boss Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), both parties realize that they have something to offer one another. Draco believes Bond can offer Tracy some stability and therefore help her, and Bond hopes to move into Draco’s inner circle where he may learn of the whereabouts of Blofeld. After courting Tracy for some time and falling in love with her, Bond learns of a lead from Draco that leads him to Blofeld’s Alpen facility in Switzerland. Posing as a genealogist, Bond learns that Blofeld is not only seeking to have his claim to the title of Count de Bleuchamp recognized officially, but is going to threaten the world with a deadly virus that will destroy the world’s crops and livestock unless his demands are met. Using a bunch of beautiful girls from all over the world that have been hypnotized into becoming walking weapons, Blofeld plans to disseminate the pathogen worldwide. And so Bond must operate on the razor’s edge of maintaining his loyalty to MI6 and giving in to his desire to bring Blofeld to justice (a goal MI6 has lost interest in), all while fighting not to lose Tracy to the dangers she becomes embroiled in.

Despite it’s length, the movie manages to be well-plotted and engaging, balancing the romantic and action plots fairly well. The acting is quite good (especially from Savalas and Rigg), and the heartbreaking ending is beautifully poetic, if a bit tonally out of character for the series. Lazenby himself is sort of the shaky pin that doesn’t quite hold the whole erector set together.

First off, I would like to say that Lazenby looks the part beautifully. He’s got the charisma and charm. And he’s not that terribly bad of an actor, but he’s not the best at delivering Bond’s signature one-liners. In one scene, after a henchman hilariously falls into a rather conveniently placed snowblower/muncher/devastator, leading to a darkly comic snow/gore fountain, Bond turns around and says, “Well, he had a lot of guts…” and suddenly the audience feels really uncomfortable because the moment has been ruined. Connery had the dark comedy of the character down very well and, no doubt, would have given that line the sarcastic bite needed to make it work, but Lazenby sort of fumbles it. As I was re-watching it, I found myself noting that he was at his best when he wasn’t speaking, which is unfortunate.

I also must say something about Bond’s wardrobe in this. Connery looked good in everything he wore in any Bond film, even if it was a pair of absurdly short, tight pants that no one in their right mind would wear today. Lazenby’s costumer must have felt that James Bond’s idea of fashion was to go ALL OUT all the time. When we first meet him, he’s wearing a super ruffly tuxedo shirt that looks like a sea anemone. Later, he’s sporting outrageous, garishly pinned cravats, and then later a ridiculously lacy piece of neckwear that I just learned is called a jabot.

Here is a picture. The one Bond wears is about 3 feel longer and rufflier.

I get that that jabot is a traditional acoutrement, and when he’s in full kilt, it kind of works, but it’s SO DISTRACTING, especially in one scene when he leans forward over a naked girl in bed, working his magic on her, and all you can focus on is this absurd lacy thing hanging down like some sort of extreme Gandalf-esque neck beard. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but not much. It’s very silly.

In most of his scenes, he looks like some sort of dandy who can’t really be taken seriously. And I know it’s not just the fashions of the times, because after Connery is dragged back for Diamonds are Forever, he wears sleek, classy suits and jackets that manage to look timeless even though few mortals could pull them off quite so well.
Ok, back to the movie. I don’t want to spend too much time harping on Lazenby. Long story short, he looks the part, but doesn’t quite pull it off most of the time.
As for the plot itself, it works pretty well. It is a bit odd that Blofeld seems not to remember Bond at first. The official story is that the writers stuck very close to Ian Fleming’s novel, which was set, chronologically, before You Only Live Twice. But, since the movies ended up being very different from Fleming’s novels (hence why I’ve avoided talking about them that much in this series), Bond has already been introduced to Blofeld. So why are they acting like this is a first time meeting?

I find myself wondering if Blofeld recognizes Bond right away and decides to play with him a bit. It’s not a perfect theory since Blofeld spends  a lot of time explaining to Bond how he figured out his identity, and Bond doesn’t do much to hide his appearance except don some glasses and alter his voice.

Another theory could be that this is a prequel (sort of the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom of the series), but one scene has Bond going through mementos from his last adventures while obvious musical cues (such as an excerpt from “Underneath the Mango Tree”) play, refreshing the audience’s memory that this is, in fact, the Bond they know and love. So, we’re left wondering if Bond is searching for Blofeld because he escaped at the end of the last movie, or because he’s trying to find the head of SPECTRE whom he’s only heard about secondhand. The plot makes more sense if this is their first meeting, but the chronology of the movies subverts that. Make of it what you will.

