Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, October 2, 2016

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

All good things must come to an end. The Beatles. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's marriage (twice!). Sean Connery as James Bond. Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli had to face this realization when Connery chose not to return as James Bond for ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969), the sixth film in the Bond series. So hello relatively known Australian actor George Lazenby to inherit the role made internationally famous by Sean Connery.

Because Connery was so imprinted in my head as the only real James Bond, I never wanted to see ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.  I tried to watch it maybe 3 or 4 years ago and fell asleep half way through it (not because it was dull but because I tried to watch late at night on a work week). But I finally watched it from beginning to end. Based on Ian Fleming's Bond novel of the same title, it's a decent story with a bit of a strange premise (beautiful women brainwashed into spreading a virus to make plants and animals infertile).  Lazenby was chosen because he resembled Connery with his jet black hair and accent.  But throughout ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, the ghost of Sean Connery permeates the film. If only Connery had said that line or kissed that girl or punched that bad guy or wore a Scottish kilt for part of the film. Lazenby cannot make us forget whose patent black leather shoes he's filling. It would be Lazenby's only appearance as 007.

Not only is Sean Connery missing from ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, other familiar elements are missing or not as first rate. Maurice Binder's title sequence is one of the weakest in the series. There's not even a theme song to go along with the opening credits (granted ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE is a tough title to come up with a theme song for). John Barry returns as the composer but most of the film uses over and over again one main musical refrain in the movie. Production designer Ken Adam's ingenious set designs are absent as Syd Cain takes over for him. Telly Savalas steps into the role of the villainous Ernst Stavro Blofeld that Donald Pleasence played in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967). Yes, Savalas is bald but he, like Lazenby, seems like a second choice for the role (at least they didn't have to dub Savalas's voice like some of the previous Bond villains like Gert Frobe in GOLDFINGER or Adolfo Celi in THUNDERBALL).

But there are a couple of constants. Screenwriter Richard Maibaum who would end up penning twelve of the Bond films wrote this one. And Bond film editor Peter Hunt gets his first crack at directing this Bond film. ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE begins with a sense of mystery. While on vacation, James Bond (George Lazenby) rescues a beautiful woman (Diana Rigg) from committing suicide by drowning herself in the ocean. After rescuing her, two assailants try to kill him as the woman speeds away in Bond's car. Bond runs into her later at a casino. She is Contessa Tracy Draco, the daughter of crime boss Draco (Gabriela Ferzetti). Bond pays her debt much to the chagrin of Tracy. Soon, Draco's men grab Bond and bring him to meet Draco in person. Draco wants Bond to marry Tracy. She's a wild child and Draco wants a man that can handle and control his daughter. Bond considers the offer.

Meanwhile, M (Bernard Lee) pulls Bond from Operation Bedlam, a mission to find and catch SPECTRE's greatest mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas). Bond is obsessed with catching Blofeld who narrowly escaped him in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. Bond resigns but Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) convinces M to give Bond two weeks leave instead. Bond travels to Portugal to begin a courtship with the Contessa. Bond uses Draco's contacts to locate Blofeld and discovers that Blofeld has set up an allergy clinic in an alpine fortress at the top of the Swiss Alps.

Bond also learns that Blofeld has been communicating with genealogist Sir Hilary Bray (George Baker) regarding taking on a count title. Bond assumes Sir Hilary's identity (which doesn't make sense as Blofeld already knows what Bond looks like from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) to meet with Blofeld at his snowy hideout and uncover his diabolical plot. Blofeld's Nazi den mother Frau Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat) picks up Bond from the nearby ski village. To his surprise, Bond discovers a dozen beautiful women from all over the world staying at the compound. Bond learns that Blofeld plans to ignite biological warfare by brainwashing these women to disperse a virus to all corners of the world to make plants and animals infertile unless his ransom demands are met.

Blofeld sends his angels of death off to their respective hometowns with a  nice compact filled with the deadly germs. Bond escapes from Blofeld's hideout, skiing down the Alps pursued by Blofeld's soldiers. Bond runs into Tracy who's in Switzerland for a ski vacation. Bond and Tracy flee Bunt, sneaking into a snowy stock car race to avoid Bunt before hiding out in an isolated barn. Bond asks  Tracy to marry him. An avalanche nearly kills the two of them. Blofeld grabs Tracy, taking her back to his icy lair. Bond enlists Draco and his manpower on a final assault of Blofeld's fortress. Afterward, Bond and Tracy marry. But tragedy befalls the honeymooners. An injured Blofeld with Frau Bunt as his side pull up next to the honeymooners vehicle and shoot and kill Tracy.

