M (Bernard Lee) is wondering what has happened to spy James Bond 007 (George Lazenby), not knowing he is in Portugal. At this moment, he's driving by the coast when he is overtaken by a young woman in a sports car, and seeing her stop further up the road, he draws up and takes a telescope from the glove compartment to see if he can spot her. When he does see her, he realises she is walking into the sea in a suicide attempt and rushes down the beach to save her, wading in after her to sweep her up in his arms and take her to safety. However, just as he is about to introduce himself properly, there's a gun pointed at his head and two thugs threatening to execute him; Bond fights back, but by the time he has overpowered his assailants, the woman, Tracy (Diana Rigg) has escaped. "This never happened to the other fella," Bond wryly observes...
And with that opening, pre-credits sequence, you can tell that this is not your usual Bond movie, and also that it's aware of it's past, aware enough to make references to its successful predecessors. Based on the book by Ian Fleming, this script was adapted by Richard Maibaum, and for all its light hearted moments, there's something of the forced jollity about On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It's as if the story is being told by a man trying to see the funny side, but acknowledging that the tale has a tragic ending, and with that a serious, even wistful, aspect provided by Bond's relationship with Tracy.
What everyone recalls about this film is that it was the only one starring Lazenby, a former model and car salesman who bailed out of the series after this instalment, not because the film didn't rake in the cash - it did - but because he thought Bond movies were becoming old hat by the start of the seventies. It's not quite Pete Best leaving the Beatles, but there have been better career moves. In truth, first time actor Lazenby doesn't inhabit the role as ideally as Sean Connery, but here that's by no means a bad thing as he's a more vulnerable Bond, a character you're supposed to feel genuinely worried about when he gets into trouble.
And if you can look past the fact that he wasn't Connery - he wasn't even Timothy Dalton - Lazenby is very well suited to this entry in the series. As for Rigg, she starts off appropriately frosty considering this film takes place largely in snow covered Swiss mountains, not your average Bond Girl, more of a Bond Woman, and a damaged soul as well (although she should have been offered wittier lines). It's up to Bond to thaw her icy exterior thanks initially to a deal struck with her father, crime boss Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), where Bond will marry Tracy in return for details of the whereabouts of Blofeld (a smarmily menacing Telly Savalas), who 007 has been searching fruitlessly for these past two years.
But what do you know, once the couple get to know each other, they get along really well, and eventually fall in love. While that happens, Bond gets the location of Blofeld's lair and poses as a genealogist to infiltrate the mountaintop hideaway. If Lazenby has seemed like an impostor up to this point, ironically when he adopts his disguise he finally belongs in the film, playing the stuffy, faultlessly polite academic who gets to seduce the ladies who are being kept in Blofeld's base - he must have thought all his Christmasses had come at once when he saw he was sharing the premises with that lot, including as they do Joanna Lumley, Julie Ege, Jenny Hanley and Anouska Hempel.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a transitional Bond move in its way, looking ahead to the extensive stunt work of the seventies and beyond, but also back to the more keenly plotted adventures it was leaving behind. There are nods to previous films as if the makers were uncertain we would accept this new bloke, imploring, "this is just as good, honest!" And yet it does indeed hit those heights, with a Bond who does, for perhaps the first time, feel out of his depth. Perhaps the love of Tracy is clouding his mind, but when Blofeld works out who he is and he has to escape, he is truly afraid: look at the panicky expression on his face as he flees the machine gun-toting heavies. The moment during this when he looks up to see Tracy is there to rescue him is especially touching, and with the ensuing car chase she proves herself a worthy partner for him. Such a pity it can't last. The film may be flawed, but so is its hero, creating the most emotionally involving Bond that there ever was; the real James Bond cult movie. Terrific music by John Barry includes "We Have All the Time in the World", the last song recorded by Louis Armstrong.