Friday, September 28, 2012

On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Dir. Peter R. Hunt (The Bond Project #6)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Dir: Peter R. Hunt
By Jay Maronde
                A long time ago, in a London Towne far, far away, two men had a problem. These two men were Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, and their problem was that they had built one of the most successful film franchises of all time around a tremendous actor, who didn’t want to make any more movies for the franchise. The world was clamoring for another Bond, but there was no one to play the role. The next movie had already been promised, scouted, and financed. Thus, production of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service began.
Luckily for history, Peter R. Hunt had already been promised to direct the next James Bond film as part of his deal for editing You Only Live Twice. Hunt had said from the beginning that he wanted this “to be his Bond, and no one else’s” and this dedication towards creating a masterpiece served OHMSS so well that despite all of its flaw and foibles, this film is absolutely radiant and possibly saved one of cinematography’s finest franchises from an unnecessarily early demise.
                Around the same time as the aforementioned two men had their problem, there was a strapping young (only 29 years old at the time, making him by far the youngest Bond) pseudo-unemployed Australian (making him the only Bond not born and raised under Her Majesty’s Flag) actor named George Lazenby, and he also had a problem. Lazenby’s problem was that he was tired of being a used car dealer and magazine model, and that shooting television commercials wasn’t making him a rich and famous actor fast enough.
Now our first two men were auditioning all sorts of famous and or important and or talented actors for this most iconic of roles, at one point the position was even offered to Adam West, who declined, feeling that the role was best left to a Brit. Now, George Lazenby felt that he could do it, and concluded rationally that if he could be Bond, it would be the role of a lifetime. But he had almost no acting experience, so he set a little plan in motion: he would act like Bond. He bought himself a Savile Row suit, always dressed dapperly, and, on the day before his audition, even went to Sean Connery’s London barber to get the correct haircut. It was at this location where the fates took over, for also having his hair cut that very same day, was one of our two men with a problem, Albert Broccoli. Broccoli was impressed by Lazenby’s devotion to the cause and felt the he fit the part. During the audition, Lazenby accidentally punched a stuntman in the face and broke his nose, and this pretty much sealed the deal for the producers: the world had its new James Bond.
George Lazenby isn’t a bad Bond. He was, however, an incredibly inexperienced actor, and in general he was a silly young dude. He said in interviews that he had no idea how to be an actor, and was doing his best to “act” like Sean Connery. He also complained that the director Peter Hunt instructed everyone on set to leave him alone and not talk to him, because Hunt felt that it would make him a better Bond. There is a story that Telly Savalas (who is amazingly well-cast as Ernst Stavro Blofeld), once invited Lazenby to a poker game with the Teamsters and promptly cleaned him out of all his per diem money (producer Saltzman is said to have come back to the same poker game the next night, won Lazenby back all his money, and instructed Savalas “not to mess with my guy”). Lazenby also attempted to do some of his own stunts, which resulted in a broken arm, tremendously upsetting the studio and insurance folk, and setting back production for some time.
Despite all this, Lazenby overcomes. He looks the role, and any viewer can tell that he loves what he’s doing and that at all times he is giving “110%.” Lazenby may not be the greatest actor, but he certainly is not a bad Bond by any means, and his performance has so much heart that even though he may have had one of the toughest roles in history—replacing an iconic character who had been built around another iconic actor—he comes off with a shining performance and manages to continue the franchise’s success with what became one of the most popular films that year.
                Opposite this new unknown Bond, the producers knew they needed not just a big star, but a huge star. Numerous starlets from the world over were auditioned, including, but not limited to such beauties as Brigitte Bardot, Jacqueline Bisset, and Catherine Deneuve. Finally, the producers chose Dame Diana Rigg as the Countessa Teresa (Tracy) di Vincenzo, the one and only woman that Bond would ever marry.
It’s worth mentioning that Rigg has since been voted the Sexiest TV star ever by the readers of TV guide magazine (Rigg appeared prominently as Emma Peel in “The Avengers” from 1965 through 1968), and you can easily see why from this film. She oozes a very particular type of sex appeal—a skin-crawling allure that almost leaves one breathless. She stacks up as a character foil to Bond, and she even looks great showing off her “Avengers” moves, fighting it out in several scenes. Rigg’s failing is that she doesn’t sell the role as well as Lazenby.
Rumors from the set filled the British tabloids during shooting: the established Rigg loathed the newcomer Lazenby. All of the rumors, stories, etc., have since been denied by all parties involved, but if you really watch the film you can almost taste her disgust for Lazenby. She seems almost more comfortable in her scenes with Blofeld (possibly because there were extra writers brought in to jazz up those dialogues and perhaps because she just felt that much more comfortable with the old pro actor Telly Savalas). Now for an ordinary Bond girl, none of this would have been a problem: a one-night-only conquest for the Queen doesn’t need to sell her role, she needs to smile and look good. For me, however, Bond’s one and only wife should not only be somehow more beautiful, but should also seem to be truly in love with the man.

