Thursday, March 28, 2013

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

By the end of 2012, I'd seen one James Bond movie in my entire life - Dr. No, about five years earlier. But in February, I saw Skyfall in the theater and loved it. So I decided to go back and watch all of the others, bouncing around chronologically so I'd remember them better. I figured I'd better remember the details of, say, two Connery movies if I watched a Moore, a Brosnan, and a Dalton in between. So far it's going pretty well.

Today I watched On Her Majesty's Secret Service. My goodness, what a movie. (Spoilers follow)

OHMSS might be my favorite of the 9 Bond movies I've seen so far, but I suspect I love it for the same reason that a lot of people hate it. It's basically a movie about what it would be like if James Bond was a real person. We still get puns like "He's branched off" and some other silliness like that, but it's mostly much more low-key that I except from Bond.

It's not terribly far off from the Connery movies, but everything feels a bit rougher, and I really like that. Lazenby isn't as handsome or charming as Connery or even Moore, but I think that works here. He's Bond without the Hollywood facade - he's basically just a guy. He tries to strangle a guy with a ski, and he slaps Diana Rigg like he means it. He's the perfect Bond for this movie, but I'm glad he didn't come back. This movie almost breaks the format. There's really no way to continue from here.

But I've always kind of thought that Bond was a terrible person, and this movie doesn't pretend otherwise. When he's in Switzerland, out of Tracy's sight, he messes around with a bunch of women. That's what James Bond *would* do - he's a hornball and a creep. I don't think that it's a coincidence that in the same movie where Bond says "I love you," he also uses the same cheesy lines to seduce two random women in a row.

Which means that the Tracy story shouldn't work as well as it does, but Diana Rigg is wonderful, which helps. And I really like that we see them fall in love through a montage only, as though the filmmakers knew there was nothing specific they could show that could convince us James Bond would stop hitting on everything in sight.

Instead, they sell it through Tracy's demeanor. She's smart, thoughtful, and independent - quite the opposite of the typical "Bond girl." She gets in that dig at her dad, scoffing off his instructions to "obey your husband." In short, she's more of an actual person, and that's what it takes to get Bond to actually commit. And it's what makes the ending a real heartbreaker. This isn't some caricature like Mary Goodnight dying.

And the same goes for everyone else. They're less-caricatured versions of themselves. M is angrier than usual, because he's tired of Bond's nonsense. Miss Moneypenny tries to flirt as she always does, but Bond cuts her off because Connery's smirk is gone and he's actually invested in his job for once. Q stands around in M's office having a normal conversation. They're recognizably the same characters, but they're all played a bit more loosely than they had been (or would be in the Moore movies).

It's not a perfect movie. The odd pacing really does make the trip to Switzerland feel like a different film. But even that works as a strength, I think. It feels like the filmmakers knew this was their only chance to tell a story about this version of Bond, so they had to incorporate a more typical adventure - one where he doesn't get married and lose his wife tragically.  

They also bothered to show the minutiae of spy work in a way I haven't yet seen. When he first gets to Switzerland, we follow Bond as he makes his way to the Institute and meets Fraulein Bunt. This occurs almost in real time, as do other bits, such as his speech at dinner about what genealogy is. I can see how some people would feel this stuff is just slow, but I think it reminds us again that this is a more realistic Bond. We see the grunt work, instead of just the glamor.

That tone reaches its peak in the final moments. After Blofeld and Fraulein Bunt drive by, Bond jumps into the car, excitedly proclaiming "It's Blofeld!" like he and Tracy are going to go on an adventure. But they aren't. Not this time. This time it's real life, and people die. And we close on a Bond who doesn't quite know what to do, tearfully insisting that they have all the time in the world.

It's lovely. I can't wait to watch it again.