The best Bond movie of all time

Diana Rigg and George Lazenby (both above) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Diana Rigg and George Lazenby (both above) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. PHOTO: EON PRODUCTIONS

On Her Majesty's Secret Service, released 50 years ago this month, features emotional depth, solid action and a smart script

NEW YORK • The trailer for the new James Bond movie No Time To Die has been released.

And it seems timely to ask: Which is the best 007 film?

The odds are on Goldfinger, a 1964 entry that set the big-screen Bond pattern for outsized plots, lavish sets, beautiful women, clever gadgets and frequent laughs.

But among Bond purists, the winner is the often overlooked On Her Majesty's Secret Service, released 50 years ago this month.

OHMSS, as it is commonly known among hardcore fans, starred George Lazenby, a first-time actor, in his only appearance as 007.

Every other Bond actor, in an official franchise overseen by Eon Productions, has played the role at least twice.

What sets OHMSS apart, too, is its faithfulness to the original Ian Fleming novel, virtual absence of fancy gadgets and emotional depth.

Bond falls in love and marries, only to see his bride, Teresa Draco (played by Diana Rigg), murdered by organisation Spectre.

Not widely appreciated at first, OHMSS has won increasing respect over five decades.

Devotees hail its action-packed direction by Peter Hunt, smart script by Richard Maibaum, music - both dynamic and romantic - by John Barry and a mastermind criminal scheme involving brainwashed young women unwittingly conducting germ warfare.

"Shot to shot, this movie is beautiful in a way none of the other Bond films is," director Steven Soderbergh blogged in 2013. Moreover, it is "the only Bond film with a female character that isn't a cartoon".

In The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia, author Steven Jay Rubin called it "a truly epic James Bond film with a story to match".

Yet, to general film fans, OHMSS is an outlier, even an aberration.

Much of the explanation lies with the casting of Lazenby, an Australian actor. A former model and car salesman, he assumed the role that Sean Connery made famous after the first five Bond movies.

Connery quit the part after You Only Live Twice in 1967. But he returned after OHMSS for Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 - and for the non-Eon production Never Say Never Again in 1983.

Indeed, there was so much uncertainty about how to present Lazenby to a curious and even sceptical public that in some advertisements, his face was deliberately obscured. Maibaum even suggested a scene in which 007 has cosmetic surgery to confuse his enemies.

"I'm told that mine was the biggest screen test in history," Lazenby, 80, said in a telephone interview from his home in Santa Monica, California.

"I think there were 800 applicants and 300 screen tests. They tested me for four months. They tested me every which way - fights, horseback-riding and swimming."

Lazenby had big shoes to fill and some critics thought he filled them well enough. Other voices were harsher. His "acting is non-committal to the point of being minus", wrote The New York Post.

Hunt chose Rigg, who had recently come off The Avengers, as the chief Bond Girl.

"I know why he called me," Rigg said in a telephone interview.

"George was an inexperienced actor, so they decided to pair him with an experienced actress. I hope I did help him. For someone who had never done a movie before, he was quite good."

But the production was fraught with on-set troubles. "Hunt never spoke to me again after the first day of shooting," Lazenby recalled. "He wouldn't even talk to me after the movie."

Hunt, who died in 2002, said his hands-off approach was deliberate. "I wanted that feeling of isolation," he told Rubin. "That is Bond. He's a loner. George wasn't experienced enough to interpret this feeling of utter emptiness."

It has been widely reported that OHMSS was a box-office failure, largely because of Lazenby's performance. The movie did substantially underperform You Only Live Twice.

But OHMSS was still one of the highest-grossing films of the year.

Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli were prepared to sign Lazenby to a multi-picture contract.

Instead, even before the movie was released, Lazenby announced he would not resume the role.

It has been said he was advised to drop it by Mr Ronan O'Rahilly, who created offshore station Radio Caroline.

The anti-establishment Mr O'Rahilly apparently convinced Lazenby that Bond was an anachronism who would not survive in the age of Woodstock and Easy Rider.

"I'm glad I didn't do another one," Lazenby said. "I didn't want to be known as Bond. The only time I had regrets was when I was broke."

In the 50 years since his brief moment in the Bond sun, he has continued to act, but only in minor roles.

Rigg said: "I could never understand why George behaved as he did because he was given such a glorious opportunity and he threw it all away. I'm sorry for him, if you want to know. At some stage, it just went to his head."

Lazenby and Rigg said they have not kept in touch. "I don't think one way or the other about Diana," Lazenby said.

Rigg said: "Oh goodness, no, he wouldn't come near me."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2019, with the headline 'The best Bond movie of all time'. Print Edition | Subscribe