On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the only Bond film to feature George Lazenby, and it occupies a strange place in the Bond canon, especially since Sean Connery returned for Diamonds Are Forever. The film goes to some length to establish continuity with the first five Connery films, bringing in Q in the very first scene, before taking us through a credit sequence that pairs clips from the earlier films with an hourglass motif, as if to emphasise both the passing of time and the overall endurance of the Bond franchise. You sense the franchise gradually dissociating itself from any one Bond here. Accordingly, for the very first time, in the third act, we hear the Bond theme in a scene where Bond himself doesn’t appear at all.
Despite this insistence on continuity (or because of it) there’s also a profound anxiety in Secret Service about Lazenby’s ability to take over the reins. The main plot point revolves around a biological weapon that destroys fertility, and threatens the extinction of all species, reflecting the franchise’s concerns about its own longevity. Director Peter R. Hunt can never quite bring himself to commit to Lazenby in the same way as Connery, starting with the curious opening sequence. After eliding Bond’s face for the first couple of shots, we see him mainly in silhouette, on a beach at sunset, as the compositions alternate between the darkened sky and the brightness of the sand and waves. Like many of the later scenes in the film, this is shot as day-for-night, paving the way for a curiously muted and oversaturated tonal palette.
This opening scene prefigures the main body of Secret Service, which takes place against a similarly glary landscape – the ski fields of France. Yet it also prefigures a film that is never quite game to take Bond out of silhouette, or light him as directly and frankly as Connery. More of the action is shot at night than any previous Bond film, while even the daylit sequences mainly resemble day-for-night, suffusing the action with an odd blue tint. At times, this segues into deep purple, the main colour anchor of the film, as Hunt cautiously integrates the psychedelia sweeping Europe into the narrative drive. In one scene, a hippie gathering of women are drugged into a trance, while many of the action scenes have a trippy vibe – for example, when Bond is chased across a crowded skating rink, fireworks exploding overhead, while continually dodging a hallucinatory random stranger wearing a crazy clown costume.
When Hunt does occasionally take the action outside, our eyes are so accustomed to this gloom that the ski fields are almost blinding, meaning that most of the film is too dark or too glary to fully see Bond. As a result, the narrative is heavily driven by disguise, reflecting the birth of the Mission: Impossible franchise in 1996 – and since Lazenby is quite anonymous and inexperienced as an actor, he tends to work quite well in disguise. For the middle third of the film, he infiltrates a Spectre lair in the mountains while posing as a genealogist – a Scot with an interest in his ancestral lineage – and actually depends on dubbing to get the accent right.
Connery’s Bond could never encounter the psychedelic infusions of Secret Service. If anything, his persona was an affront to the counter-culture – a way of claiming promiscuity as a matter of old-world gentlemanly charm, rather than sexual liberation. Lazenby’s Bond is more open-ended and unformed, meaning he has more room to play around with this new psychedelic space, and to reshape the character as his own. In his hands, Bond is more of a suave romantic – more “James” than “Bond” – with a more eclectic set of interests. We learn that he has a formidable knowledge of caviar, but also lepidoptery, which is perhaps why posing as the Scottish genealogist doesn’t seem to diverge all that much from his ongoing evolving persona.
At the same time, Lazenby’s Bond exudes what can only be described as an Australian swagger – an inherent irreverence that occasionally tips the film over into New Wave beats, as when Bond directly address the camera just before the credits roll. Australians enjoy a uniquely and trashily tabloid relationship with the British monarchy, so the conjunction of an Australian actor with the overt focus on Her Majesty gives this film an added campiness as well. Add to that the fact that Lazenby started as a model and you have a new kind of swagger on display here. Fitted out in very tight clothing, he struts through every scene like he’s walking down the catwalk, preening himself with an effeteness Connery would never tolerate.
This leads to perhaps the most unusual aspect of Secret Service – the romantic subplot, and Bond’s first marriage. While the film still lays the misogyny on pretty think, there’s a new interest in how Bond might look as a romantic lead. Screenwriter Richard Maiubaum sets the scene with an early sequence in Corsica, where Marc-Ange Draco, the head of a major crime syndicate, offers his daughter’s hand in marriage. Set to sentimental strings, this sequence feels like late Italian neorealism, recalling the statelier prestige pieces of Visconti and De Sica as we slow down to a slightly turgid “literary” pacing against magnificent Italian backdrops.
Unfortunately, this paves the way for the most dialogue-heavy Bond film so far – and a first act that is so dense with exposition that it’s almost impossible to follow, even for a Bond film. Secret Service was billed as being closer to Ian Fleming’s novel that any of the Connery films, but that’s not necessarily an asset here, since it actually makes you realise how much of the Bond charm lies in the flamboyant departures from Fleming’s stuffier vision, such as the volcano lair in You Only Live Twice, which doesn’t appear anywhere in the novel. Worse, we only access this romantic subplot, and Bond only starts to date Draco’s daughter, Countess Tracy di Vicenzo, by way of the most revolting and arcane misogynistic configurations so far.
For not only does Draco offer Tracy’s hand in marriage to Bond, but insists that his daughter needs to be totally dominated by a man in order to achieve self-fulfilment. The strings swell as Draco outlines this plan of domination, and continue to build as we shift to a montage sequence that feels pulled from a sentimental romance – Bond and Tracy playing on the beach, going to the zoo, and finally shopping for a wedding ring. By the time Bond has proposed, he only seems romantic by virtue of taking the domination project slowly, but you never really feel like he’s left it behind. Instead, he simply outsources his misogyny to his father-in-law, who acts as his surrogate, a mouthpiece for his own revolting views on women.
For that reason, I didn’t find the closing scenes of Secret Service as revolutionary in the Bond universe as some critics claim. Sure, we see Bond married, and see him cry for the first time, when Tracy is shot, but all that sentimentality just masks an even more voracious misogyny – a toxic fusion encapsulated in Bond’s final address to his wife: “Mrs Bond, Shut Up.” What is original here is the amount of screen time given to Diana Rigg, who is easily the best Bond girl of all time, bringing a genuine charisma to the screen that makes her an equal protagonist, even though she doesn’t appear quite as much as her star presence would seem to demand.
Yet despite Rigg’s presence, Lazenby’s originality, and the sublime alpine backdrops, Hunt is ultimately a lesser director than Guy Hamilton, or even Terence Young. Although Secret Service has been reclaimed as a pinnacle of the Bond canon in recent years, I found it quite turgid overall – difficult to follow, oddly incompetent when it comes to major set pieces, and plagued with a talkiness and nondescript sense of place in the first half. Certainly, the skiing sequences are spectacular, and set the bar for all skiing cinematography to come, while there are also some great scenes in and around the chairlift that leads to Blofeld’s mountain lair, and a terrific finale on the cusp of an avalanche. But Secret Service finally feels somewhat less than the sum of its parts, which makes Lazenby’s presence even more anomalous and offbeat, especially as Diamonds Are Forever doubled down on its continuity with You Only Live Twice.