She gets murdered by Blofeld & Bunt (also a delightful casting decisision—Ilse Steppat in her last film, as she died four days after the premiere). This whole love story is what makes the movie run as long as it does (the only Bond film that has a longer running time is 2006’s Casino Royale, which also has a huge love plot that consumes a lot of time). I hate this, the entire schemata of a Bond wedding seems completely cuckoo to me. The only thing I can say is that this whole thing is somewhat redeemed by the lovely scene in which she dies. According to legend, Hunt had Lazenby perform the scene twice. The first time, Lazenby came to tears, at which point Hunt promptly yelled “CUT” and informed Lazenby that “Bond does not cry.” This, however, wasn’t the only obstacle that Hunt had to overcome in his directorial debut. The whole “George Lazenby as the new Bond” thing was problematic in so many ways. Initially the producers wanted some sort of rewrite to include Bond having a plastic surgery to make himself look different and thereby elude his enemies.  Eventually that idea was scrapped, and the plan became just to run with this new Bond as though there had been no change, and to have cast regulars such as M, Q, and Moneypenny treat him just a little more special. Tie-ins to other Bond films were included. The decision was also made to make the best possible film that could be rendered; as in You Only Live Twice, no expense was spared on locations or effects.
Hunt was quoted as saying that he wanted every shot and every angle to be as interesting and as perfect as possible. The Alps give much cinematic beauty to this film as there are many sweeping shots of the resplendent scenery throughout the film. Also noteworthy is the fantastic “fast-cut”* work that really livens up the action sequences, a technique which had been developed extensively for the franchise by Hunt himself during his time as editor of the early Bond Films, but used to its fullest extent in this film.
Additionally, one of the most fantastic sets ever was acquired as the location for Blofeld’s mountaintop fortress/allergy clinic: The Piz Gloria. The Piz Gloria is a real place, the world’s first revolving restaurant on top of a mountain; it is really on top of a Swiss Alp, and really is only accessible by helicopter or cable car. In real life the place is still called Piz Gloria, not just because of the fame brought to it by this film, but also because without the film, it is questionable as to whether the building would have been completed. When the director and producers were scouting locations, they came upon the Piz Gloria (at that time only partially completed), and financing for the project had dried up. In exchange for exclusive shooting rights, the film’s producers agreed to a large cash payment and assistance in the completion of its construction.
                Peter R. Hunt could be called the real hero of this James Bond film, not just because he saw through to completion what had to be one of the most difficult Bonds to produce, not because he had to work with a completely unknown and untrained actor as his Bond, but because he clearly took the time and effort necessary to turn what would could have been the whimpering finale of the Bond series into a majestic classic which stands up against all of the other films in this classic franchise.** As for George Lazenby, he tried hard, and put in a very good performance as Bond, but alas—much like Val Kilmer in his one-time turn as Batman—he will always be remembered as the “new guy.”
*Credit must potentially be given to Jean-Luc Godard as well, for he pioneered the use of “jump cuts” in his classic 1959 debut, Breathless.
**It is perhaps worth noting that there is no title song in this Bond, ostensibly because the producers felt it would be too much like a "Gilbert and Sullivan" opera if such a long title were turned into a song lyric.  Instead, there is a musical love montage, featuring "We Have All the Time in the World" by Louis Armstrong, which would turn out to be his last recorded song. 

No comments: