Saturday 7 December 2013

Movie Review: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

An intriguing outing for James Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the first 007 adventure without Sean Connery, unknown actor and model George Lazenby stepping into the role. The film also features the agent's eternal love story, a heartfelt romance enlivened by Diana Rigg as Countess Tracy di Vicenzo.

In Europe, James Bond (Lazenby) saves a mysterious woman, later revealed to be Teresa (or Tracy) di Vicenzo (Rigg), from intentional drowning on a secluded beach. He meets her again at a casino, where he covers her reckless bet. Bond seeks out Tracy's father Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), the head of a crime syndicate attempting to transition into a semi-respected industrialist. Bond resists Draco's suggestion to marry his daughter, but does request help to identify the whereabouts of master criminal Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Bond learns Blofeld (Telly Savalas) has assumed the name Comte de Bleuchamp, and taken up refuge high in the Swiss Alps, apparently operating a scientific research centre to cure food allergies. Bond assumes the identity of genealogist Sir Hilary Bray and travels to the research centre ostensibly to confirm Blofeld's claim to the Compte title. He finds Blofeld protected by gunmen and the ruthless Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat), and plotting to blackmail the world by threatening to destroy all agriculture using a bevy of beauties. After a breathless ski chase Tracy helps Bond escape, and he has to find a way to foil Blofeld while his romance with Tracy deepens.

With limited locations and a strong focus on romance, On Her Majesty's Secret Service aims for depth rather than breadth. Peter Hunt steps into directing duties after many editing assignments, and insists on staying close to Ian Fleming's original novel. The result is faithful to Fleming's vision of a conflicted, often overwhelmed, and sometimes unsure agent. Making the most of a running length extending to 140 minutes, Hunt invests the necessary time to conceive a character-driven story within a still raucous spy adventure.

Some troublesome narrative gaps do creep in. Tracy's initial excursion into the ocean, and the goons who intervene once Bond saves her, remain a puzzling mystery. Later, Bond has an opportunity to finish-off a tree-bound Blofeld, but inexplicably ignores it. But most of the other plot pieces tidily contribute to an in-depth mission. On this adventure Bond is gadget-free, and lacks support from MI6, almost walking away from his job before pursuing Blofeld on vacation time. He is frequently on the back foot, loses several battles, and requires a second try to instigate an escape. Tracy comes to the rescue as Blofeld's forces almost overwhelm Bond at the Swiss village, and still Blofeld gets the better of a chase thanks to an avalanche.

With Bond at a notable disadvantage, On Her Majesty's Secret Service most closely resembles From Russia With Love, and the insertion of George Lazenby into the role becomes strangely suitable. Lazenby often looks worried, an emotion rarely associated with Connery, but here nailing the reality of an agent cut loose from his agency and realizing his foe holds all the cards. Lazenby's overall performance is inconsistent, his stance often stooped and uncomfortable. But in face to face scenes with M, Blofeld, Draco and Tracy, Lazenby's willingness to demonstrate feelings elevates Bond to a real person rather than a superhero.

Diana Rigg finds the appeal in Tracy as a troubled, seductive and resourceful partner for Bond, a woman transitioning from rebellion against her father's dark empire to creating a positive place for herself in the world. Bond was only ever going to fall in love with a woman fighting her own set of demons and taking it out on the world, and Rigg finds the right balance between demanding independence and craving to be treasured.

The action centrepiece is the long ski pursuit down the mountains, Bond attempting to flee but unable to shake his pursuers. That Blofeld himself leads his men increases the intimacy of the conflict. This is not a villain confined to his extravagant command centre, and Telly Savalas transforms Blofeld into a take-charge-when-needed leader, personalizing the long-running duel with Bond.

Finding adventure within vulnerability, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is an invigorating ski run.

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