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DVD SAVANT

On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Savant Blu-ray Review


On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Blu-ray
MGM Fox
1969 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 142 min. / Street Date October 23, 2012 (Best Buy exclusive, for the moment) / 9.99
Starring George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Ilse Steppat, Lois Maxwell, George Baker, Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn, Angela Scoular, Catherine Schell, Julie Ege, Mona Chong, Sylvana Henriques, Sally Sheridan, Joanna Lumley, Zaheera, Anouska Hempel, Ingrid Back, Helena Ronee.
Cinematography

Film Editor John Glen
Original Music John Barry
Production Design Syd Cain
Written by Richard Maibaum from the novel by Ian Fleming
Produced by Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman
Directed by Peter Hunt

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Always the mongrel puppy in the litter, ignored by the 007 organization as a wrong turn in their 50 year-old gold mine franchise, 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service is indeed a different animal than the rest of the official James Bond movies. After building the legend of Sean Connery as Bond across three exciting, innovative pictures, Danjaq began to lose focus. Thunderball and You Only Live Twice became objects of national pride and ostentatious success, throwing ever-more grandiose sets and battles at the viewer. To save time, Thunderball was filmed by multiple second units working simultaneously on different continents. It was such a rush job that it had to be restructured in the editing room, tossing charactersization and the storyline more or less out the window. You Only Live Twice was a science fiction film treating Japan as an exotic fantasyland. Bond plays his role as if he were a dull hero in a Republic serial from the '40s. By the time the cataclysmic final battle in a rocket base comes along, he's barely more than a supporting player. Bored of the lame roles, wishing to avoid being typecast and unhappy with the unending frenzy of publicity, Sean Connery quit.

Danjaq had to start from square one. They'd made the films out of order, which messes up the continuity in Bond's life. When Bond finally tracks down Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Japan, he's supposed to be obsessed with the idea of avenging the death of his bride Tracy at the finale of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Besides the obvious change of leading player, it's the series' first major break in continuity. How come Blofeld doesn't recognize Bond, from back in that exploding volcano?

Happily, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is so different from the previous Bonds that we accept that it's happening in a parallel universe. James Bond is George Lazenby, a tall, athletic male model with rugged good looks. He's not a bruiser like Connery (who always suggested the instincts of an educated thug) but is instead a gentleman snob in the old sense, more willing to state that his crazy profession is all in the interest of his Queen and Country. Some critics found that Lazenby was more like the Bond of the novels, although Ian Fleming described 007's sexual appeal as more a chemical reaction than a beauty contest. Face it, James Bond really originated as a variation on Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, a hard-chiseled guy who exuded a powerful set of masculine pheromones. Sean Connery carries over some of this thug appeal, while George Lazenby only fully becomes James Bond when he's in action. But when Lazenby is in action he's terrific -- director Peter Hunt and editor John Glen make him look invincible.

The storyline of On Her Majesty's Secret Service has been compared to the saga of a Knight of the Round Table. 'M" (Bernard Lee) removes James Bond (George Lazenby) from the Blofeld case. Bond uses his leave of absence to track down the mysterious adventuress Tracy (Diana Rigg). She's fiercely independent but also mixed-up and suicidal, and when she and Bond fall in love both of their lives may change for the better. Tracy's father is Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), a bandit-turned racketeer as well as a wealthy international industrialist. Hoping that Bond will be the perfect son-in-law, Draco agrees to help him find the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), whose latest cover is developing cures for allergies at Piz Gloria, a super-secure fortress-research clinic atop a Swiss mountain. Blofeld is also trying to establish his credentials as nobility, so Bond disguises himself as a heraldry expert to gain entrance to the remote eyrie. Bond beds two of Blofeld's dozen international patients Ruby and Nancy (Angela Scoular & Catherine Schell), and through them discovers the evil mastermind's plan: the women will be sent home with vials of virus omega, an evil germ with the power to exterminate grain plants and cause worldwide starvation, as in the novel The Death of Grass. Blofeld intends to blackmail the free world into giving him amnesty and recognizing his fraudulent title as "Count de Beauchamp." Before Bond can inform "M", he's caught by Blofeld's cruel assistant Frau Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat), who has suspected him all along.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service breaks with the series' focus on outlandish sci-fi gadgetry to re-imagine Bond as a different, perhaps more traditional heroic character. George Lazenby's Bond is cool and composed as he fights his Moriarty-like archenemy. He's also fallible, a quality he hasn't shown since he was handcuffed to a nuke and locked in a gold vault in Goldfinger. Cold and exhausted in a Christmas crowd at an ice rink, Lazenby seems near defeat. Who should skate into sight but Tracy, as primed and ready for dangerous action as the aerialist Daisy in Georges Franju's Judex. For the first time ever Bond needs a woman outside a bedsheet ... in terms of the sexist '60s, this was a minor revolution.

