Skyfall Countdown Day 18: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

“Come to think of it, this job isn’t so bad.”

With Sean Connery saying “sayonara,” and the horrendous knockoff Casino Royale a fading memory, it was time for Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to turn their attention to giving their golden goose a reboot (how’s that for a mixed metaphor!)  After an exhaustive casting search, the mantle was bestowed upon 29-year-old Australian model George Lazenby.  Famously, what is said to have clinched the role for him was a test fight scene where the inexperienced Lazenby, not knowing anything about stage fighting, went full tilt and broke the nose of the stuntman he was sparring with.  It was a big gamble to trust an unknown in his first leading role with the most emotionally complex Bond screenplay to date.  Ultimately the movie did not live up to the box office of Bonds past, and Lazenby’s first outing would be his last.  But it has developed a significant following and deep, retroactive appreciation as years have passed, particularly among filmmakers themselves.

After the complete departure that was You Only Live Twice, Majesty’s returns largely to the text of the Ian Fleming book.  Wisely, the filmmakers avoid any clumsy explanations for the change in Bond’s appearance and dive right in as if nothing has happened – apart from winking at it with Lazenby’s famous line, “This never happened to the other fellow.”  While searching high and low for his archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (absent his scar and weird accent, now played by Telly Savalas), Bond crosses paths with the beguiling yet troubled Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), daughter of crime lord Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Their attraction grows as Bond follows Blofeld’s trail to a mountaintop hideaway in Switzerland, filled with a harem of beautiful girls, where it turns out SPECTRE’s number one ailurophile is developing bacteria he intends to unleash on the world’s food supply.  Stymied by red tape from his own side, Bond enlists Draco’s private army to lead an assault on Blofeld’s lair and prevent worldwide starvation.  And in the Bond series’ most tragic finale, Bond and Tracy tie the knot only to have her shot and killed as they drive away from the wedding ceremony.  Bond is left weeping that they have “all the time in the world.”

From a technical standpoint the movie is excellent.  After a slowish start, which includes a cheesy “falling in love” montage more suitable to a Barbra Streisand movie and rescued only by the beautiful Louis Armstrong song “We Have All the Time in the World,” the pace cranks up and does not relent.  Director Christopher Nolan has said On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of his favourite films, and acknowledged that he modeled the snowy mountaintop finale of Inception after the extensive winter sequences masterminded by Bond editor-turned-director Peter Hunt with a combination of aerial photography, backwards-skiing cameramen, fast-paced editing and fearless stunt work.  Several Bond movies since have featured ski chases but none have come close to the freshness and raw energy on display here, fuelled by John Barry’s propulsive chase theme with its alpine horns and synthesizer cues (which has spoiled me because I cannot go skiing now without that music playing in my head).  The screenplay by Richard Maibaum, with script doctoring by Simon Raven, is quite a bit more literate than previous Bond films, daring to quote poetry and speculate on the nature of the human heart rather than simply reeling off double entendres and reminding us how long it will be until the bomb blows.

Diana Rigg’s Tracy is a character with a surprising amount of depth and Rigg bestows her with “to the manor born” dignity, even if the suggestion that all a troubled woman like her needs is a man to dominate her would make modern audiences cringe.  Savalas is a far more active Blofeld, going out on pursuits with his men rather than sitting back and pushing buttons, even though his American style doesn’t quite mesh with how Blofeld has been portrayed up to this point (he is also saddled, unfortunately, with the movie’s worst line:  “We’ll head him off at the precipice!”)  The script chooses, for the sake of plot, to ignore Bond and Blofeld’s meeting in the previous movie, enabling 007 to infiltrate the villain’s hideout in the guise of a genealogist wearing not much more to conceal himself than a pair of glasses (also known as the “Clark Kent Theory”).

How is Lazenby in the title role?  Well, being a non-actor, his is a largely constructed performance.  It is notable how many of his lines are delivered while he is off-camera or has his back turned, suggesting a lot of post-production manipulation.  In a questionable artistic choice, he is completely dubbed in the scenes in which he is impersonating the genealogist Sir Hilary Bray.  But he handles fight scenes and stunts capably and his acting is solid enough for what is required.  Admittedly, anyone following Sean Connery would have impossibly large shoes to fill and Lazenby smartly chooses to go another way.  Some critics have suggested that Majesty’s would have been the perfect 007 movie had Connery remained in the role, but I’ve always maintained that the vulnerability shown by Bond here would simply not be believable coming from Sir Sean.  His Bond was too aloof, too cool, too much of an unstoppable force of masculinity to pull off the tender scene set in a barn when Bond finally drops his guard and asks Tracy to marry him.  I don’t think audiences would have bought that coming from Connery’s mouth – they certainly would not have bought him breaking down over Tracy’s bullet-ridden corpse.  With Lazenby it was a much easier sell.  In the end, he acquits himself very well and probably would have settled comfortably into the role had he fulfilled his original contract for six more films.

As 1969 drew to a close, so too did the attempt to invest Bond movies with emotional complexity and strong character development, the focus turning instead to camp and ever wilder stunts and exotic locations.  Connery would return once more to the official James Bond fold, for what was then a record-setting salary, and help to chart Bond’s controversial course through the 70’s and into the 80’s.  Yet some purists would look back on George Lazenby’s solo effort as the one time the producers really got it right, and continue to long for a return to the tone it established.  It would be a while before they got their wish.

Tomorrow:  Diamonds are Forever, but Sean Connery is not.

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