A pair of reviews from a series last year I never got around to publishing…
Conventional wisdom places On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on a precipice of dueling expectations, both opinions belying the central duality of the film in question. On one hand, the supposed “first non-Connery” Bond picture is usually seen, not mendaciously I might add, as wanting for a little of Connery’s ice-cold charisma, like a film in search of a proper leading man. Not an inadequate statement on some fronts – the film’s copious one-liners really buckle without Connery’s silently menacing implications that they were naught but the last vestiges of brutal humor in a man devoid of humanity. As a counterbalance, we have the much-touted saving grace of the film: its thoroughgoing evolution of the Bond formula into the unsuspecting realm of character drama in the form of a new, brooding Bond and his burgeoning romantic relationship with Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg).
Not only are George Lazenby, this film’s not-Connery, and the drama the two-fisted prism through which to understand the film’s dour exclamation point on the increasingly distressed sentence that was ’60s pop filmmaking. More than that, the star of Secret Service and its caliber as drama are inextricably linked. Lazenby, hardly an actor’s actor, is a vastly superior fit for the material than the wonderfully smug thug that was the taciturn, criminally detached Connery, a superior actor and a superior Bond, is not a fit for this particular Bond. Imagining his character legitimately establish a two-way, humanistic relationship is the sort of accidental fever swamp that would have stropped the franchise dead in its tracks; the very essence of Connvey’s Bond, his very fascination, is his barely withheld inability to truly connect with the world outside. Lazenby is not a definitive version of the character; he was swept away almost before his personality as the character was fully formed, much like Timothy’ Dalton’s obstreperous assassin version of the character twenty years later. But both of these Bonds were, at the least, not stranded in films that were actively hostile to the actors’ interpretation of the character, as befell the talented Pierce Brosnan. Lazenby isn’t the ideal candidate in the role, but he is not the cross upon which the film crucifies itself.
As a matter of fact, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has no cross, except perhaps its length; it isn’t the great Bond film of the 1960s, but its strengths are legion enough that it would take the franchise 37 years of wandering in the woods for it to equal itself again. The thoughtful character arcs and not-encroaching-but-bulleting miasma of the sudden, swift conclusion – which fades into the ether so quickly we process it at a viscous, sensory level rather than a cognitive one – also belie the rigorous thriller at the core of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s easy to write about how the film applies Lazenby’s more soul-lost demeanor to a romantic tragedy in the guise of a Bond picture, but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is still very much of a kind with the films that preceded it. As an action picture, in fact, it’s a distinct improvement over each and every film before it – not to mention every single film in the franchise to come still – with a final third that ranks in the most sustained stretches in all of action cinema.
To the extent that it is an action smorgasbord in addition to a finely tuned drama, the film’s ace in the hole is director Peter Hunt, then editor for the franchise making his directorial debut before unceremoniously absolving himself of the series in its entirety. If this was a sabbatical from editing for Hunt, his years of training with his day job shine through. Disavowing clarity and cohesive space for discontinuity and consternation, the action exchanges the ferocious, animalistic sweat of Connery’s days for something more subliminal and altogether exotic: an action picture with almost no interest in the narrative consistency of the action, relying instead on a vastly more European sense of disjunctive, a-temporal poetry that defies time and space.
At the risk of hyperbole, the action – which almost subcutaneously speeds up and slides around space to instill pandemonium that hits you right in the gut – really is a masterclass of the form down to the raw girders of the edits. The introductory brush with death may be marred by an odd, unfitting slice of fourth-wall breaking absurdism the film is not in the position to defend or build upon, but Hunt’s bull-in-a-china-shop disassembling of form during the actual brawl is so intoxicating you hardly notice words exist in the film at all.
Elsewhere, grace notes abound. For one, the way cinematographer Michael Reed discomfits the day-glo psychedelia of the nearly-in-the-grave swinging sixties to subliminally create a sub-psychotropic nightmare of an obviously artificial clinic where a criminal enterprise subfuscously skulks underneath. Just as the decade was rapidly coming to terms with its own end, the fondant coloring suggests all that is plastic and perfidious about this hazy drug-induced utopia.
Elsewhere, the better-than-Lazenby performances really carry the slight woodenness of the leading man along. Diana Rigg’s forceful performance marries willpower and an almost supercilious sense of done-with-this when the villainous Blofeld captures her. Savalas’ too-cool, laconic brand of menace throughout the picture, like he’s so in control of the situation he barely even has to exert emotion, also establishes a vastly different, equally cunning version of the character that Donald Pleasence essayed as a much more larger-than-life, mythic figure. It isn’t perfect filmmaking; the nearly 150 minute runtime is a little long-in-the-tooth, and the film doesn’t quite earn the amount of time Bond spends perusing Savalas’ cadre of female patients. Nor is the film really transcendent so much as simply exceedingly sharp within the accepted framework of its series, but no one’s asking for transcendence when you have the sharpness of a razor in your corner.