James Bond Retrospective: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Editor’s Note: The role of Brogan Chattin shall be played by Geoff Smithey. I saw the guy at my local flea market and knew he was the perfect replacement.*

When we last left the Bond franchise, Connery’s performances were tired and the plots absurd. The last film ended with ninjas invading a volcano fortress and gyrocopters. Connery left to take his acting career more seriously and the producers knew they had to take everything in a new direction. So with that, we look at the simultaneous black sheep and golden lamb of the franchise:

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

This one is a doozy.

That introductory paragraph might seem a little conflicted, but it makes sense when you look at the film. The film is one of the absolute closest adaptations to the source material Bond has ever seen. It’s serious with smart character development and relationships, with one of the most memorable villains. It also has a very mediocre lead actor with a conflicted devotion to the trappings of the Bond franchise. To some it’s the best; to others, it belongs in the trash. Where do I stand? Well, let’s look at the plot first.

The Plot

For the past year Bond has been tasked with tracking down evil organization SPECTRE’s leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He hasn’t been successful. In Portugal, he saves and seduces a Contessa named Theresa (we’ll call her Tracy) Di Vicenzo. He is promptly captured and interrogated by crime boss Marc-Ange Draco. Turns out Tracy is Draco’s only daughter and is picky when it comes to men. Draco makes a deal with 007: marry Tracy and Draco will tell Bond everything he knows about Blofeld.

Back in London M takes Bond off the case. During his two-week vacation, Bond goes to Draco’s birthday party and is given the information about Blofeld anyway. This doesn’t mean Bond isn’t interested in Tracy. They start dating seriously.

The lead revealed that Blofeld is talking to a genealogy professor in London to obtain the Count title. Bond is back on the case and is given the opportunity to visit Blofeld in his Swiss allergy clinic under the guise of the professor, Sir Hilary Bray.

This is the Bond film where nobody looks comfortable.

In the alps, Bond meets Blofeld for the first time, his staff, and twelve women with severe allergies. Bond seduces two of the women and discovers their treatment involves hypnotism at night. Bond attempts to lure Blofeld out of the compound by suggesting a visit to the family birthplace, but Blofeld doesn’t budge.

Bond is caught. Turns out, a homosexual genealogy professor seducing female patients and getting the wrong location of Blofeld’s ancestry were dead giveaway. Dang. Blofeld’s plan is to distribute the women and special strains of bacteria across the globe and hold everyone for ransom. The payment is ridiculous amounts of money, full exemption for past crimes, and confirmation of his Count title.

I’m going to have all these Bonds looking through something at one point, just wait and see.

Bond escapes and is chased into town, where he finds Tracy. Tracy escapes with him into a barn. Bond reveals he’s deeply in love with her and proposes to her. They are chased again and this time Tracy is captured.

Bond is pissed and M says the ransom is going to be paid. Bond is forbidden to go back to the alps but he goes rogue and joins up with Draco for an invasion of the clinic. He saves Tracy and the world, but Blofeld escapes to be evil another day.

Tracy and Bond are happily married and Bond retires from his life as a secret agent. This happiness is short-lived, however, as the couple are attacked in their honeymoon car by Blofeld. In the first tragic ending for the franchise, Bond sits in the car and mourns his dead wife.

A Closer Look

This film’s change in tone really helped separate it from its legacy, but also established something we are going to see many times in this retrospective: when the franchise starts to feel stale again the producers will feel the need for reinvention. Sometimes, this means a new actor; other times, it’s a different tone. Either way, this is one of the reasons why I’m confident Bond will be in movies long after I’m dead. These guys know after you’re tired of seeing like five Bond movies they’ll make a good one and you’re back on the hook.

This film was the directorial debut of Peter Hunt, who edited most of the previous Bond movies. This is a great example of what an editor can accomplish in the director’s chair. Information is easily conveyed and everything has a nice, deliberate pace to it. Before, suspense had to appear in every possible moment. It would be two people talking, then BAM! Something’s going on! Bond has to do something!

My favorite stupid action moment was the spider in Dr. No.

The scenes of these films were barely written to suit the editor, but Hunt was always able to create suspense in the moment. Good examples of Hunt’s editing in these things are Goldfinger (1964)’s bomb and interrogation scene, and Thunderball (1965)’s final climax that feels like it’s faster than the runaway boat we were on. Here? Hunt has a playground to make the scene the way he wants it shot so it feels natural in editing. The suspenseful scenes in the film are mostly chase scenes and stealthy espionage. The scene where Bond extracts the information from the safe in the law firm shows clear timing and locations and still creates character by showing how Bond approaches safe cracking. Bond sits down while a machine does it and reads Playboy. Brilliant.

Bond as a character actually features some emotional depth here, too. The romance and following tragedy showcase a side of Bond that was never seen before this. Before, the strongest actual character trait I could say about him was he is very serious about his job. Here? We see the full spectrum of feelings. His dismissal early in the film and removal later show that his job doesn’t come before himself or his sense of duty. I haven’t read the book, but I’d imagine that is one of the strongest bits of irony in naming this particular film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This film allows you to separate Bond as a person from Bond as the agent. That hadn’t been done before.

Color is also nicely utilized in the set design. Look back on these images.

This film also shows the Bond family’s creed: “The World is Not Enough.” Again, this is further depth in Bond’s character separate from his job; it also creates a familial parallel with Blofeld, and also I think it’s the nail in the coffin to the codename theory.

