Will Watches James Bond: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

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“This never happened to the other fellow.”

Where in the world are?

Switzerland, primarily the gorgeous Swiss Alps.

What are the stakes?

Bond, still hunting for Blofeld two years after blowing the top off SPECTRE’s volcano hideout (har har), manages to track him to a top-secret laboratory atop the Schilthorn in the Alps, where he learns that his foe is brainwashing young, beautiful girls (of course) and is planning on using them to release devastating biological warfare agents on the world.

Oh, and Bond gets married.

Does it work?

I’ll be honest: I was not looking forward to this. My memory of watching OHMSS when I was younger was that the film nearly put me to sleep, and after the downhill direction of the past two films, well, I wasn’t optimistic: Thunderball jumped the shark, and You Only Live Twice went back and started using the shark as a jump rope. Factor in George Lazenby’s one and only appearance as 007, and things looked grim indeed.

What a stunning relief, then, to find that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service not only corrects the mistakes of its predecessors, but, in doing so, arguably tops Goldfinger as the best Bond movie yet. Sacrilege, I know, but give me a chance to explain before you all start burning me in effigy.

First, there’s the fact that OHMSS feels like a complete reboot of the series thus far. Yes, the mythology is still intact, and if you haven’t seen the other films, odds are you’ll be confused for about an hour as to why Bond is so hot for this Blofeld guy. But everything else – from Lazenby’s recasting to Q’s near-removal from the story – is a obvious response to just how crazy things had (very quickly) gotten. Just as in the first three films, Bond here seems like a secret agent, rather than a super agent: he has to go into disguise and sneak around and outrun his enemies, instead of single-handedly defeating them all. Or escaping via jetpack. Sigh.

But what really makes the film click is that it takes its story pretty seriously. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service unfolds with a pretty blatant three-act structure. The first act opens with Bond saving a beautiful girl (of course) from walking into the sea and drowning herself; he later finds her again in a fancy hotel, cavalierly losing at poker and not seeming to give much of a damn. The girl, we learn, is Tracy (a dynamite performance from Diana Rigg – more on her in a minute), the recently widowed daughter of a major crime boss. Her father, desperate to see Tracy happy again, begs Bond to marry her; Bond accepts, on the condition that he reveal Blofeld’s location (and after being promised Tracy’s not-insubstantial dowry). But what begins as a relationship of convenience blooms into something unexpectedly poignant, as the two find themselves falling in love (by this point, most people are double-checking the box to make sure they’re watching a James Bond movie). Then comes the second act, where Bond discovers that Blofeld has been hiding up in the Swiss Alps and is now attempting to claim his “rightful” place in some important family (it’s not that important). Disguised as a genealogist (taking his cues pretty obviously from Clark Kent), Bond makes his way into Blofeld’s lair and discovers his aforementioned dastardly plan. And so begins the third act, when Bond must escape from the isolated mountain and stop him.

You can understand why my younger self was plain bored: this structure means that a good two-thirds of the film unfolds really without any sort of action, instead reserving it all for the final forty minutes (the two big set pieces, though – whirlwind ski chases down the side of the mountain, first outrunning SPECTRE baddies and then a frikkin’ avalanche (!) – are truly spectacular). In the place of explosions and car chases, though, are a newfound emphasis on developing Bond as a character (again, !). Part of this lies in Lazenby’s performance. Those who prefer their 007 arrogant and snarky will understandably be disappointed, since Lazenby’s Bond is quieter and, around Tracy, even vulnerable. Some have criticized Lazenby’s understated performance as wooden, but for me, it gives the role a sense of compassion and humanity that Sean Connery never even aimed at.

Bond isn’t the only character who gets fleshed out. Blofeld and SPECTRE, transformed into bumbling caricatures previously, once again become worthy, menacing adversaries for our hero. But the real revelation here is Tracy, who starts out as a bargaining chip, becomes a doting, blushing object of affection – and then shows up in the third act as a force to be reckoned with. After Bond has escaped from SPECTRE, alone, cold, and about to be caught all over again, it’s Tracy who appears out of the blue, hops behind the wheel of a car, and crashes (literally) into a derby, where she nimbly outguns her pursuers and renders their car a smoking, fiery wreck. Later, she matches Bond inch for inch skiing down the mountain, and although she winds up a captor of Blofeld, she overhears a transmission from Bond and her father, realizes they are coming to rescue her, and cunningly manipulates the villain into a more exposed position (before fighting her way out of the room and taking out two SPECTRE goons). There have been a handful of tough, capable female characters up to this point, but Tracy subverts expectations so thoroughly that she makes Pussy Galore look like a kindergarten teacher.

It’s fun to think about what would have happened had Diana Rigg a become permanent member of the franchise – The Continuing Adventures of James and Tracy. But there’s no way. Bond girls are notoriously disposable, but the film had put too much effort into establishing this relationship for James to just walk away. So the only way the pair could stay together was by Bond relinquishing his 00-status, and the only way that the franchise could continue was by Bond keeping that license to kill. So Tracy had to die. And so Bond and his wife enjoy a few brief minutes of unadulterated happiness before the defeated Blofeld drives by and shoots Tracy in the head. For one brief second, Bond jumps back into 00-mode, ready to chase down his enemy and finish him once and for all. And then he notices Tracy’s body, and he crumples. And that’s the end. The only thing more shocking than Tracy’s assassination is the almost immediate cut to black – an incredibly ballsy, devil-may-care move by the studio that cements OHMSS not only as a reboot, but almost as the anti-007: the bad guy gets away and Bond most certainly does not get the girl. That’s dedication to your script. There’s not a cop-out in sight.

Stray Observations:

– Diana Rigg was fresh off The Avengers and had been a performer with the Royal Shakespeare Company when she was cast as Tracy. Apparently the studio didn’t have a whole lot of faith in Lazenby’s acting abilities and thought that being around an actual actress would help. That said,  there’s still plenty of casual sexism flying around: the scene where Tracy’s father asks Bond to marry her is a masterclass in patriarchal sliminess (“What she needs is a man to dominate her! To make love to her enough to make her love him!” Eesh.)

– Apparently you can be irrationally afraid of chickens. Who knew?

– I was surprisingly impressed by the cinematography and the lighting. The final assault on Blofeld’s fortress is perhaps the most cinematic sequence of the series yet.

– Tremendously lazy opening credits. The less said, the better.

– Draco: “She likes you, I can see it.” Bond: “You must give me the name of your oculist.”

– Operator: “You are carrying passengers?” Draco: “Of course I am! Distinguished members of the world press!”

– Bond: “This time I’ve got the gadgets, and I know how to use them.”

– Bond: “We’ve got all the time in the world.”

Theme song: Louis Armstrong (but, interestingly, not played over the credits).

Gadgets: Radioactive lint, in the first thirty seconds.

Number of women 007 seduces: 3

Score: 85/100

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