No scenes of jeopardy are resolved by having Bond pull some ridiculous "Q" gadget out of his pocket -- he instead uses his pockets themselves, as temporary gloves. No timely deliveries of mini-helicopters, life rafts, torpedo backpacks -- Lazenby's Bond is on his own.  1   What we get instead is one terrific action set piece after another, engineered by an editor-turned director and a terrific new master editor. Peter Hunt edited all the previous Bond pictures. He pioneered a jump-cut technique to make fight scenes more exciting, removing a frame here and there to accelerate action. It makes conventional fights in Dr. No look extra-punchy. When the English 'stunt arrangers' saw what was going on, the fights in Goldfinger and Thunderball became exponentially more dynamic than fights seen elsewhere -- Connery's punches seem all the stronger when the moment of "pre-coil" is shortened.

Actually OHMSS is an editorial wonder all the way through, at least in terms of "goosing" standard storytelling conventions. Continuity becomes truly plastic. A shot of Lazenby being slugged twenty feet from the water is match-cut with him splashing into the surf. Another scuffle outside Draco's office might be repetitious, so director Hunt strings together a fast series of smash zooms matched with echoey metallic impact noises. How does Bond slip through alone into Draco's office? Who cares, as it looks terrific. The same goes for every fight in the movie -- no two are the same.

Unlike You Only Live Twice, this show has a reasonable story and Bond is more than just a tourist punching his way through a menu of travelogue situations. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is like a vacation, actually, with a long and loving scene on the Portuguese beach, and the pleasant, Christmasy trip up from an Alpine train through snowy roads, to take a helicopter to Piz Gloria. Shots in the helicopter look real, with lens flares as the sun shines in. When Bond peeks out of his Piz Gloria sleeping suite/prison, a helicopter cruises by. It's obviously very real, not a special effect. The luxury factor of this can't be measured. It's like the sets that are clearly made of expensive building materials -- large oaken beams and polished, bleached wood trim. This is NOT a CGi setting dashed together at a workstation. After building that enormous domed rocket base set for YOLT, designer Ken Adam took a break from Bond to work on other films. Designer Syd Cain fills OHMSS with great settings that don't overwhelm other aspects of the film.

Are you too young to remember how audiences received On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1969? I saw it several times with crowds that were enthusiastic, even though they sorely missed Sean Connery. They laughed at the line, "this never happened to the other guy" but showed disapproval of the unconvincing stunt where Bond jumps twelve feet sideways from the cable to the cable car. They were uncomfortable when Bond and Tracy imitate a Clairol commercial in a montage backed by Louis Armstrong singing "We Have All the Time in the World." The shot of Lazenby shooting a machine gun while sliding on slick ice evoked derisive laughter as well, as if the action were too undignified for our 007. Yet they roared with approval at Blofeld's line, "We'll head them off at the precipice!", which seemed an intentional joke at the old Western cliché, "Head them off at the pass". The most egregious of all glib one-liner overdubs, "He had lots of guts!" was met with both laughs and groans.

