Monday, May 09, 2016

Licence to Swing

Sometimes you watch something and feel almost moved to tears because it is so evocative of the specific time in which it was made.  I had that sort of experience the other day whilst watching On Her Majesty's Secret Service on ITV4.   Quite why it made me want to weep with appreciation for its encapsulation of 'peak sixties', I really don't know - I've seen it many, many times before, (I even still own the 25th Anniversary Edition on VHS).  But for some reason, this screening just made me appreciate it's sixties vibe in a way I never have before - perhaps it is because I've seen it so many times I no longer have to give the plot a second thought anymore, or try to evaluate George Lazenby's performance, leaving my mind free to appreciate other aspects of the film.  Anyway, OHMSS, (as it is known to us aficionados) was the last Bond movie of the sixties, shot in 1969 and released in the UK late that year, but the only one which went any way to actually embracing the ethos of the era.  Don't get me wrong - 007 doesn't renounce violence, grow his hair long and start espousing peace and love, but he does seem a lot more laid back than previously.

Whilst the cinematic Bond might have become something of a sixties icon, the series certainly never reflected the rebellious, counter-culture ethos of the decade.  As played by Sean Connery, Bond was most definitely an establishment figure - hunting down and killing anyone who threatens the cosy post-war status quo.  He might have occasionally had to descend into the murky world of criminality and deal with the odd gangster, but mainly he moved in the worlds of high finance and wealthy privilege.  He dressed in three piece suits and played golf like some kind of extraordinarily violent stock broker.  He certainly has no time for the popular culture of the era - who could forget Connery's curt dismissal of The Beatles in Goldfinger?  But in OHMSS Bond starts wearing those amazing sixties leisure suits, beige with collarless jackets, he exchanges his staid-looking Aston Martin DB6 for a sportier DBS, he even loosens up enough to read Penthouse (and purloin the centre fold, which he admires appreciatively, whereas before he might merely have smirked at it).  Most significantly, he even shows emotions other than violent but repressed rage, exhibiting remarkable sensitivity toward Tracy.

But it isn't just the more relaxed, in touch with his feelings Bond, which makes the film quintessentially 'High Sixties' - it's just everything about it, from art direction to John Barry's score, continually shifting gear from relentless action theme to romantic accompaniment.  The whole colour palette, the costumes, even the cars, scream 'sixties' in a way that no other Bond film of the era had.  Even the Secret Service's headquarters seem to have emerged from their previous gloom and mustiness, with both M and Bond's offices now appearing spacious and well-lit, as if the upbeat spirit of the decade was somehow seeping into them.  The plot too, seems more sixties than those of previous entries.  Blofeld has been transformed from Donald Pleasance's insane criminal mastermind of the previous entry, into Telly Savalas' New York gangster, blackmailing the world not for power or money, but rather recognition of him as the rightful heir to a noble title.  A very apt villain for an era when criminals were increasingly seeking respectability and acceptance as 'legitimate businessmen'.  Also, this time Blofeld isn't stealing nuclear bombs or sabotaging space programmes to achieve his ends, but instead threatening biological warfare. using mutated viruses to target specific species of wheat and livestock.  Again a far more plausible threat, tapping into the environmental concerns which were beginning to gain traction in the sixties.

So, whilst OHMSS certainly isn't the hippie version of Bond, it certainly marks a significant change of pace for the series.  A change that wouldn't really be followed up until Timothy Dalton took over the lead role nearly twenty years later.  OHMSS' immediate successor, Diamonds are Forever in 1971, was a return to formula, (although there was some attempt to make the returning Connery's Bond a bit more relaxed), although Roger Moore's Bond, from 1973's Live and Let Die onwards, was at least more laid back and less of a stuffed shirt, (but no less an establishment figure than Connery's version).  Seen now, Lazenby's single shot at Bond can be seen as a refreshing attempt to contemporise the series.  His performance is perfectly adequate and it is a pity that his acting career wnt off the rails after OHMSS (although he was in the highly entertaining giallo Who Saw Her Die? in the early seventies).



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