Thursday, March 21, 2013

Film Review: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" *** (out of ****)

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969), the sixth film in the James Bond franchise, is in some ways an oddity. Film critic Gene Siskel, who dismissed the film and the actor playing Bond, called it "the answer to a trivia question."

The film is a bridge, the beginning of something new and different (the original trailer for the film made heavy use of the word "different") and yet at the same time a nostalgic look backwards, a look back on the road we have traveled on.

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was the last film made in the decade that gave us secret agent 007 James Bond, the 1960s. A lot had changed in that time. Bond was going to have a new look, the musical score was a bit more "funky", Bond would start to show more sensitivity, this was the beginning of the "sensitive male" after all. And of course the biggest change would be a new actor playing James Bond; George Lazenby. In his only appearance in the Bond cannon of films.

George Lazenby is the center of much debate. He was an unknown actor when chosen. In fact he wasn't much of an actor. He was a model and had starred in some commercials. The role of James Bond was a big break for him. But after all these years the debate continues. Was Lazenby a good Bond? Was he unfairly treated? People can't even agree on if the movie made money! Some stories I have read suggest the film was a box-office smash. The second highest grossing film of 1969. Others articles I have read state the reason Lazenby wasn't brought back for a second film was because the box-office was so poor. Yet still, some say Lazenby walked away from playing the character again. He had originally signed a seven picture contract, while others say Lazenby was a disaster and therefore wasn't brought back due to dismal reviews and public reaction.

It has gotten to the point I don't know what is true and what isn't. All I can accurately tell you is my opinion of the film. It is, as I mentioned before, a hybrid. Something new, while still trying to be something familiar. Take for example an opening action sequence which doesn't quite go the way Bond (Lazenby) expected. He looks into the camera, with a wry smile, and delivers the kind of remark Groucho Marx or Bob Hope would. "This never happened to the other fella" he says. That "other fella" he is talking about of course is Sean Connery. Everyone's choice for their favorite James Bond. Why invoke Connery when we are moving forward?

Next, during the film's title sequence, we see images of previous Bond girls and villains. We see clips from all the previous films; "Dr. No" (1962), "From Russia With Love" (1963), "Goldfinger" (1964), "Thunderball" (1965) and "You Only Live Twice" (1967). Once again I ask, why do this?

Another scene has Bond going through his desk looking at "memorabilia", which happen to come from previous Bond films, while the theme from "From Russia With Love" plays in the background.

All of this combined makes us think of Sean Connery and the other Bond films. It is as if we are taking two steps forward, one step back. We aren't letting go of the memory of Connery and giving Lazenby a chance. Yet at the same time, the film feels "different".

The gun barrel sequence is handled differently, the title sequence is different. This is the last time a Bond film would not have a title song sung. It is a instrumental (and a very good one at that). Though a song was written for the movie, "We Have All The Time In The World" with music by John Barry and lyrics by Hal David. The song was performed by Louis Armstrong. While I love Louis, I grew up listening to music from his era, the song doesn't "feel" like it belongs in a Bond film. Maybe in "Love Story" (1970) not this film. And while again Louis is great, his voice wasn't right for this type of love ballad. How about Jack Jones (who was very popular at this time) or Frank Sinatra?

And the ending to "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" may be the only ending in a Bond film that may actually make you want to cry. We almost see Bond cry. Something the director did not want to show. Though we did finally see that happen when Timothy Dalton played him. That too was a cause for controversy. Bond doesn't cry was the counter argument from us traditionalist.

As for Lazenby, he's not that bad. The word was he didn't look muscular. He didn't look like a secret agent. I think he handles himself quite nicely. Lazenby was in reality a tough guy. I personally had no problem accepting him in the role. Though there were a few things I didn't like. He is almost too sarcastic. Something Roger Moore would be accused of. But here Lazenby always has a quip. A one-liner or pun. It is too much. Again it is this balance between ruggedness and something comical.

There are a lot of good action sequences, some we would see later in "For Your Eyes Only" (1981) with Roger Moore. I like that one more than "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". It is one of Moore's better outings. There is a good skiing sequence and an exciting luge set-piece.

The downsides though are an uninteresting villain. This time it is Blofeld (Telly Savales). He doesn't have an evil nature and doesn't appear to be a real threat to Bond. A love angle dealing with Bond girl Tracy (the least sexy Bond name. But played by the very sexy Diane Rigg) seems undeveloped. It starts something, abandons it and then brings it back again.

The director for this film was Peter Hunt. This was his directorial debut. He served as a "supervising editor" on two previous Bond films; "Thunderball" and "You Only Live Twice". For a young director he had a nice eye. Though at this point in time Guy Hamilton was probably the best director working on these films.

So is "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" worth seeing? Yes. With all the years that have passed viewers can watch it with fresh eyes. We don't have to deal with all the controversy that surrounded the movie and the negative press. Word was Lazenby was difficult to work with. Clashed with the director...ect. And of course, the critics said he wasn't as good as Connery. Not exactly an unoriginal idea. But then again, when did most critics ever have anything original to say? Don't they all mostly repeated each other? You read one positive review for a movie, you've read them all.

Bond fans will want to watch it to have the fun of comparing who is a better Bond. Plus, it serves as a curiosity piece since it was Lazenby's only film.

It's not a great Bond film but it shouldn't be avoided.