Monday, October 12, 2015

James Bond Marathon: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

"This never happened to the other fellow."

Chronology & Stats
James Bond #6
Star: George Lazenby #1 (his only one)
Director: Peter R. Hunt #1 (his only one)
My Ranking #2

The one where a new bond steals the show by running around in a kilt and fanny pack.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is something of an anomaly in the Bond franchise. Not only is it George Lazenby's only time at bat as the iconic British secret agent, it also shies away from some of the tropes and general silliness that was coming to define the series. After one of the wackiest installments in You Only Live Twice, the powers that be seem to have decided that Bond needed to be a bit more serious; but in trying to cut down on the nonsense, they seem to also be cutting down on what makes these movies what they are. Most significant to my mind is the lack of a song during the opening credits and Bond's sudden interest in monogamy. What these changes do to the film as a film in itself is one thing, but as a part of the Bond legacy they start trying to shift the tone toward something more grounded.

Whether you like this style of Bond or not (I can see the appeal of something more like You Only Live Twice, but I can't say it's for me), it definitely has an affect on 007 as a character. In this slightly more realistic world, he becomes more relatable and sympathetic. We see very clearly his two motivating influences (finding Blofeld and marrying Tracy) and it becomes easier to understand what he's thinking in each of his scenes. When he sleeps with some of the women in Blofeld's clinic, his complaint of the pains he goes to for MI6 takes on a dimension beyond that of a simple smarmy quip (he really does regret his actions because he would rather be with Tracy). In this way, the film develops a greater sense of emotional consequence than in previous installments.

But on top of being one of the more emotionally compelling Bonds, On Her Majesty's Secret Service also has some of the best action in the franchise, and arguably the best single scene until technology would improve around the turn of the century (with the rise of digital editing allowing big battles sequences to be more dynamic). The famous ski chase has a sense of scale and kinetic energy which make it still work nearly half a century later. Some of the front projection looks slightly regrettable by today's standards, but with Blofeld's minion flying off into trees and getting caught in snow plows it's still one of the best action scenes in any Bond, regardless of age.

And speaking of visuals, this is easily the best looking Bond film so far. From the opening battle on the beach with its tense, dark shadows, to the splendid aerial photography, there's plenty to feast your eyes on here—especially after something so full of fakery as the previous You Only Live Twice. The secret service's raid on Blofeld's snow fortress even contained such iconic imagery that it inspired Christopher Nolan to recreate it more than 40 years later in Inception. This is also the most frenetically edited Bond to date (often utilizing multiple cameras simply to cut quickly between them without losing continuity), which makes it one of the most visually exciting.

There are a few minor problems—the pace slows down a bit for some of the stuff in Blofeld's clinic, and the run time does feel a bit long—but none of them stop On Her Majesty's Secret Service from being one of the best Bonds around. It might not have the best Bond in it (Lazenby is good, but he's no Connery), but as far as espionage thrillers go, this is one of my absolute favorites. Maybe my appreciation of its lack of silliness says more about me than the film, but for me this is the crowning glory on the classic 007 era.

James Bond ranked

PS. Thematically, the film seems mostly concerned with social status, with "commander" Bond disguising himself as a genealogist and Blofeld seeking to confirm his status as a Count (moving him into solid Dracula territory). It almost seems appropriate then that Lazenby gives us the most posh Bond until Dalton's turn as the super spy.

PPS. Tracy also seems to be the most empowered of all the Bond girls so far. She's escorted out of the final fight scene, but she takes out a big baddie on her own beforehand and rescues Bond from the tail end of the ski chase. Definitely a welcome change from a franchise which at its best still has a troubled relationship with women.

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