I’d also regret it if I didn’t say there are Bond easter eggs in this film! The janitor in one of the scenes sings the notes to Goldfinger’s theme, and there’s a pretty clear sequence where Bond pulls out different objects from his desk referencing the previous films. They even play “Underneath the Mango Tree”! Again, it’s the same character. The “This never happened to the other guy” quote is just a bad joke in a movie that doesn’t have a lot of jokes.

What’s Good?

There’s still so much I haven’t talked about. This is a really good film. The first thing on the list here is Telly Savalas as Blofeld. We’re going to talk about continuity later in this, but if Pleasance was great as the ultimate evil, Savalas was transcendent.  Pleasance might be more iconic because of Dr. Evil, but his impact on the character is all aesthetic. Savalas had an aura to him. He’s the best actor in the film by far. In this film, Blofeld has grace and depth.

Also his ears frighten me.

Savalas portrays madness with pride as the central defining characteristic of Blofeld. To tell an actor to portray pride without appearing like a smug caricature is a very difficult thing to do, but you can read in Telly’s performance his sheer confidence and will into validating himself. That Count title is a remarkable villainous plot point because it’s a motivation that explains the character and gives him something other than ruling the damn world or making money. That’s what most of these guys do in these movies. It gets boring.

The love story itself is also great. It’s not done with the most taste, but Tracy feels like a character that deserves the importance she ultimately has to Bond. She’s tough, but sensitive. Mysterious and independent, but also devoted. If the rubric by which we measure this love story is whether or not the climax succeeds in feeling tragic, then I would say it succeeded.

What’s Bad?

So it’s time to talk about the kilt-wearing elephant in the room. I just went through this entire article without saying this guy’s name up to this point. George Lazenby might be the worst thing about this film. He might not be offensively bad, but his underwhelming performance is sort of… overwhelming? He’s the lead actor in a major blockbuster movie following Sean Connery. This guy was a model, he had no previous acting experience before this film. The producers thought what mattered in Bond casting was charm. Now, I’m sounding harsh on George. George is handsome and very charming. When he is smirking and drinking alcohol and saying witty stuff he is fine enough. This isn’t Thunderball, though. This film tries to give Bond different emotions and different motivations. This is not a film that robs Bond of nuance; it tries to give him nuance. Lazenby fails in almost every regard to properly wield it.

That was an opinionated paragraph. It’s okay if I’m wrong. I usually am.

I mean, there’s a huge chunk of the movie where he was dubbed over. It’s as if he wasn’t good enough at talking to pretend to be another person for five scenes. He’s paired with Savalas and we are having our villain act circles around our hero. It sucks.

The other big problem I have with this film is its relation to the rest of the franchise. I’m not a huge continuity hound, so I don’t actually care about the fact that this film tries to make this the first time Bond and Blofeld meet though we just saw him in You Only Live Twice (1967). I think the bigger problem is I think the film fails when it feels compelled to have “Bond Moments.” We’re supposed to buy into the love story between Bond and Tracy. When they are on-screen, it’s no problem. Yet, during the main mission, Bond is just sleeping with everyone he can, however he can. His cover was a gay man! There are moments where you can see how Bond is extracting information and he says the same thing to both girls, but it doesn’t feel like it’s all in the name of duty. It just feels like Connery-era scumminess. When the film tries to have the “storm the castle, save the girl” moment, we’ve sort of already hit our peak during the previous chase scene. Especially considering what follows is a bobsled sequence. Don’t adjust your eyes. You read that right.

Also, small nitpicks: the girls eat their favorite food based on race and that’s awful and comes out of nowhere, and why the hell was Blofeld driving the getaway murder car with Irma shooting them at the end? Like I get it, they want to tell the audience Blofeld is responsible for the murder, but this movie feels there’s only three people working for SPECTRE right now and that’s just sad.

You caught me guys, I just like symmetry in my Bond faces.

Looking Forward

So this movie made money, but it didn’t make more money than You Only Live Twice. Critics and audiences wanted Connery back. The next film they actually paid Connery to come back and basically try to do Goldfinger again. But diamonds! Diamond finger! Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah!!!!!

And then we get Roger Moore. Which is going to be the long haul for the series. I hope the editor casts the original Brogan Chattin for these next reviews. This was terrible. I have no writing experience; I am a tattoo artist working at a flea market. I do not have a tattoo license either.

I want a drink as ridiculous as his outfit.

What I Drank

I do have drinking experience! This film doesn’t feature a lot of martinis or anything but Bond drinks whiskey twice. You drink Sourmash Kentucky Bourbon by getting one of those small glasses and getting one big ice-cube for it. Don’t chill the Bourbon beforehand. The cold is going to lessen the flavor in the worst ways. If you want to lessen the flavor or don’t have time to just sip on what I just told you, use a little bit of water. Lessening the flavor with water isn’t bad if it allows you to drink it easier. That’s the idea of the big cube, so it melts into it. #noshame #drinkhowyouwant #idontknowhowtousehashtags

But if y’all get your drinking recipes from here or don’t like straight liquor, a whiskey sour is easy enough. 2/4 lemon juice, 1/4 whiskey, 1/4 simple syrup on ice. If you don’t have simple syrup, heat up a little water with a lot of sugar inside (more sugar than water) and stir till its gooey. I like turbinado sugar with that.

10 thoughts on “James Bond Retrospective: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

  1. I strongly suggest to the author of the article to read the Fleming novel, only then he will fully appreciate the splendid job done by Peter Hunt in making it as close as possible to the original story. And there was no mention about the fantastic John Barry score including “We have all the Time in the World” sung by the great L.Armstrong, one of the best (if not the best) Bond song ever.

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