Friday, April 20, 2007

Overlooked Classics: On Here Majesty's Secret Service

If cornered into choosing my 'desert island' James Bond flick I would have to go with one of the first four Connery films. There is something so charismatic and unique about Sean Connery as James Bond that it is hard, at least for me, to ever completely accept anyone else in the role. That isn't to swipe anyone else who has ever played him but Connery will always be unmatchable in my eyes.
However, that said, if I was also cornered into naming what I thought was perhaps the greatest James Bond film and perhaps even my personal favorite. I would name 1969's magnificent ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE starring George Lazenby as 007.
I re-watched MAJESTY last night and was struck by just how near perfect it feels. Outside of maybe trimming a few minutes off of it's mammoth 146 minute running time I can't think of anything they could have done to improve it. A thought that kept occurring to me, even in the film's most extreme action sequences, was that MAJESTY feels more like a strange art film than a typical James Bond movie. From the surreal opening moments where Bond rescues Diana Rigg's Tracy from drowning herself to the films final tragic moments director Peter Hunt and crew weave an extremely hypnotic spell.
After Sean Connery resigned from the franchise before shooting the disappointing YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE Bond producers began the hunt of finding a new 007. This has all been well documented before and the exhaustive supplement material on disc two of MAJESTY'S dvd is absolutely essential viewing for fans of the series. Australian George Lazenby, a model and commercial actor, was finally chosen for the iconic role. Lazenby's work as Bond is unique, it doesn't really feel like Connery or any of the others since. He has a very commanding and, at times, almost imposing presence. His relative failure to become a major star shouldn't take away from the fact that he is actually a really good James Bond. Considering he had very little acting experience, he brings a great deal of emotional depth in some of MAJESTY'S more demanding scenes as well as a great physical presence to the action sequences. Lazenby was a bit screwed from the beginning, no one could have followed Connery in the Sixties, but watch him in this films final moments to see just how good this guy actually was. One wonders what would have happened had Lazenby went on to star in the follow up DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER instead of the returning Connery. Lazenby would do some notable work after, including the very effective WHO SAW HER DIE, but ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE remains his one truly inspired moment.
Director Peter Hunt made his impressive directorial debut with MAJESTY and unfortunately never directed another Bond film again. More well known as an editor, Hunt would go on to direct a dozen or so features including a couple with Charles Bronson. He brings a confident sure handed touch to the Bond series with Michael Reed providing the film's striking look. Watch some of the night scenes in Blofeld's spa and look at the remarkable lighting and art direction, this is among the most beautiful Bond films ever made. At one point in these scenes an incredible splash of red fills a hallway and I felt like I was watching a Mario Bava film.
Everyone from the great Desmond Llewelyn (although the gadgets are mostly left out in this one) to Bernard Lee are here. Lois Maxwell has one of her best and most substantial Miss Moneypenny performances and brings a real charm to the role. One scene is particularly effective with her involving Bond resigning for service.
Telly Savalas is incredible as Blofeld. Savalas had the unique capability of being absolutely sinister and overwhelmingly charming at the same time. His performance here is one of the best Bond villain roles ever.
John Barry delivers what might be his finest overall score to a Bond film. His lush, exciting and at times heartbreaking score is complimented by the amazing Louis Armstrong sung theme, WE HAVE ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD. Recently covered effectively by Iggy Pop for the underrated THE JACKET, this beautiful track is one of the great 007 theme songs. Armstrong's weary performance of its Hal David lyric is simply unforgettable and Barry wisely uses the tune throughout ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE to great effect.
Of course it wouldn't be a James Bond film without beautiful women and they are not in short supply here. Blofeld's spa is filled with some of the loveliest actresses from the sixties including future Hammer starlets Julie Ege, Anouska Hempel and Joanna Lumley. ON HER MAJESTY'S greatest weapon though is the entrancing Diana Rigg. Joining the ranks of the great Bond girls, including Ursula Andress, Claudine Auger and the recent Eva Green, Diana Rigg brings a rare emotional force to the Bond series with her performance as the depressed and lonely Tracy.
Riggs was just a year past her iconic AVENGERS character Emma Peel and she is really at her peak here in MAJESTY. All of her scenes are noteworthy and I must admit that her final moment in MAJESTY is the only scene in the Bond series that makes me cry.
A final note concerning ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE are the remarkable action sequences. In this era of increasingly cold and artificial CGI the effects in MAJESTY are absolutely spellbinding. The ski chase sequences, car chases and snow avalanche are still some of the best action sequences I have ever seen. Disc two of the set chronicles the making of these and they are incredible to watch and almost 40 years later these scenes remain simply jaw dropping.

ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE remains one of the lowest grossing of all the Bond films. Audiences just weren't ready to let go of Sean Connery. He would return, of course, in the great DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER before Roger Moore settled in for a nice decade plus run. ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE remains for me one the definitive films of the 1960s. A thrilling and very moving chapter in the most famous cinematic saga in film history.


cinebeats said...

It's so nice to read a positive review of this film. I really like it, but so many people seem to hve a negative opinion of it. Diana Rigg is so terrific in this and you could really believe that if anyone could win Bond's heart, it would be her. It's one of my favorite Bond films and I think it's terribly underrated. Anyway, nice review!

Jeremy Richey said...

I'm really surprised by the negative reaction some people have to this one also. I often wonder how the film would be viewed had Connery been in it.
As always thanks for the comment...more on the lovely Miss Rigg soon...

Neil said...

I agree. I definitely think this is the best Bond movie. In fact, it's almost undoubtedly my desert island Bond choice, although, as you note, the first four Connery movies would also be pretty hard to resist.

I'm glad to read your vigorous defense of Lazenby's performance, which I still think may be the best single performance an actor has given in the part, although admittedly lacking the immense natural charisma Connery brings.

Great review. Thanks!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Neil for your comments also. Yea, Lazenby's performance is very underrated in this film. It is all the more remarkable especially when you consider how inexperienced he was at the time.
Thanks again for your nice words.

Testify said...

Would have to agree that OHMSS features barry's finest Bond soundtrack.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Testify for visiting and commenting. I really love Barry's score for this film, so it is quite possibly his finest to my ears. It's absolutely among his very best, no doubt.
Thanks again for commenting.

Rogue Spy 007 said...

This was a great blog on one of my favorite Bond films. OHMSS ranks up there with the best. I think more people would feel that way if it starred Connery (who is still my favorite 007). I think Lazenby gets shortchanged. For such a young actor, he did an outstanding job. I've loved Diana Rigg since I can remember. It's great to see her as a Bond girl. She's one of the best. Then you add in Telly Savalas as an awesome Bond villain. John Barry's score is my fav Bond score. OHMSS is also my fav Bond novel by Fleming. This film deserves more positive attention. I'm glad you gave it the respect it truly deserves.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks for the nice words Keith...I'm glad to hear it is a favorite of yours too...thanks again