Speaking of chronology, the film’s opening credits sequence is a fun throwback to previous films, showing scenes from Connery-era Bond films falling through an hourglass while naked women in silhouette dance about. The song that plays is also a John Barry instrumental piece a la the opening of Dr. No and From Russia with Love. It’s fun and catchy and the last of its kind. All subsequent opening credits sequences would feature vocalists of some sort. It’s not really the most iconic sequence, but it’s fun.
Like the opening credits sequence, this film spends a lot of time hammering home to audiences that, even though the actor has changed, the essence of the character has not. The pre-credits sequence opens with M (Bernard Lee), Q (Desmond Llewelyn), and Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), all familiar faces by now. Just before he first meets Tracy, Bond uses the infrared scope from his Russia-era rifle (the one that came with the tricked out briefcase).Then, early on in the movie, Bond plays Baccarat in a swanky hotel. It’s like the director is shaking the audience by the shoulders, screaming, “Relax! Nothing has changed! See? SEE!?!?” And it does still feel like a Bond film. There are enough familiar elements that the change in lead actor isn’t all that distracting.
While we’re on the subject of familiar, Blofeld’s lead henchwoman, Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat) seems like a German reincarnation of Rosa Klebb. She’s got the same look. She’s perhaps a bit less rigid than Rosa, but they are clearly cut from the same cloth. I like her, despite her outrageous Frau Blucher (*neighs*) accent. She’s got a strength and a cutting sarcastic edge that makes her fun to watch. I read that she was supposed to come back for Diamonds are Forever, but the actress who played her tragically died of a heart attack only two years after this film came out. That’s really sad, because I would have loved to have seen her again. *tips hat to Ilse*
Another hat tip goes to Louis Armstrong whose love theme “We Have All the Time in the World” was the last thing he ever recorded before his death. It wouldn’t have worked as an opening credits song, but it plays nicely over a sweet montage detailing Bond and Tracy’s courtship. It’s perhaps a bit saccharine, but it isn’t really a bad song at all. It’s got the beauty of “You Only Live Twice” and the catchiness of “The Spy Who Loved Me.” I think it’s a fitting finale to Armstrong’s career since we did have all the time in the world. His music is still loved by many and he’s become a music legend. *tips hat to Louis*
I also want to give huge mad props to Diana Rigg (now Dame Diana Rigg) for her wonderful performance as Tracy. She’s slightly crazy, charming, gorgeous, strong, weak, multifaceted, and complex. I’m pretty sure “multifaceted” and “complex” are synonyms, but I don’t care. I can’t heap enough praise on her. She’s probably my favorite character in the whole film. She makes the out-of-character romance work because the audience really falls in love with her. Bond may not have the best chemistry with her, but she’s brilliant enough to carry the whole thing herself. Her final scene of the movie is made all the more devastating because most viewers know what’s going to happen. I may be biased because I adore Diana Rigg tremendously, but it’s easy to see that she’s one of the strongest aspects of the movie. I just love her.
Alright, enough hat tips. Let’s wrap this thing up. I could go on for days and days about this one. I’m curious what you think about this one. Do you love it? Hate it? Are you undecided? Let me know in the comments.
Random Observations
-“This never happened to the other fella.” Har har, I see what you did there!
-Lazenby and Moneypenny have little chemistry, but it’s nice to see him tossing his hat onto the hat rack again!
-Bond looking at a Playboy while he’s cracking the lawyer’s safe. 
-I love that we get to see M’s house (and that he’s a butterfly enthusiast!)
-“The world is not enough” is Bond’s family motto. *looks ahead to 1999*
-Ruby Bartlett terrifies me. It’s not just because she’s clingy and desperate. She’s just creepy. Actually, the whole sequence where Bond is making his way through the bevy of buxom, giggly assassins is probably one of the weakest in the film.
-The first of many skiing scenes.
-I want an icy cavern like Blofeld’s. It’s like the bat cave, but icier!
-Tracy and Blofeld’s scene is delightful. I kind of almost wish she had betrayed Bond and gone over to SPECTRE.
-The bobsled chase is silly, but cool.
Next week, I (and Sean Connery) will return for the bonkers Diamonds are Forever! Three words: Blofeld. In. Drag. It’s gonna be a good one!
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