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On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

by on 2010/12/22

Please note:
The following discussion contains numerous significant spoilers.  If you haven’t seen this movie yet, the practical upshot of the article is, well, just go see it.

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On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features a bullfight sequence early on.  It struck me as an apt metaphor for the distinction between this movie and others in its series.  But is James Bond the bull, goring one in a crowd of hangers-on, or is he that rare man gutted by the tragic beast?

Welcome to the holiday season, 007 style.

I had a hard time appreciating this entry as a kid.  It was among the last I saw and, by far, the most difficult to enjoy.  In time, however, I grew to love it well, more than the popular favourite Goldfinger and, until 2006’s Casino Royale, it had few rivals for my affection.

Set over Christmas, in a wintry Switzerland, the movie suggests the tidings of Bond, then subverts nearly every one.  In George Lazenby’s first and final essay, the mission is twofold:  to redeem the troubled daughter of a European mobster, and to stop old enemy Blofeld from unleashing Virus Omega on the world.

The attempts to shoehorn this piece into canon — or the other way around — are as obvious as they are numerous, including a pre-credits in-joke, a main credit montage, Moneypenny’s dialogue, a review of old gadgets, and the whistling of a janitor.  Yet the whole is atypical, with true love, a musical interlude, resignation, mob collusion, a dearth of action, a marriage and, ultimately, paired failures.

At the heart of it all is a softer James Bond, ironically portrayed by an actor hired for brawn.  Supported by great characters in opulent settings, he feigns a fey demeanour, is easily startled (by barn doors, bear suits, and flashbulbs) and needs to be saved by Teresa di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg).

“Tracy” is easily the more formidable of the two.  Unlike the standard “Bond girl” — even those claimed to be “different this time” — she’s no glib vixen or adrenaline junkie.  She begins suicidal for the loss of her only child.  In time, bitterness itself gives her the strength to rebuild.  Rigg’s personal dislike of Lazenby (perhaps) notwithstanding, Tracy is defiant, provocative, and unusually strong.

The romance is more unusual, however, and not just because Bond isn’t a marrying man.  Unlike his love for Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd, one that served to create the myth, his time with Tracy seems intended to destroy them both.  Here he’s more than mortally wounded.  What kind of man continues to serve an employer which prevents him forestalling tragedy?  Surely not the kind who’d fall in love.

Even the matter of his nemesis escaping feels less like an entree to the next installment than a kind of rebalancing for Bond’s past sins.  Part of me wishes the entire plot had been motivated differently.  What if the hunt for Blofeld had been mandated by his office?  Imagine the irony if he might have preemptively struck down his wife’s killer, but hadn’t taken the chance.  (Oddly, that’s the premise of Ian Fleming’s original story, suddenly inverted for reasons I can’t fathom.)

This “what if” speculation illustrates a recurring motif throughout:  the uneasy tension between convention and innovation…

On one hand, with rare exceptions, this film is closer to the Fleming novel than it is to its cinematic predecessors.  The pacing is deliberate overall, and the plot that matters most is the progress of a relationship.  Such courage and fidelity are rare and precious things.

On the other hand, I mourn Majesty’s failed aspirations.  It enervates the drama with an editing style so far ahead of its time it renders the action choppy, sometimes nearly incoherent.  The approach disorients with shaken cameras, sped up footage, sudden jumps (lunges, shocks, and body blows), and one-liners defused by the absence of comic beats.

And for a work so grounded in realism and personal drama, surprising artifice creeps in.  Lighting, particularly of faces, is desirable, though not to the point of distraction, as in the beach, driving, and skiing scenes.  The issue may be one of day-for-night photography, location/set discontinuity, or maybe our old foe, compositing.

Upon reflection, my review hardly reads like the endorsement of a fan.  I’ve gradually come to realize that “good” reviews may be at least as challenging as “bad” ones.  Watching Majesty again, for nigh on the umpteenth time, I’m struck by two reactions:

  • It’s hard to judge clearly when its strengths are so familiar they vanish into convention.
  • It’s successful despite some minor sins that never amount to a critical mass of liability.

Make no mistake . . . Bond movies are hardly artistic.  A four star rating is just about their theoretical limit, but it’s also a score several of them could earn.  Still, of all the four star entries, this one ties for first.  While others may be stronger in parts — including their adherence to the series’ own template — none is as successful overall as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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Rated PG for adult situations and violence

142 minutes

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