On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter R. Hunt, 1969)

ohmss-3Having recently taken it upon myself to revisit all of the canon James Bond films in chronological order, some for the first time since childhood, one thing became very clear, very quickly: most of these films are thunderingly mediocre on every level, no more so than in their lack of interest in pushing the limits of cinematic form. From the very beginning the series eschewed artistic innovation in favour of middle-of-the-road dependability. In the Connery era, the costumes, sets, colours, gadgets, sex, and violence could evolve with the times, but the means of arranging and propelling them on screen remained prim, efficient, and more or less unchanged.

The template: unfussy and clean compositions, standard high key lighting, pristine continuity editing, rich palettes, and perhaps an occasional Hitchcockian flourish. A certain sequence here or there might allow room to play around with pacing for effect – the train fight in From Russia With Love, or the protracted dreaminess of the underwater battles in Thunderball – but for the most part, business as usual means keeping things coolly focused and more or less tied to the rudiments of establishing Bond in classical cinematic space.

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There is one brief exception. You Only Live Twice, shot by the great Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia) has an astonishing helicoptered wide shot of Bond fighting his way across a rooftop. It’s a stunningly playful tangent, all the more thrilling and surprising for inhabiting an otherwise suffocating and dead-on-arrival film.

The only saving grace of slogging through James Bond in order is that when things really shake up, they register with much greater immediacy and urgency than if isolated. Thus, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in a flurry of ideas and images, explodes with a furiousness unrivalled in the rest of the series. It took seven films and the departure of its originating superstar, but the Bond series finally made a consciously thoughtful and heartfelt contribution to pop cinema.

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Right away we can see that Bond has finally entered the world of Antonioni, if not necessarily yet that of Cahiers: a man and a woman alone on a desolate beach. With its monochromatic tone and waning light, a tone of uniform gloom opens the proceedings: for the first time, an existential angst pushes its way to the surface. Owing to the recasting of the role and the need to provide a proper curtain raise for George Lazenby, Hunt elects to hide Bond’s face until he is ready. And so, our first glimpses of 007 are in fragment, or in silhouette, as he surveils Tracy Vicenza. This is more than a practical bit of showmanship, however: Bond as silhouetted profile will become the film’s most important visual motif.

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Not for the first time are we seeing Bond see, but this is the first time he sees without an end goal in mind. His surveillance stems from curiosity, not from knowledge or anticipation. Again, this is a first: a Bond who can be surprised, who doesn’t know everything about the situation about to unfold. Whether incidental or not, suddenly a range of possibilities for Bond as an emotional being have opened up.

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Not only is Bond’s face obscured, creating a lush sense of mystery and inscrutability, but we are immediately situated in his POV as he uses a sniper scope to watch Tracy wander into the sea. Hunt holds this POV telephoto while zooming out far beyond the plausibility of Bond’s device to establish context. Hunt is already taking immediate liberties with the realism of the image to place us directly at the centre of Bond’s emotional processes. We discover at the same time as Bond what Tracy’s intention is, and when we cut suddenly back to Bond bolting into the ocean to save her, he may as well have moved on our command.

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Bond’s rescue is played in a chain of wides and extreme wides that effectively anonymize his presence. This isn’t about a hero charging in to save the day; it’s the connection of two people isolated in a vast emptiness. The existential concerns of the age have finally penetrated Bond’s consciousness.

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The fight that follows is similarly expressive – again mostly in silhouette. In its stark imagery it emphasizes desperation and futility. For the first time since the train fight with Grant, violence is brutal again. Hunt makes full use of the visual potential of the surf, every punch and splash cascading drops everywhere, arguably making this film an early adopter of the particle aesthetics of modern action cinema.

The editing is immediately more abrasive, using jump cuts and a constantly roving camera to brutally compress movements into flashes of momentum. Hunt has actually been working up to this on previous Bond films (he edited the first three) but here he elevates it into a genuinely visceral commentary on the mythos of Bond’s ferocity and will. And so, for the first time, we see something astonishing: a James Bond film is actively thinking through an idea with film form. Bond is a hurricane to his enemies and this is the first film to attempt to express, at length, the sheer kineticism of Bond’s fierceness with jump cuts and smash zooms (an idea pushed even further when Bond meets Draco).

This scene, like so many in the film, mixes gorgeous location photography with awful and mismatched rear-projection studio inserts. And yet, jarring as it is, it only adds to the sense that the Bond we are witnessing is something beyond what we knew previously: a force transcending all physical boundaries at the same time that he is becoming more and more humanized. The previous films created and sustained the myth of invincibility via self-possession. What set Bond apart was his ability to stay cool even when being momentarily out-stepped (never outwitted); OHMSS immediately dismantles this legacy and reassembles it as a purely physical fact, making Bond as first and foremost a genius of improvisation and athletic intuition (an idea which was more or less afterwards discarded until the Craig years).

The entirety of this scene is mostly played as a series of silhouettes struggling against the departing sun. It has a deeply primordial feeling to it, simple in design but charged with a host of meanings: a rebirth from water and sand. Nothing but physical grace marks out Bond from his interlopers; the ultimate agent is really one more lonely and isolated being in a great swath of emptiness. In this one scene Hunt resets the emotional landscape of James Bond so completely that anything is possible – even true vulnerability.

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This motif of Bond in silhouette returns throughout. It foregrounds the darkness at the heart of Fleming’s creation while throwing him into relief against the possible avenues of life and light around him. This is the only film to suggest the state of Bond’s soul so intensely and directly. Even within the trappings of civilization, OHMSS is the story of a man with a single light constantly chasing his back. What happens when he turns to embrace it?

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But there is more: the silhouette makes one last return; not technically a silhouette, just a plain well-lit profile. But it’s a profile we’ve been seeing for the entire film, and when we see it, we understand why.

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There are other images in this film we haven’t discussed – the extreme perspective depth staging throughout, the use of layered glass surfaces, the comfort with flares and other artifacts, the pure abstraction of the bobsled finale. It is a film brimming with confidence, feeling its way through the visceral and spatial implications of action cinema without losing sight of such shenanigans as they relate to Bond’s inner life. Until Skyfall, this was the only chapter that succeeded in exteriorizing the idea of a Bond who hurts purely through imagery. This never happened to the other fellow, indeed.

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