A Rambling Discourse

Mr/Dr Soderbergh @ 2013-11-01

Having made films I feel were not entirely understood or appreciated upon their initial release (or ever, even), I have a soft spot—about two inches in diameter, just below my right armpit—for films that endured a similar fate. In this case, I believe Peter Hunt made a great Bond film that wasn’t considered great when it came out.

For me there’s no question that cinematically ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is the best Bond film and the only one worth watching repeatedly for reasons other than pure entertainment (certainly it’s the only Bond film I look at and think: I’m stealing that shit). Shot to shot, this movie is beautiful in a way none of the other Bond films are—the anamorphic compositions are relentlessly arresting—and the editing patterns of the action sequences are totally bananas; it’s like Peter Hunt (who cut the first five Bond films) took all the ideas of the French new wave and blended them with Eisenstein in a Cuisinart to create a grammar that still tops today’s how fast can you cut aesthetic, because the difference here is that each of the shots—no matter how short—are real shots, not just additional coverage from the hosing-it-down school of action, so there is a unification of the aesthetic of the first unit and the second unit that doesn’t exist in any other Bond film. And, speaking of action, there are as many big set pieces in OHMSS as any Bond film ever made, and if that weren’t enough, there’s a great score by John Barry, some really striking sound work, and what can you say about Diana Rigg that doesn’t start with the word WOW?

So what’s wrong with it? George Lazenby, but not for the reasons you might think. I actually like him—a lot—and think he could have made a terrific Bond had he continued (allegedly he decided before the shoot was over he would only play the part once). What seems obvious to me, though, is no one was helping him during the shoot or the edit (they won’t even let him finish a fucking sentence onscreen). It feels like everyone was so focused on what he wasn’t (Sean Connery) that they didn’t take the time to figure out what he was (a cool-looking dude with genuine presence and great physicality). For instance, they should have known that a lot of the one-liners that would have worked with Connery don’t work with Lazenby. This isn’t because he’s bad, it’s because his entire affect is different, less glib. This, to me, is a lack of sensitivity and understanding on the part of the filmmakers and not a shortcoming of the lead actor, because Lazenby has one thing you can’t fake, which is a certain kind of gravitas. Despite this, there is no attempt to bring it out or amplify it, which is a huge missed opportunity.  Also, Lazenby has a vulnerability that Connery never had—there are scenes in which he looks legitimately terrified and others in which he convinces us that he is in love with Tracy (particularly in the final scene), which brings us to another reason OHMSS is so distinctive—it’s the only Bond film with a female character that isn’t a cartoon, and the only film in which Bond is so completely frustrated with his bosses he wants and tries to quit. In fact, everything about the film suggests a reboot before the idea of rebooting was even in the air, much less fashionable (especially the ending, which you could never get away with today).

Another (albeit small) problem for me is the cheesiness of the process shots in all of the action sequences, particularly the skiing stuff. Again, the editing patterns in these sequences are so stunning I’m able to disregard the VFX and appreciate what Peter Hunt was trying to do, but man, they are really cheesy.

The third problem is the film is too fucking long, the longest Bond film until Casino Royale nearly three decades later. One huge trim should have been made, from 1:06:00 to 1:14:45. No new narrative information is transmitted in this section, it’s just Bond screwing chicks and stuff we learn eventually in other scenes. Also, later on, I’m not sure of the efficacy of Blofeld locking Bond in an engine room with a pretty obvious escape route, but I guess that’s what was handy.

Obviously none of these quibbles affect my love for the film, and I am far from the first person to champion its many merits (the film now regularly scores quite high in the Bond fan polls). I just thought it was about time I memorialized my feelings, given the fact I have an autographed picture of Lazenby as Bond in my house.