Having recently sat down again to re-watch OHMSS I can happily report that it still is one of the best Bond films out there (and just one of my favorite film’s full stop). Often talk surrounding the movie seems to be centered on how OHMSS is a more emotional and human story for Bond, but I feel that over the years what has been forgotten is quite how entertaining and thrilling the film truly is.
Peter Hunt’s contribution to the story is considerable as tonally the film feels like an evolution in the franchise. Hunt gives the movie a large, epic and romantic sweep whilst maintaining a very classy and elegant feel to the proceedings.
Traditionally Bond films have been seen as personality-less affairs directorially, but this is far from the case when it comes to OHMSS. Whilst the previous five films looked great, it's clear that with Hunt at the helm the style of the film came first for him above anything else. The is evident just from the witnessing the first few moments of the picture; despite being in such familiar sets like M and Moneypenny’s office, Hunt and his cinematographer Michael Reed find new ways to shoot those sets which had previously become rather dry and drab looking over the years.
Furthermore, the entire first segment of the film has an extremely glamorous, lavish and exclusive feel about it. Reed’s photography is very elegant and opulent and his framings and compositions are really exquisite. No shot is wasted in this film; nothing looks or feels like it’s mere coverage coming from the second unit. For instance, the ‘love’ montage sequence would be easy to dismiss had it not been for Reed’s excellent photography. The film looks expensive with the production design by Syd Cain looking very lavish, baroque and classical.
Hunt’s major contribution to the Bond mythos was his unusual editing patterns in those early Bond pictures, so it was somewhat inevitable that when he stepped up to the mantel to direct his own film that the editing would be equally as kinetic. The editing of OHMSS is off the wall and very avant-garde. Steven Soderburgh in his review of the film pointed out that Hunt took some of the cues that were emerging in the French new wave and applied them to the action movie template and, my God, does it looks brilliant. Often I found myself flinching, wincing and ducking for cover. It’s just a very impressive and experimental piece of filmmaking from Hunt.
The film belongs to Diana Rigg. She is mesmerising and like Bond I found myself getting more and more smitten with her the longer she was on screen. I love everything about her; starting with her 1960’s wardrobe, her mischievous smile and of course her elegant manner. By this point in the 1060's the Bond films had something of a reputation for not typically having well-written or developed female characters. The previous five films had pretty lacklustre female leads so it’s fantastic to see the emphasis here on creating a great character and Rigg rises to the task.
Tracy is a rather tragic character; when we first meet her she’s driving a fast car and wearing a stunning dress on the way to commit suicide. She’s clearly extremely reckless and has some noticeably self-destructive tendencies beyond suicide, for instance, at the casino and bets big with money she doesn’t have. Why does she do it? I suppose because she can and possibly she may want to get caught. This is of course all a matter of interpretation but the patterns in her behaviour are clearly crying for help. Beyond the tragic dimension to the character, Tracy is of course very intellectual and witty and more than a foil for 007. By finding Tracy and taking her under his wing, Bond in many ways is acting out a commonly-held male fantasy in the opening act of the film. After finding this young and broken woman 007 begins his attempts to mend her and put her back together again.
Nonetheless, by doing so Bond offers her a future, something she never previously could imagine, only then for it to be quickly robbed from her. It’s a tragic character arc and by far the most complex ever to appear in a Bond movie. It may be the chief reason why people rejected the film back in 1969, a recent Variety review also voiced these concerns saying what they expect from Bond is sheer thrills and OHMSS felt like a vague attempt to make an art-house action film. I totally disagree with this and think the film has amazing weight and I feel this element of the story is likely the reason why OHMSS has provoked such divisive opinions beyond the normal discourse of who’s the best villain? Girl? Etc. I think it’s the main reason why after 45 years the reception for the film has changed considerably as the far from a triumphant happy ending is in fact a very complex and emotionally tragic one.
By choosing the path of ‘The Secret Agent’, Bond cannot live a normal life. In OHMSS, Bond is the most human we have ever seen him and as a result he pays the price. Because of the profession he’s chosen there will always be ghosts around him and people lurking in the shadows. He even acknowledges this when speaking to Tracy in the barn but he still proposes. But as we discover it was foolhardy for 007 to think he could drive happily off into the sunset. What’s more tragic about the ending is Bond’s reaction as we see him initially in denial about Tracy’s demise while clutching her body. It’s a very poignant scene and the most grown-up thing yet to appear in a Bond film.
So let’s move on to the chief issue with the film: George Lazenby. It seems obvious and slightly reductive to compare Lazenby to Sean Connery but you just can’t help it. Connery had a lot of charm and charisma and it really oozed off the screen. Lazenby is somewhat lacking in comparison, he’s a bit bland and never really registers at all. Instead of really taking possession of the role he instead comes across as nothing more than an adequate replacement. Connery had a certain animal magnetism in the way he stood and he had a certain presence built around his alpha-male persona. I’m not calling Lazenby a beta-male but when Connery walked through a casino and turned heads I believed it, with Lazenby it feels forced. Apparently Lazenby was a real arrogant prick throughout filming; I just wished some of that showed on screen, as he seems far from relaxed, cocky or nonchalant. Let’s face it: George Lazenby is not cool.
