On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) shows Commander James Bond in a state of transition. In the late ’60s, the world was changing (actually it had already changed, but Bond has always been a little reactionary) and James would have to change with it. Yes, he still wears a classic black tuxedo, but he also wears orange turtlenecks and gets accosted by hit men in purple ties; plus, that classic tuxedo is accented with a shirt with outrageous ruffles (to say nothing of a Scottish tuxedo complete with a kilt). He still likes to carouse but the women are no longer submissive playthings; they have brains as well as beauty, and sometimes they’re more on the ball than ol’ Jim, as in when one he had in his seductive gaze gets the drop on him and steals his car. In fact, some of these new women are so alluring they are even worthy of marrying. Is that an artistic shot in a James Bond movie? Is that a moment of quiet reflection? Who is this James Bond? “This never happened to the other fellow,” Bond says. Indeed.
Perhaps that’s why On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the perfect vehicle for the first post-Connery entry in the franchise. This is literally a new Bond, played by Australian model George Lazenby, a svelter, gentler 007 for the time of peace and love. I’m sure there was some anxiety concerning the health of the series when its star stepped down, and there probably was a call to quit making Bond pictures altogether. I’m glad they didn’t. Lazenby isn’t Connery, but he’s a passable Bond and has an admirable earnestness, which makes his romance and marriage in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, unthinkable with his predecessor, more palatable. Still, the movie doesn’t have confidence in Lazenby enough to not constantly remind us of the things we liked about these movies in the first place. There’s quite a bit of looking back in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (did that janitor just whistle the theme to Goldfinger ?) especially during the psychedelic opening credits, which gives us clips (non-Connery) from the previous five films.
The story involves Bond’s professional pursuit of the criminal organization SPECTRE and its nefarious leader, Blofeld (Telly Savalas), and his personal pursuit of Teresa (Diana Riggs), a headstrong countess. Since it’s necessary for one to have a favorite Bond Girl, I’d like to voice my admiration for Riggs, who, besides her estimable physical beauty, is lucky enough to be written the most fully realized female character in the series to this point and knows how to take advantage of that fact. She’s tough and complicated; yes, she and Bond fall in love over a montage, but she makes us believe her affection for him without giving up any of the independent and self-contained qualities that attracted us to her in the first place. She’s the only Bond Girl I’d be interested in seeing an entire film about, though I’m afraid On Her Majesty’s Secret Service renders that impossible.
After traipsing around Europe in search of Blofeld, Bond finds himself in a Swiss institute that studies allergies as a front for SPECTRE’s experimentation into mind control and viral warfare. This institute is populated by a bevy of beautiful female “patients,” and Bond’s introduction to them contains one of the best extended scenes of visual and verbal sexual innuendo in a series known for that type of thing. Bond, impersonating a genealogist, enraptures women with a lecture on coats of arms and how they often contain bezants. “What are bezants?” he’s asked. “Gold balls,” Bond replies to his wide-eyed students. “My own coat of arms contains four of them,” he tells a woman who involuntarily lets her mouth gasp open. It must be very frustrating at times to be James Bond, who enters into a strange hotel room knowing that one of two things are going to happen to him: He will get laid or someone will try to kill him. Fifty percent is pretty good odds for the former but not good enough for me to risk the latter.
The movie is directed by Peter Hunt who informs it with nice Hitchcockian flair. Hitch loved spy stories, but not exactly in the 007 strain; but the silly psychosomatic plot of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service might have appealed to him, and he certainly could approve of an office break-in Bond arranges that devilishly plays with suspense and a nice bit of tension with a grenade that makes us actively root against our hero’s best interest. There’s also Hunt’s fetishistic eye for woman’s clothes and hair that seeks Hitchcock’s approval. And Hunt distinguishes himself in the movie’s other action scenes, including a vertiginous escape via the cables of a ski lift and an extended chase on skis (then one ski, cleverly), then on foot, culminating in a great car chase when Bond’s car and his pursuers break into an amateur stock car race (although, it must be said that it’s difficult to distinguish what time of day it is during this set–piece as the lighting oscillates from dusk to day to night).
And the script, by Richard Maibam, while it has to barrel through the plot, does take time for some clever diversions both ribald and thoughtful (“Curious thing, snobbery,” a character exhales, displaying more insight than we’re accustomed to in these movies), and it works in cahoots with Hunt who takes a number of visual walkabouts as well. I liked a strictly unnecessary but altogether lovely shot of bull fighters in an early scene, and a late moment when Bond imagines Teresa’s image in a window when he thinks he’s lost her, providing evidence that James Bond, who has let so many other girls die for him without a second thought, may possess the gene of human tenderness. However, the movie doesn’t do a good job of blending its romance and thriller plot, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service feels like a sandwich in which the love story is the bread and the spy stuff is the meat. Also, those familiar with the previous movies will be confused when Bond and Blofeld meet each other, pretending to be other people, but don’t recognize each other. We know that they’ve been face to face before, we just saw it in the previous film, You Only Live Twice (1967), but then, in that movie both of them were being played by other actors. Speaking of which, I’m not in love with Savalas as Blofeld, who feels like more a henchmen than a mastermind. The menace is there but not the grandeur.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the best in the series, and it’s a good thing too. It proved that the appeal of James Bond was Bond himself and not the actor who played him. Had it been a stinker, or even reminiscent of the last few that proceeded it, which were becoming increasingly bloated and reliant on Connery, we may not have, for better or worse, the 17 that came after it.