Friday 1 March 2013

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Services Rendered

On Her Majesty's Secret Service
1969 UK
Directed by Peter Hunt
EON Blu Ray Region A/B/C

Warning: Some pretty heavy spoilers if you’ve never seen this masterpiece before.

“I love you. I know I'll never find another girl like you. 
Will you marry me?”
James Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

C’mon, admit that you never expected to hear those words spoken or those sentiments conveyed in a Bond movie? But this is no ordinary Bond movie, you see. This is probably the most unique and, frankly, greatest Bond movie ever made... and it’s very different from any Bond movie made before or since. Although it comes from a very traditional Bond vintage of craftsmen.

Let's start with the film’s director Peter Hunt, who also happens to be the first person you see in this movie, reflected in a metal plaque for Universal Exports as he walks past it from screen right to left. This is the man who changed the course of editing, to some extent, when he broke all the rules on Dr. No which, along with all the EON Bond films prior to this one, he edited. The style of editing on this one is another step forward (a bit too much of a step forward, I think, for the motion picture industry at the time) and, although it wasn’t edited by him this time around, I am sure he was probably passing enough notes or sitting in with editor (and long term future Bond director) John Glen to be somewhat credited for the innovative cutting on this picture.

This one is certainly something of an oddity of a Bond film in terms of continuity too. As you will see if you read some of my future reviews (and some of my early ones) in this series on Bond films, the Bond team did themselves no favours in some of their decisions which quite often resulted in difficult continuity anomalies. This movie throws up just such an anomaly because Peter Hunt chose to make a movie very close to the original Ian Fleming novel, rather than carry on from You Only Live Twice. However, the story hangs on the idea that Bond and arch villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld have never actually met face to face before. There’s no way Blofeld could recognise 007 for this infiltration game to work... but clearly, in the previous film You Only Live Twice (reviewed here and not based on the original novel in anything other than name, really) they were chatting away together in the same room. So the film-makers obviously want you to forget that little detail and maybe take this as something of a restart to the series rather than a continuation. But it’s a strange choice if that was indeed the thinking behind this one because one could argue that it’s a reboot... except for the fact that all the way through the film the director is reminding you of the past Bond films in an effort to make the general public forget that Sean Connery had left the series and accept George Lazenby as, in the words of the trailers, “The new James Bond. The different double-oh-seven!” in relation to all the movies that had gone before. 

There are scenes, such as Bond’s first meeting with Moneypenny which serve to underline the fact that this new Bond is supposed to be, for all intents and purposes, the same but different and a sequence where bits of old musical scores are played as Lazenby picks up props from those earlier films serves to ensure the audience doesn’t forget its links to the past. There’s even a scene with a midget whistling the tune to Goldfinger and a credits sequence that utilises clips from the previous 5 movies added into the mix and, if that weren’t enough, a brilliant moment at the end of the pre-credits action sequence where Lazenby breaks “the fourth wall”, glances at the audience and complains that “This never happened to the other feller!”

So definitely a strange choice to do the book as it is, with the two characters, Bond and Blofeld, never having met before. Not the last of the Bond anomalies but certainly one of the more showier ones.

So anyway... master editor Peter Hunt gets to direct a Bond movie and decides to do On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (a book Fleming wrote while Dr. No was being shot) just like the source material and, after a hard time casting, with George Lazenby playing Bond. Let me tell you now that Lazenby’s Bond is every bit an impressive performance as Sean Connery’s incarnation of the character. A lot of people at the time turned off to this performance in this film, I think, because it was the first time the producers had experimented with casting a different actor in the lead role of the series... and people were probably expecting the same kind of approach that Connery would have given it. Well, in my humble opinion (and I really love Sean Connery’s take on the role) they may not have got Connery, but they certainly got James Bond. Lazenby’s performance, obviously due to the writing to some extent, is a much more feeling and emotional Bond and a lot closer to the Bond we meet in the very first novel, Casino Royale, than any other actor to have played him to date, as far as I’m concerned. He walks and talks right, can do the action and also handle the romantic interest.

A fair portion of this must obviously also be landed at the feet of Peter Hunt. He set out to strip the gadgets away from Bond and give us back the man and it really works. This Bond movie has a sense of being a movie for “grown ups” going for it all the way through, bearing in mind that the comic book action and larger than life situations are also, obviously, very much present. It just feels more serious and less throwaway than any of the other Bond movies and I suspect that of all of the series, this one is probably the least appealing to the youngsters. 

It’s also, although I hate to use the term but feel I must when brevity creeps in, a bit of an art movie.

Peter Hunt’s shot designs and transitions are just so impressive. You will find shots such as Bond drinking to the health of Her Majesty, reflected back in the glass covering a painting of her reminding the audience of Bond’s “For Queen And Country” line of work while showing them sharing the same plane of space in one economical shot. Another brilliant transition sees a replay of Tracy (played brilliantly by The Avengers girl Diana Rigg... and future The New Avengers girl Joanna Lumley is also in this one) being dragged from under an avalanche by Blofelds men projecting from the windows Bond is looking out of, signifying Bond’s thoughts and what turmoil is in his mind while he waits for the United Nations to make a decision as to Blofeld’s demands. Plus a cool transition where a daytime, almost birds eye view of a busy swimming pool, changes into the same shot but at night and devoid of people, with the neon sign of a casino reflected in the water to set up the next scene. 