Besides the elephant in the room that George Lazenby not Sean Connery plays 007 in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, the Bond filmmakers try to change things up from the previous Bond films. The films begins not with an opening set piece like GOLDFINGER or THUNDERBALL (1965) but with a sense of mystery. We're not sure where Bond is or what he's doing (turns out he's on vacation). He encounters a mysterious woman (Contessa Draco) who races past him on a road. He finds her on a beach where she runs into the water, trying to kill herself. He rescues her but she takes off as he fights off a couple of thugs. Then, M nearly fires Bond. The Bond universe is out of kilter.

We also get to see  Bond's coworkers M and Miss Moneypenny in a new light. Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) goes out of her way to keep Bond from quitting, saving his job by convincing M to let Bond take a leave of absence instead of resigning. It's nice to see Moneypenny have something more to do than just flirt with Bond. We also see a gentler side of M (Bernard Lee). M attends Bond's wedding to Tracy, even conversing with crime boss Draco. If only knew what M got Bond and his bride from the wedding registry. Perhaps M and Q went in together on his and her flame throwing pens.

The previous two Bond films had introduced sexy red-headed femme fatales to dispatch Bond (actresses Luciana Paluzzi and Karin Dor respectively) but the matronly Germanic Frau Bunt (Ilse Steppat) plays the tough second villain in SECRET SERVICE. Bunt hearkens back to Lotta Lenya (she with knife blades in her shoes) in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963). Bunt is an older but just as lethal adversary (and still a ginger). And scary too. If you don't believe me, check out the scene when Bond sneaks into Ruby's (Angela Scoular) room. Instead of finding the cute allergy patient, it's Frau Bunt waiting for him under the covers. Bond's relationship with crime boss Draco is the first time we see the English agent working with a less than reputable partner. It's a trade. Draco wants Bond to wed his daughter. Bond needs Draco and his contacts to find Blofeld. In most Bond films, 007 teamed up with American CIA agent Felix Leiter. But as they say in the spy business, you sometimes have to sleep with the enemy or marry the enemy's daughter. Draco isn't after world domination like Blofeld. Bond would team up with another unsavory character Columbo in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981).

ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE is the first Bond film to introduce skiing to the series, not surprising since half the film takes place in the Swiss Alps. When I started going to the theater to watch Bond films in the 70s and 80s, Bond was always skiing for his life pursued by bad guys on skis with machine guns in films like THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) or FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. It's surprising it took so long to put Bond on skis but by 1969 filmmakers were going on location and pushing the envelope with stunts. SECRET SERVICE has some excellent ski action sequences.

I'm sure George Lazenby is a nice person and a decent actor but there's no way he could win over the public (or me) as James Bond having to follow Sean Connery. Connery exuded a confidence and sexual power that Lazenby can only dream of. Lazenby handles some of the humorous scenes in SECRET SERVICE with aplomb but watching him is like watching a television version of James Bond. He looks and has some of the same mannerisms as Connery but it's not the same thing. Lazenby had never acted in a film before taking on the role. His previous experience was only commercials and print ads as a model.  Kudos to Lazenby as he doesn't fall flat on his face as the most famous British agent in the world.

Diana Rigg as Contessa Draco is a change of pace for the Bond filmmakers who chose former beauty queens for previous Bond girls. Rigg was the star of the successful TV series THE AVENGERS (1965-68) where she played a female version of Bond along with co-star Patrick Macnee. Rigg brings sophistication and class to the role as the future Mrs. James Bond. Rigg's distinguished career has continued all the way to the present. She recently finished a nice run on HBOs worldwide hit GAME OF THRONES.

Telly Savalas, at first look, seems like an excellent choice to play the nefarious Blofeld (check out Savalas's creepy turn in the 1967 war film THE DIRTY DOZEN). But Savalas doesn't seem sinister enough in the role except at the film's tragic finale. It might be I kept expecting Savalas to whip out a lollipop as detective Kojak from his KOJAK TV series (1973 -1978). Savalas's American accent is surprisingly uninteresting. It didn't help that Savalas had to follow Donald Pleasence's fantastic portrayal of Blofeld in the earlier Bond film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. Fans of Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969) will recognize Gabriele Ferzetti as the crime boss Draco. Ferzetti is fine in the role but it's not very believable that he and Tracy are father and daughter (they look to be the same age).

On the other hand, German born actress Ilse Steppat is perfect as Blofeld's tough lieutenant/mother figure Frau Irma Bunt. She's part mother hen, responsible for the twelve beautiful women at the allergy institute. But she's part Gestapo, pursuing Bond as he escapes Blofeld's fortress, guns blazing. There's an interesting mother/son dynamic between Bunt and Blofeld. Interestingly, neither Blofeld nor Bunt dies at the end of the film although we know Blofeld has a broken neck after his bobsled crash while fleeing Bond. Our last image of the two is Bunt aiding the neck-braced Blofeld as he shoots Tracy right after the wedding. It's not a very nice wedding present to the newlyweds. Sadly, actress Steppat would die a week after filming ended and never saw her fine work ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. Of the twelve actresses who play the allergy patients, only Catherine Schell (then Catherine von Schell) did anything else that I recognized. Schell starred in a British Science Fiction TV show called SPACE 1999 from 1975 to 1977.

Believe it or not, the goofy plot of ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE with twelve beautiful women brainwashed by Blofeld to deliver a virus to make sterile the world's plants and livestock is actually from the Ian Fleming book. Yes, Bond is a ladies man but a dozen gorgeous women from around the world invited to hang out with a megalomaniac seems more apropos for Dean Martin in the comedic Bond ripoff MATT HELM films than the Bond series.  SECRET SERVICE also began a trend where the filmmakers borrowed what was happening either in modern culture or movies at the time. SECRET SERVICE exudes the London Mod scene of the late 60s with women in mini skirts and boots and  Bond wearing an ascot. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER incorporates the car chase fad of the early 70s. LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) gives us the urban Blaxploitation SHAFT feel and MOONRAKER (1979) capitalizes on the STAR WARS phenomenon.

Peter Hunt started out as an editor on three Bond films including GOLDFINGER (1964). ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE would be the only Bond film he would get to direct. With his editing background, Hunt keeps MAJESTY moving at a good pace as it's one of the longer Bond films. The fight scenes are realistic, primal and savage. Other fine set pieces include the stock car race sequence in the snow and several skiing action scenes. Ironically, Hunt's editor on this film John Glen would go on to direct five Bond films including FOR YOUR EYES ONLY and the worst film in the Bond series A VIEW TO A KILL (1985).

Although ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE does not rate high on my canon of Bond films, it's surprising how much it has influenced other filmmakers and films. The snowy fortress from Christopher Nolan's INCEPTION (2010) is inspired by the Piz Gloria compound in SECRET SERVICE. And there's no mistaking that the wardrobe that Bond wears impersonating genealogist Sir Hilary (with ascot) was the inspiration for Mike Myers Austin Powers attire in the AUSTIN POWERS series. Myers borrows heavily from the Bond films for most of the plots and characters in his films. Even the relationship between Dr. Evil and Frau Farbissina seems a homage to Blofeld and Frau Bunt in SECRET SERVICE.

One last tidbit on SECRET SERVICE. I actually visited Blofeld's snowy hideout location in the Swiss Alps in 1987 when I backpacked through Europe. The building sits on the top of Mt. Schilthorn. It's still called Piz Gloria and it's a revolving restaurant, the first of its kind at the time. I rode up the same gondola to the top of the Alps like Bond did. Unfortunately, the weather was horrible the day I went and clouds and fog obscured the panoramic view of the majestic Swiss Alps.

But do not sulk James Bond fans. George Lazenby would only last for one movie. Sean Connery would return for his final swan song (not counting his remake of THUNDERBALL called NEVER SAY NEVER in 1983) for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971). DIAMONDS would usher Bond into a new decade bringing back Blofeld (this time appearing as he was described in Fleming's novels with white hair). ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE is the black sheep of the Bond series, the outcast with more misfires than bullseyes. It's an interesting addition to the series and by no means the worst film of the Bond franchise.

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