Friday, May 08, 2015

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) | Story



Plot Summary

Bond isn't making much headway tracking down Blofeld after You Only Live Twice until an encounter with an intriguing woman sets him on the right path. Kilts, skiing, and marriage ensue.

Influences

After putting off On Her Majesty's Secret Service a couple of times for business reasons, Saltzman and Broccoli finally got around to it just in time to lose Sean Connery as their leading man. I used to think that was lousy timing since it forced an untested actor to carry such a heavy, emotional story. But the more I watch OHMSS and compare it to both You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever, the more I think the producers dodged a bullet. Connery was so fed up with playing Bond that it's doubtful he would have brought much to the role no matter how good the script.

Speaking of which, since OHMSS had been in the works for a while, Richard Maibaum already had the script started and everyone decided to keep it as close to Fleming's novel as possible. Thanks to its following You Only Live Twice in the movie series instead of preceding it, that sets up some continuity errors that we'll talk about later, but it also makes OHMSS one of the most Fleming-like movies ever. There are some changes, but for the most part they're positive ones.

How Is the Book Different?

The biggest changes from the book are around Tracy. In the novel, she's introduced as a tragic, psychologically broken character who gets professional therapy off camera and returns for the end of the story all "fixed." If by fixed we mean that she's compliant and everything that Bond has always avoided in a romantic partner. When I read the novel, I decided that this is kind of the point; that Bond has changed over the course of the series so that now this kind of woman isn't abhorrent to him anymore. But it's still unsettling and disappointing. Not so in the movie.

I'll have more to say about this tomorrow, but a major example of the change in Tracy is how she handles her debt to Bond after he bails her out of a bad bet she's made at the casino. In the book, she's basically offering herself as a prostitute and Bond creepily takes her up on it. The movie looks like it's presenting the same situation, but there are a couple of changes starting with Bond's wanting to make it clear that she's under no obligation to him. She's weird enough that she talks him into going through with it, even though she tries to make it clear that she is doing it out of obligation. But then in the morning, she leaves him a stack of chips to pay off her debt, meaning that it was never about her owing him anything.

An even bigger change from the book though is Tracy's appearance in the last act of the film. Once she rescues him in the novel, she pretty much sits the rest of the story out until the wedding. The movie has Blofeld capture her. Which seems like a lame, damsel-in-distress situation until you actually see her in action as Blofeld's prisoner. But again, more on that tomorrow. Her being captured is just a way to keep her in the story longer and no one should complain about that, because Movie Tracy is awesome.

Moment That's Most Like Fleming



I was going to be cynical and pick all the racist food that Blofeld feeds his allergy patients. In the dinner scene, each woman has a big ole' plate full of the most offensively stereotypical cuisine from her part of the world. Reminded me a lot of Fleming's attitude in Live and Let Die.

But there's another moment that I actually like and that's when Bond is trying to escape Piz Gloria on skis and he's found by a henchman as a big group of others gets closer. He needs to overpower the henchman and keep him quiet, so Bond cuts off the guy's windpipe with a ski. It's a moment that reminded me of how brutal Fleming's stories could be.

Moment That's Least Like Fleming



There are a couple of moments, both revolving around Bond's resignation from MI6. He resigns in the novel - or at least drafts a letter - so that's not different; it's the reasons he decides to quit. One is horrible and the other is fantastic.

The horrible one is at the beginning when M removes Bond from Operation Bedlam, the code name given to the search for Blofeld. In the novel, Bond wants to quit because he feels that Bedlam is fruitless and he's tired of expending all his energy on wild goose chases. He wants back in the field where things are interesting. But in the movie, M takes Bond off of Bedlam because Bond isn't making any progress. It's M who's frustrated with Bond's performance and Bond is so hurt by it that he quits. That's a poor representation of Bond and M's relationship and a misunderstanding of Bond's character.

It's redeemed later on though when Bond quits again; for real this time. In the novel, Bond's victory over Tracy is illustrated by her giving into him. She's not happy with his life as a spy, but she's going to be a good girl and try not to complain too much. In the movie though, there's a wonderful scene where Bond tells her that "an agent can't be concerned with anyone but himself."

"I understand," she says, not actually understanding at all. "We'll just have to go on the way we are."

"No," he explains. "I'll have to find something else to do."

It's a huge moment that affects how we should read the final scenes. We never see his actual resignation, but the implication of this statement of Bond's is that when he gets married, he's not a spy anymore. We don't know what he's going to do, but he's no longer On Her Majesty's Secret Service. This is a huge improvement on Fleming's version.

