Countdown to Spectre: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Revisisted

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The Bond: George Lazenby, in his first and only appearance as Bond. He won the role after a year-long, worldwide search with just a series of Big Fry’s Chocolates commercials under his belt. Agent Maggie Abbot encouraged Lazenby to pursue the role, citing his “arrogance” as qualification. Her assessment, while harsh, was accurate: after visiting Bond/Connery’s tailor and the barber patronized by most of the production team (Cubby Broccoli happened to spott him and thought he looked the part), Lazenby snuck into producer Harry Saltzman’s office, casually leaned on the door jamb and said, “I hear you’ve been looking for James Bond.”

The Release: December 18, 1969. While On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has experienced a resurgence in recent years, it was considered a flop at the time. An $87 million worldwide gross would have been a success for a non-Bond, but it was the lowest since From Russia with Love.

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The Girl: Diana Rigg as Theresa DiVincenzo, Tracy for short. A bevy of attractive women also makes up Blofeld’s “Angels of Death” with Angela Scoular’s cheap English floozy Ruby Bartlett as the stand out, but this is Rigg’s movie. Like Honor Blackman before her, Rigg became famous though The Avengers TV show, playing Emma Peel. Producers wanted a seasoned actress (partially to offset Lazenby’s inexperience) who could pull off both the action and emotion and Peel was already close to who the character needed to be.

Impetuous, confident and capable, Tracy is the first of Bond’s paramours whose personality is as complex as his. The preceding girls were framed as pleasure objects for Bond to seduce and enjoy. He was always in control. This time, Tracy is. “I hope it’ll be worth it,” she says after inviting him up to her room. The line is meant to be self-hating, with Tracy essentially calling herself a prostitute for promising sex in return for the money Bond lost at the Baccarat table over her. But as Rigg reads it, it’s also a challenge for Bond to impress her, in bed or otherwise.

The Villain: Telly Savalas as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a vast improvement over Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice. His quietly menacing air and slight Greek accent make Blofeld just “other” enough to make him seem villainous and mysterious. Ditto the way he occasionally holds his cigarette—slightly off, a little affected, but strange enough to be interesting.

The Gadgets: The only traditional gadget in this movie is the combination safe-cracker/copy machine Bond uses in Blofeld’s lawyer’s office. That said, it’s a great gadget, especially because a crane from a neighboring construction site lifts the bulky case up to the building so Bond doesn’t have to carry it in and attract notice.

The Song: “All the Time in the World” by Louis Armstrong. It’s shockingly sappy for Bond, but it works for the “falling in love” montage between Tracy and Bond over which it plays.

The Book: Besides slightly altering the order of Bond and Tracy’s courtship, switching her from blonde to brunette and adding some racial diversity to Blofeld’s Angels of Death, OHMSS is probably closer to its source material than any other film in the franchise. Most of the changes either make the narrative more efficient (instead of Bond learning Blofeld’s engame is biological warfare from a long-winded, obnoxious government official, Blofeld simply tells him) or improve something that didn’t make sense (Bond threatens to quit the service to get off the Blofeld case in the book rather than stay on it).

The most interesting thing about the book–how it relates to the other novels–is something the movie simply can’t recreate. OHMSS (the 11th book as opposed to the 6th movie) constantly draws parallels to the romance plot of the first novel, Casino Royale. Bond meets Tracy at Royale-les-Eaux, the same location of his first adventure, about which, “there had been a drama and a poignancy…that every year drew [Bond] back to Royale and its casino and to the small granite cross in the little churchyard that simply said ‘Vesper Lynd. RIP’.” While Casino ends with Vesper’s suicide, OHMSS begins with Bond stopping Tracy from drowning herself. Moreover, both women are strong-willed and somewhat emotionally impenetrable for Bond. Most importantly, though, being with either woman wouldn’t require Bond quit the spy life. In OHMSS, the fact that Bond is a bit of a “pirate” is precisely why Tracy loves him. In Casino, Vesper herself is a member of the service. The movies erase this fact, thereby dooming both women because Bond’s like of philandering and adventure is the whole point.

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Arguably, destroying Bond’s only chance at happiness outside of the spy life makes Tracy’s death more devastating, but thinking Bond actually would have been happy with a safe, quiet life ignores who the character is. That’s why the book’s ending is more crushing. Bond and Tracy could have lived a happy life where he kept working and she accepted who he was. Like Bond says to himself right before proposing, “I’ll never find another girl like this one.”

The Movie: OHMSS is the atypical early Bond film. Though it’s not humorless (this is a movie where a woman implies that Bond has four balls), it’s a huge break from the excess and self-parody of YOLT. Director Peter Hunt wanted to focus less on gadgets and more on characterization and he also–perhaps because he edited the previous films–made one of the best-looking installments in the franchise.

A lot of that is thanks to the stunning aerial photography around Schiltornbahn, much of it filmed by cameraman Jonny Jordan, who would strap into a contraption attached to the bottom of a helicopter and get flown around the mountain. A brave move considering he lost a foot thanks to YOLT‘s helicopter chase. On the ground, Olympic skier Willy Bogner shot the action scenes, often skiing backwards to do so. There’s also a fun stock car race (in which Rigg did much of her own driving) and a lot of great fistfights. Lazenby may lack Connery’s charisma, but he’s better at the physical stuff.

However, the press was hard on the actor from the outset and rumors of onset tension between him and Rigg didn’t help. Lazenby rebelled against impending fame even before the film premiered, embracing the hippy movement. Producers demanded he shave his beard and cut his hair to look more Bond-esque before going on the film’s American promotional tour, but he refused and paid his own way instead. How exactly Lazenby left the franchise is up for debate. He has claimed his agent–without his permission–announced that he was quitting the franchise and the producers said he was fired to save face. He’s also said that he foolishly believed that same agent, Ronan O’Rahilly, when he said that the franchise was nearing its end anyway and there were better opportunities out there and left by choice.

Regardless, despite his bad reputation, Lazenby’s performance is surprisingly close to Timothy Dalton’s or Daniel Craig’s. He’s not at as good as either, but he nails his final scenes. First, the sweet, sort of careless toss of his hat to Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny at the wedding (something Hunt thought up on the day) and then when Tracy dies. His denial, tenderness and devastation makes that moment one of the franchise’s most emotional. Even years later, Hunt and many involved in the production thought Lazenby made a great Bond. It’s fun (read: masochistic) to think what the franchise would have looked like had he stuck around. Perhaps the next film, Diamonds are Forever, would have been as good as its source material instead of one of the worst installments in the franchise.

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