But the audience was enthralled in a way not seen very often in the 'cynical' 1960s, what with action pictures pushing into nihilistic determinism -- The Dirty Dozen, The Professionals. James Bond is first and foremost a fantasy, and Lazenby's Bond recovers some of the chivalry of an earlier time -- back when heroines could be just as formidable as heroes. Diana Rigg was already established as the intelligent, ultra-cool action character Emma Peel in her TV show The Avengers. Audiences were on her side when her Tracy cleverly patronizes Blofeld's megalomania as a 'master of the world'. When she fights back, swinging a broken bottle in the chaos of the big battle, the audience went wild. The old formula worked: Bond and Draco appear like the 7th cavalry, come to the rescue with a real Dawn Raid at the top of the world, and we were all thrilled. It's incredible ... how did they film among the rocks and snow, hovering in helicopters and diving into snow banks? You'd think that the winds atop an Alpine peak would be strong enough to make flying very difficult.

In 1969 Warners publicity touted the fact that Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch had more cuts than any American film yet released. Was that true? I don't know. Released about five months later, OHMSS surely surpasses that record. The bobsled sequence alone boggles the brain with its fast cutting. And these precise edits weren't made on a non-linear computer program. Those of us who have had to edit real film on a Moviola or flatbed stand in awe of the talent and professionalism required to choose the correct eight or twelve frames to make an action readable, before slamming another cut onto the screen. And John Glen pulls the climax out of the fire (or snow). We can see that the camera unit didn't get a really good angle of the final bobsled crash. Glen cuts together several shots of the sled and Lazenby's double skittering on the edge of the bobsled run, half off frame, and makes it work. Brilliant stuff.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service has the predictable sexist and even racist jokes. Having black model Sylvana Henriques eat a banana scores on both counts. But it backs off on the series' Cold War BS that pretended that England is the sane mediator between Russia and the U.S., and that its secret service still maintains a long-lost Empire. "M" and Draco exchange small talk about past 'adventures', which makes us wonder where Bond's boss draws the line. If he'll associate with a pesky gangster despot, what about the inexhaustible supply of mad genius terrorists threatening the world with stolen atom bombs? OHMSS manages to make Bond's struggle personal again -- we even accept Blofeld and Bundt bouncing back for vengeance, like Bonnie & Clyde. Although few 1969 viewers felt that the film's final downbeat scene was particularly deep or resonant, it was different. I'm sure that if George Lazenby hadn't gotten completely out of hand, he'd have made a very good Bond for another picture or two, at least. Instead we got Connery holding on to his toupee for a fast payday, followed by fifteen years of Roger Moore's Mack Sennett 007. Moore's lukewarm David Niven imitation probably made the most money for Danjaq, slogging along in a set pattern. Then the general run of action movies -- in particular, Die Hard -- started beating 007 at his own game.

As for me, I still experience nostalgic chills at those first four or five Connery pictures that people now find so dull -- those were the days when seeing a Good Guy shoot first, in cold blood, seemed an unthinkable violation of The Rules. And for out-and-out action fun in a solid adventure spectacle beautifully produced and directed, On Her Majesty's Secret Service still can't be beat.


The Blu-ray of On Her Majesty's Secret Service might have come out three years ago had MGM/Fox not suspended its releases after a first batch of titles. It's also frustrating knowing that this title particular always gets released last -- if they had their way, Danjaq would probably prefer to just ignore it. When the expensive, massive all-Bond-titles Blu-ray set was announced, those of us not in the 1% figured we'd have to wait at least a year to see individual releases. Well, the nice finish to this, at least for U.S. citizens close to large discount stores, is that the remaining unreleased single Bonds were divvied up between three major discount labels, as in-store exclusives.

