On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969)

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

It’s not just James Bond who’s different in this one. This is more of a character story or a genuine romance than any of the previous films. Bond investigates Tracy off his own back because she fascinates him; tracks down Blofeld through personal motivation. He’s not, at least to begin with, on a mission. “This never happened to the other fella,” Bond says to camera early on – it might be a knowing joke about the recasting, but he’s not wrong. This has a depth of feeling that the Connerys didn’t attempt. Gone are hollowed-out volcanoes and plans to break into Fort Knox – as we’ll see, this switch to character stories and plausibility was a regular calibration when the series got too sci-fi or silly (cf For Your Eyes Only, Casino Royale). Not that Blofeld’s plan isn’t outrageous, but OHMSS keeps things pleasingly down-to-earth. The film is sensationally directed – stylish, but full of substance and great, clear storytelling. It’s long (136 minutes), but easily holds its length. It has one of the best Bond girls. It has the best Blofeld. It has the best music. It does, famously, have a flaw – George Lazenby is no Sean Connery – but I honestly don’t think that significantly damages the overall effect. Wonderful, just wonderful. 10 copies of Playboy out of 10.

Bond: Connery out, Lazenby in. He’s clearly not a great actor – he had virtually no experience – but the idea that he’s inept or that his performance scuttles the movie is a myth. He’s fine, to be honest; ordinary, yes, but not embarrassing. He lacks Connery’s authority and sparkle, but handles the menacing stuff well and has believable chemistry with Diana Rigg. His final scene is genuinely heartbreaking. (George isn’t the only actor to play Bond in this movie. For the lengthy section when James is pretending to be Sir Hilary Bray of the London College of Arms, George Baker – who played Sir Hilly – dubbed all of Lazenby’s dialogue. Coincidentally, last Sunday’s episode of classy ITV detective show Endeavour had a lovely in-joke reference to Sir Hilary.) Also, we see Bond’s Whitehall office for the first time.

Villains: The movie begins as a character story. But the subplot of Bond trying to track down Blofeld snakes around it, then takes centre stage. We first meet scary henchwoman Irma Bunt, then a recast Blofeld – he’s now played by Telly Savalas with a cold charisma. The clips from Connery movies in the title sequence and the scene of Bond finding mementoes of old missions reinforce that this is a continuation not a reboot – however, why Blofeld doesn’t instantly recognise Bond from the previous adventure is not addressed.

Girls: Tracy di Vicenzo is the best character we’ve had so far in the series, played magnificently by Diana Rigg (the most talented actress to be a Bond girl, surely). In her first scene, she’s trying to kill herself – and this subliminal threat of death hangs above her for the whole movie. The next time we see her, she leans over a card table in a low-cut top then coyly admits she can’t cover her lost bet. Sex, I’m telling you. Pure sex. Like Honor Blackman in Goldfinger, this is a *woman* – a confident yet vulnerable, capable yet flawed woman. Her romance with Bond is believable and touching, and she even has some great faux-flirty scenes with Blofeld. She kicks ass during the climactic battle, doffing up two goons. And Tracy reentering the story after a long absence, skating up to a desperate Bond when he’s trying to hide from Blofeld’s soldiers, is a moment of unutterable beauty. She wins James Bond’s heart – and mine. At one point, Bond smirks while holding up a Playboy centerfold. Blofeld’s research institute houses a gaggle of international women, all very attractive: one is played by Joanna Lumley, another by Catherine Schell. Bond beds the ‘northern’ one, Ruby, then goes back to his room to find another wanting a service too.

Regulars: Q, M and Moneypenny all appear briefly. Q’s only gadget is some deliberately naff radioactive lint, while we see M’s country house (butler and all). Moneypenny has a moving moment, getting teary at Bond’s wedding. As well as Blofeld, his cat also returns.

Action: There’s a great fight early on, Bond and a henchman splashing about in the waves. All the punch-ups are edited with violent jump cuts. The skiing scenes are great when shot for real, but are let down by too many close-ups done in front of jarring rear-projection screens. There’s a fantastic chase through the town, which includes a barney in a room full of bells. Tracy drives her car into the middle of an ice-track stock-car derby. Draco’s men storm the institute at the end; Bond slides along the ice on his stomach while firing a machine gun. The final action sequence is a great bobsleigh chase.

Comedy: As well as they “other fella” line, a janitor whistles the Goldfinger theme tune. One of the institute lovelies reaches under Bond’s kilt to write her room number on his thigh. When Irma Bunt asks him why he looks surprised, he says, “Just a slight stiffness coming on…”

Music: John Barry’s best work on the series. A sensational, dramatic and beautiful score features synths to great effect. My favourite cue is during the breathtakingly tense sequence when Bond’s breaking into a Swiss lawyer’s office; the music raises your heartbeat. The title music is an instrumental with a killer tune, while the featured song is Louis Armstrong’s We Have All The Time in the World – very possibly the best track recorded for any Bond movie – which plays during Bond and Tracy’s romantic montage.

People I’ve met: Two people from this film. In 2003, I interviewed Bernard Horsfall, who plays Bond’s doomed ally Shaun Campbell. He told me a story of the film’s stunt coordinator having to be physically restrained from attacking Lazenby when George was so rude he made a barmaid cry. Also, last year Joanna Lumley visited the office I work in – although she wasn’t there to meet our team, she smiled at us and said hello like we were all old friends.

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