Cold Open



It's nice to have Maibaum back on the script, because unlike Roald Dahl on You Only Live Twice, Maibaum knows how to write a cold open. There's a bit of a false start first though with M and Q's talking over the fact that no one knows where Bond is. It helps explain that Bond's not actually on vacation when we meet him a few seconds later - and it doubles the number of gadgets in the movie by showing us a piece of radioactive tracking lint - but it's not really necessary to anything.

Once we cut to Bond though, it's one of best cold opens so far. Director Peter Hunt keeps Bond's face hidden a good long time, building suspense around what the new Bond actor is going to be like. After Bond rescues Tracy from drowning herself (though why does she faint when he picks her up?), he's attacked by a couple of goons and it's the best fight in a Bond film since the cold open of Thunderball. (In fact, the action of On Her Majesty's Secret Service is remarkable and excellent in general, but I'll have more to say about that tonight.)

In addition to Tracy's fainting, there's another inexplicable element of the cold open, which is that the goons threaten her with a knife. It's not immediately questionable in the moment, but once you realize that they're working for her dad, threatening her life makes no sense. That's small stuff overall though. I dig the cold open; even the last line of it with as many problems as that causes (see below).

Top 10 Cold Opens

1. Thunderball
2. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
3. Goldfinger
4. From Russia With Love
5. You Only Live Twice
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

Movie Series Continuity



On Her Majesty's Secret Service is all about the continuity. Without Connery as James Bond, the filmmaker's had a big challenge in getting audiences to accept a new guy. Of course, the movie does acknowledge the change in the cold open with, "This never happened to the other fellow," but after that brief joke, OHMSS tries very hard to reassure the audience that this is the same hero we've come to love.

Moneypenny states the filmmaker's hopes outright at one point. "Same old James. Only more so." The movie's frantic to convince us that nothing has changed. Sometimes it doesn't work so well, like when a janitor whistles the theme to Goldfinger as Bond walks by. Other times, it's great, like when Bond is cleaning out his desk and packs Honey's knife belt from Dr. No, Grant's garrote watch from From Russia With Love, and the rebreather from Thunderball into the From Russia With Love attaché case, accompanied by iconic music from each movie.

So here's the major problem with tracking continuity from the films: It just doesn't work. I mean, I live for figuring out ways for this stuff to fit together, but Bond defies all efforts. The "other fellow" remark makes this an all-new person and supports the popular theory that "James Bond" is as much a code name as 007. So does the fact that Blofeld doesn't recognize him, even though they just met in the previous film.

The flaw in that explanation though is that OHMSS not only intends for Lazenby to be playing the same guy as Connery, it's downright desperate to prove it. Both versions have the same past memories and the events in OHMSS will also be recalled by both Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton's Bonds. Lazenby and Connery's Bonds have the same mannerisms, too. Bond is as much a know-it-all as ever. More, really, since OHMSS reveals him to be an expert on caviar, perfume, and butterflies of all things. He still takes his martinis shaken, not stirred, and he still loves throwing his hat onto Moneypenny's hat rack (not a euphemism).

Incidentally, the hat rack gag makes a couple of appearances in OHMSS. Unlike the last few movies, which have put some kind of humorous spin on the bit, OHMSS plays it straight the first time Bond does it, with the twist just being that it's not Sean Connery throwing the hat. The second time is at Bond's wedding, but I'll talk about that in the next post.

If the Bond Codename theory doesn't hold up, neither does the other, popular, even more fantastical theory that Bond is a Time Lord. That's cute, but it would mean that Bond regenerates from Connery to Lazenby and then back to Connery again (a couple of times, if we accept Never Say Never Again as canon). That's not how it usually works, right? Someone might make the case that Bond in Diamonds Are Forever just traveled there through time from before he regenerated into Lazenby, but that makes no sense when DAF Bond is taking revenge on something that happened to OHMSS Bond. He'd have to be preemptively avenging something that hadn't happened yet. I can't believe I just spent that many words talking about this.

Trying to blend all the Bond films into a cohesive continuity is a fool's game, but it's still fun to watch for recurring elements, like how the first shot of the movie is the Universal Exports sign outside MI6 HQ. That's kind of ironic since the novel has Bond muse that UE has become weakened as a cover due to overuse, but it's still a memorable part of the movie's world.

Like the novel version, the OHMSS movie also introduces Bond's family motto, "The World Is Not Enough," to the series.

And finally, a bit of discontinuity, though it's not a contradiction. Lazenby's Bond is driving an Aston Martin DBS instead of the more familiar DB5. Goldfinger suggested that Bond's Bentley and the DB5 were both government cars, so probably the DBS is, too. It also makes a brief appearance in Diamonds Are Forever.

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