The whole Bond catalog was reworked for HD starting 9 years ago, with lucky titles like Dr. No and Goldfinger given incredible attention: new hi-res scans from original negatives and exhausting digital makeovers with specialized tools. A number of later titles were carefully optimized from existing HD transfers. Given custom attention, the 'miracle software' improved a lot of flaws from earlier Home Video versions, especially when it came to cleaning up messy, dirt-filled original opticals. Yes, it's revisionism of a sort, if you consider nasty crud and matte lines as part of the original presentation. Other things, like removing wires on miniature jets in Goldfinger, are a matter for debate.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service apparently went through a beautiful cleanup and transfer, but I think it fell victim to a couple of indifferent decisions. Seen in Technicolor prints, the movie is a beauty, with many rich and moody scenes. Some interiors are high key, as in the later, flat-lit Roger Moore movies. But the film's varied scenes were often dark, or set at dawn or dusk. What I must guess has occurred, is that someone at Danjaq saw the final timed playback, noticed that it looked different than later titles in the series, and just said, 'brighten it up'. The result is that everything is about two clicks (refined technical term) brighter. Some colors wash out and dark corners of hotel rooms & mad laboratories are now lit up. Playing cards and white shirts are burned out with little or no detail. Close-ups have white highlights, making Diana Rigg's face seem oily and Lazenby's birthmark stand out like a bit of zombie battle damage. The nighttime ski chase is slightly milky, and we can now see that much of the interior of the prison-tramway gearbox room is a matte painting. In normal darker prints the illusion was perfect.

Don't get me wrong, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is very watchable and you may not notice anything "off". This Blu-ray is twice as sharp and clean as the first DVD. On many scenes, the brightening is not particularly noticeable. I say this only knowing how much better it originally looked. The opening rescue on the beach once took place at dawn or sunset, backlit before the sun. Even more telling, early shots of the Dawn Raid on Piz Gloria were definitely redder, right up through the effects angle of Draco's helicopters shooting holes in the windows. Look at the reverse angle of Diana Rigg toasting Blofeld -- they couldn't time out the reddish highlight reflection on the wall to the right. The color of the sky through the windows looked like that, until the battle proper begins.


Small stuff, perhaps. I happily bought OHMSS knowing it would look like this.

Also something of an annoyance: in the 5.1 mix, played back on my standard monitor, the music level is low. John Barry's "new style" Bond music action cues originally slammed in, but now they sneak into the soundtrack. Moments where I could tell it was too low include the saxophone cue when Lazenby first sees Blofeld's patients in Pix Gloria's Alpine room. That was originally a big swell of an entrance. When Irma Bundt's Mercedes machine-guns Bond in the phone booth, the action cue came in much louder as well. The music was originally very 'up front' for the entire picture, and it is now pulled back, perhaps 15% quieter.

The Blu-ray's confusing menu system leads us to all the extras from the earliest disc release about 11 years ago, the DVD set with many elaborate commentaries, docus, promo reels etc. The main making-of docu is okay, but its interviews show a lack of control. Credibility is lost when actors and technicians get away with saying fibs about Lazenby doing things like hanging 3,000 feet in the air, when a brave (crazy) stuntman was clearly used. George Lazenby has told at least three version of how he left the role (fired? quit? a mistake?) and tells at least two of them here -- putting the blame on an associate. Lazenby may have been a spoiled stinker but he's also a pretty cool guy, and the first job of a promo editor is to protect the talent, even from their own words. Just the same, I found most of the docu quite informative.

Oh, the film clips in the docus have all been replaced with new-transfer versions, so don't look to them to see earlier color values.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is now out on a decent if not ideal Blu-ray transfer -- it's my idea of a perfect action adventure movie, and I'm happy to finally be able to sing its praises.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, On Her Majesty's Secret Service Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good, with a serious, unnecessary issue
Sound: Good, with a serious, unnecessary issue
Languages and Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Supplements: many -- the full complement of extras from the old DVD special edition.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 26, 2012

Footnotes:

1. You know, in the chateau fight in the beginning of Thunderball, just how exactly did Bond hide his jet-pack backpack on the roof before entering to pay his respects to the widow? Things are a little more coordinated, and less patently absurd, in OHMSS.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson

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