However, he’s fantastic in the fight scenes and he has such an amazing physicality and holds his own more than any other Bond. He’s also very handsome and Hunt has decked him out in some very fine clobber throughout the film.
Had this been a routine Bond film with little to no character development Lazenby would have done brilliantly, however, OHMSS actually presents Bond with some character development and motivation. The Bond we meet in OHMSS is obsessive; he’s been on the hunt for Blofeld for two years, he’s impulsive and petulant; look at that scene with M when he resigns. There was a lot more meat on the bone for an actor to chew so it’s a shame to see Lazenby hold back so much. Take the scene after Tracy is captured and M says there is no way he can sanction a rescue mission. That would have been a great time to let Lazenby really go for it, but once again he's too passive. Maybe Hunt should have given him more assistance and groomed his leading man more (clearly the director's mind was more on the visuals and the overall look and tone of the film).
The thing that is most disappointing is that Connery always complained that the Bond role was not taxing enough on him but the character in OHMSS really would have given him an opportunity to flex his thespian muscles but he declined only to return in the lightweight DAF and NSNA. Just imagine Sean Connery and Diana Rigg on screen together? Fantastic stuff. Instead we got some guy called George Lazenby (Maybe Rigg could have played Bond? That’s not an awful idea).
The irritating thing is that during the scenes with Rigg, Lazenby’s performance always improves. Furthermore, he’s brilliant in those last few minutes so it’s a shame that he couldn’t keep the momentum throughout the shoot. On the merit of the final scene alone I genuinely think that had Lazenby stuck around he could have really have become a great 007. Opposed to an adequate one.
The biggest problem with the film comes around halfway through the story when Bond goes to Piz Gloria and things get weird and a bit surreal. His impersonation of Hilary Bray and the later -fest just go on for too long. It really draws your attention to quite how ridiculous the whole segment is, had the thing moved faster its inadequacies could have been quickly paved over. Soderburgh in his essay gave a great note where he suggested where a good ten minutes could have been cut from this segment allowing the film to run a little faster. However, despite these criticisms there is a slight goofy charm to the ‘Angels of Death’ sequence and the brainwashing scene has a sorta-weird 60’s trippy vibe which may be slightly kitsch looking today but is still a little endearing (plus we are all guilty of looking at the girls and picking our favourite). In addition, there is something really creepy about hearing Telly Savalas’s voice eerily being played over the scene.
The final third of the film is fantastic and truly contains some of the most thrilling pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. The action is breakneck and truly beautiful to look at. The ski chases through the Swiss Alps have an almost David Lean-esque quality (if Lean shot crazy manic chase scenes). Beyond the great photography the actual physical feats being performed by the stunt men are mightily impressive. The story going on throughout the chase is brilliant: it all starts with Bond’s escape from the engine room and leads to his escape through the mountains before he loses a ski (!) And has to go around on one. The sequence is capped with a tense moment with Bond standing over a precipice trying to strangle a bloke to avoid detection. It’s such a fun entertaining action-sequence full of big loud moments and followed by quieter tenser ones which makes it all the more engaging and inventive.
Beyond this, the action in the latter half of the film does not let up because soon we are hurled into a car chase. This segment is probably my favorite scene in the film mainly because it’s a real showpiece for Diana Rigg. Beyond the frenetic and brutal photography I can’t help but get giddy when I see Rigg lick her lips or see her cheeky grin throughout that scene. Tracy is a great character and it’s clear that the filmmakers are trying to ingratiate her on the audience so we understand why Bond is falling in love with her as we simultaneously do as well. The avalanche scene is also very impressive and genuinely (and I use this word with it’s original intent) awesome.
In addition, I found myself really liking Blofeld’s plot. Biological warfare and the infertility of the human race is a pretty good super-villain scheme for any film and in OHMSS the stakes feel genuinely high. Beyond that the thing that is of most interest is that Blofeld isn’t after “hundreds of millions of dollars” he wants amnesty and recognition of his title. It’s a nice little twist for character and I really like Savalas in the role. He’s so articulate and has such a great menacing look and an imposing physicality. Also it’s always stuck with me the way he holds and smokes his cigarette, only a real dastardly guy would ever smoke a fag like that.
In terms of the production side of things; John Barry delivers another stellar soundtrack while Maurice Binder’s work is somewhat lacking and rather bland considering his contribution on the three previous Bond films. In addition, the script by Richard Maibum and Simon Raven is very elegant and surprisingly intellectual. The locations are also very beautiful, I had recently watched GF and was struck with how boring the film looked, so I'm happy to report that there is much to marvel at in the 6th Bond adventure.
The supporting performances are great with Gabrelle Ferzetti really standing out. It’s also nice to see more of Moneypenny and M, with both Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell giving their best turns yet. Maxwell in particular stands out, she embodies the image of the sexy ‘60’s secretary who applies a bit of lippy while her boss isn’t looking and she has a genuinely touching final moment with Bond at the end.
So in summary, OHMSS has it’s faults but they don't dampen my love and admiration for the film. It’s a grand, epic and romantic film that really pushed and redefined the parameters of action-filmmaking. The real hero here is Peter Hunt. His direction is superb; he nailed the tone, look and style of the Bond world excellently. If you want to get transported back to the 1960’s, I suggest you watch OHMSS tonight.