Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE


ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969). Director: Peter Hunt.

After meeting a beautiful, troubled woman named Tracy (Diana Rigg) and her handsome criminal father Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), Bond uses info he acquires from Draco to track down Ernest Stavros Blofeld (Telly Savalas), who is using beautiful women with allergies in another massive extortion plot. Since Blofeld hopes the College of Arms will declare him a count, Bond goes in disguise as someone from the college to Blofeld’s Swiss HQ and tries to figure out what he’s up to. Richard Maibaum’s script is relatively faithful to Ian Fleming’s novel, although there are a few changes. It makes no sense that Draco’s men should seemingly try to kill either Tracy or Bond in the prologue and other sequences. In the novel, the men are simply trying to escort the two of them to Draco and Bond misunderstands.

Although double entendres had been part of the Bond movies (if not the novels) for years, Maibaum’s script seems unnecessarily smarmy at times. A stupid aspect is the way Bond allegedly pretends to be gay when he impersonates Sir Hilary Bray (from the College of Arms), although this comes out more in some dialogue than in Lazenby’s performance – he seems foppish, stuffy, a bit of a "sissy," perhaps, but not stereotypically "gay." (The real Sir Hilary is a bit foppish but not epicene -- and not a gay character. And most gay men are not foppish or effeminate in any case.) In Fleming’s novel Bond simply observes that there’s no reason why a nobleman, whom he’s impersonating, can’t be down-to-earth, and decides to pretty much act like himself. When 007, disguised as Sir Hilary, interacts with the ladies he meets at Blofeld’s in the film he is perfectly charming with them and even flirts with one of them, Ruby. (Ruby writes her room number on his thigh in lipstick and he returns from her room after an assignation with a lipstick kiss on his cheek.) Yet one gal observes "I know what he’s allergic to," and even Ruby – pre-assignation – says "You’re funny – pretending you don’t like girls." Huh? This just doesn’t come off. Americans may think that men with upper class British accents sound effeminate, but why would British girls think the same? When he pretends to be Bray, 007 doesn't sound any more affected than Prince Charles! (Lazenby is dubbed by the actor portraying Bray during these scenes.)

Maibaum adds some good scenes as well as bad ones: Bond kisses Miss Moneypenny on the lips, (if not with great passion) and she’s seen crying at his wedding. When Bond goes to pay another call on Ruby, he finds the formidable Irma Bunt, Blofeld’s assistant, in her bed! In the novel, Bond and Blofeld had never come face to face before, but everyone connected with the film forgot that the two men met in the previous Bond movie You Only Live Twice -- yet Blofeld doesn’t recognize Bond (he figures it out because of a mistake Bond makes – as well as 007's sheer horniness.) While it may be "tame" by today’s standards, the scene when an agent pursuing Bond and Tracy gets chewed up by a snow blower (in the novel he ran into a train) turned a few stomachs in 1969 and (even if it was a bad guy) was considered in bad taste for an escapist film.

George Lazenby may not be a great actor, but he isn’t at all bad as Bond. He may in general lack the wry, raised-eyebrow insouciance of Sean Connery, but he can be gruff and athletic when he needs to be, as well as light and charming when required. Considering he practically had to carry the whole film on his shoulders with relatively little experience, he acquits himself quite nicely. Diana Rigg is as lovely and professional as ever as Tracy. Although her part was beefed up a bit from the novel, it is still very much a supporting role at best. Telly Savalas makes a wonderful, smooth, urbane and virile Blofeld, although he doesn’t exude too much personal menace – he won’t kill you with his bare hands but will certainly watch with glee as somebody else does it for him. Gabriele Ferzetti is perfect as Draco.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is ultimately a mediocre Bond outing, unfortunately. Michael Reed's cinematography is second-rate, and director Peter Hunt covers the action without much cinematic elan. The film is better edited (by John Glen, who would himself direct some Bond features and was second unit director for this picture) than directed, as witnessed by the film’s greatest sequence: the battle between Bond and Blofeld as they careen down the icy, slithering bobsled run. This superb, breathlessly paced, and brilliantly executed sequence remains one of the best action scenes in any Bond movie. If only the overlong picture had more scenes like it.
There is no opening theme song for the movie, although later in the film Louis Armstrong croaks out a rendition of the pleasant "All the Time in the World" by John Barry (who did the score, as usual) and Hal David. NOTE: To read a review of Ian Fleming's novel, click here.

Verdict: Great bobsled sequence! **1/2.

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