Then there is the brilliant shot in Draco’s office where Bond throws a knife into a calendar behind Draco (played by Gabriele Ferzetti)... what follows is sheer visual genius and it’s all accomplished with one shot making use of differential focus (or rack focussing as it is sometimes referred to) in a more creative way than it usually is on film...

Draco turns away from the camera to look at the knife on the wall behind him. As he does so, he raises his glasses to his eyes and in exact time with that movement, the camera shifts focus to clarify the knife on the wall. After a second or two, Draco turns back to camera, lowering his glasses and, again, in exact timing to this action of lowering his glasses, the camera shifts focus back to exactly where we were at the start of the shot. I was pretty knocked out by that the first time I saw a print of this in widescreen, I can tell you. Forgot to listen to the dialogue because my brain was still reeling.

There are many visual wonders in store for potential viewers of this film including a brilliant colour palette on some of the interior/studio bound scenes which evoke those 1950s and 1960s classic Hammer film colours and which, for the second, snow bound part of the movie, are an interesting contrast in terms of white, grey and blue neutrals verses a lively selection of greens and positively Bavaesque purples.

The editing, especially during the fight sequences, is extremely creative and very impressionistic. This is very much in evidence in the pre-credits sequence fight on the beach, where characters choppily shift position and perspective a tad at each cut, ramping up the speed and intensity of the fist hits and splashes of water so the viewer, especially on ones first watch, is left similarly as dazed and confused as the actual on-screen participants in the fight. It’s all very much about creating an impression of the intensity of a fight, rather than showing everything blow by blow, in a much more fragmentary fashion which, I suspect, would have been very popular in Japan at the time, seeing the route the Japanese went in the late 20th Century with some of their editing.

The sound design, like all the Bond films before this, is also quite brilliant and, as can be expected, Hunt pushes past the constraints of what you would expect to hear going on again. If the fights scenes are visually impressionistic, for example, then the fight outside Draco’s office near the start is similarly creative. With high volume echoes and phase loops etc all dropped into the action to give an almost surrealistic interpretation of the on-screen visuals. A fight much later in the movie takes place in a shed filled with loads of hanging bells and the cacophony of sound which is used to punctuate punches, so to speak, is amazing and serves well to aid the claustrophobia of the actual reality of the fight. This is very much the culmination, both aurally and visually, of the fight Connery’s Bond had with Robert Shaw on the train in From Russia With Love. The fist fights in the Bond films rarely match this intensity again in the series.

Pitched against all this heavy ‘action intensity’ is an equally intense love story between James Bond and his future wife Teresa, who he marries near the end of the movie. The love story starts the film, tails off with Bonds infiltration of Blofelds mountain top lair and then comes straight back in again for the third act of the film... 

One of the greatest moments of any Bond film comes when “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?” (my all time favourite Bond song) is playing and Bond is running from Blofeld’s team of villains. He looks lost, scared and out of luck... and then Teresa (aka Tracy) skates in to the rescue... not only to the rescue, in fact. Her character does all the driving in the getaway/stock car chase and helps, among many other wonderful sequences such as her brilliant dialogue with Telly Savalas’ version of Blofeld, make this one of the strongest portrayals of a female character in screen history, not to mention the most potent female character in a Bond movie. There’s absolutely no doubt in your mind by the end of the movie why Bond wants to marry her. There’s even a ‘romantic montage’ sequence which is probably about the only time that’s ever been done in a Bond movie, I reckon (I’ll probably prove myself wrong on that point now as I continue to watch the Blu-Ray set I got for Christmas but... we shall see).

And then, of course, there's another more famous sequence that sets this Bond film squarely apart form any other Bond film (although the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale tried hard to recapture this lightning a second time, it seems to me... and failed somewhat). At the end of the movie, on their way from the wedding to their honeymoon, Bond stops to remove the flowers from their car and said car is perforated by bullets, courtesy of Blofeld and his ‘shooter’, Irma Bunt. Bond rushes around to the driver’s seat to give pursuit, only then realising that Teresa has taken a bullet to the brain and lays dead before he can even hold her to die in his arms. 

This is the saddest and most powerful ending of any Bond movie and, if you’re invested in the characters enough, there will be tears.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the greatest Bond film, directed by a man who really knew how to put a Bond film together. It’s criminal that Lazenby never got to do another movie in the series... and just as bad that director Peter Hunt never got to direct another Bond either. If you’ve never seen a Bond film before or always shied away from them because of some of the sexist attitudes in them (which, in all fairness, are still very much in evidence in this particular masterpiece) and are thinking of maybe seeing one of them some time... then this is definitely the one to look out for. And it’s got a John Barry score which will completely knock your socks off.

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