Then, there was the crucial matter of who would play Bond. With Connery insisting that he had hung up his Walther PPK for good, the producers chose a 28-year-old Australian model called George Lazenby whose previous claim to fame – as far as British audiences were concerned – was a series of adverts for Fry’s chocolate. “He’s my best-looking boy yet,” insisted Harry Saltzman, who, like his co-producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, was particularly impressed when Lazenby accidentally broke the nose of the formidable wrestler who was hired for the would-be Bond’s screen test.
That said, in a move that now feels bracingly old-fashioned at best, the producers still sent an attractive woman to Lazenby’s flat to check (for the sake of image control) that he was straight – he didn’t disappoint them.
Lazenby’s Bond gets off to a flamboyantly virile start in the film itself, rescuing Diana Rigg’s suicidal countess Tracy di Vicenzo from the waves and dispatching three thugs. But it’s right after that excellent “teaser” that the hairs really start to prickle.
Regular designer Maurice Binder excels himself in these opening credits, with snippets from the previous four films slipping through an hourglass as Bond, against a backdrop of silhouetted Britannia figures, turns back the hands of a giant clock. Meanwhile, the great John Barry acknowledged that his music here had to be so good that people wouldn’t think to miss Connery, and the result is an exhilarating, Moog-propelled title track that stomps effortlessly between distant minor keys. It was also the first wordless Bond title track since From Russia with Love.
Besides setting the scene for a rollicking action film, the son et lumière here makes Hunt’s own mission abundantly clear. This is a Bond film determined to cut back to the hard-edged nucleus of Bond in a way that no Bond film would attempt until 2006’s Casino Royale. And nor, in fact, do the parallels with Daniel Craig’s (to date) four Bond ventures end there.
The film’s great trick – and the reason that Inception and Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan is said to rank it as his favourite in the series – is the cleverness with which it balances romance and thrills. Like Craig’s Bond in both Casino Royale and Spectre, this is a Bond who, for all his toughness, breaks the ultimate 007 taboo and falls in love, and – aided 35 minutes in by Barry’s sublime, specially-written song for Louis Armstrong, We Have All the Time in the World – the film allows him and Rigg’s Tracy (ultimately, one of Bond’s most stylish and resourceful women, and the only heroine to actually marry him) plenty of time to do so.
But it never forgets it’s a Bond film. Blofeld (an authoritative Telly Savalas) has this time brainwashed 12 “angels of death” (including a then unknown Joanna Lumley) and given them the means to sterilise the entire world’s crops, with a view to holding the entire planet to ransom. And along with this perfectly outlandish master plan comes an identically outlandish lair.
The producers learnt of a restaurant that was being built on the peak of the Schilthorn, in the Swiss Alps, almost 10,000ft up, and realised that “Piz Gloria” (identically named in the film) would be the perfect setting for Blofeld’s “clinic”. It is here that Bond encounters the “angels”, one of whom, played by Angela Scoular, surreptitiously writes her room number on 007’s thigh. As Lazenby recently told The Telegraph, when he and Scoular came to rehearse the notorious kilt scene, the crew strapped a 45cm German sausage to his leg without Scoular’s knowledge. “She put her hand on my leg and said, ‘You’ve got no underpants on!’ I thought, ‘I hope she doesn’t think that’s me…!'”
Naturally, this alpine setting also gave Bond the perfect excuse to hit the slopes for the very first time. Shot with cameras both hand-held and suspended from helicopters, the resulting ski chases still generate a giddy adrenalin-rush, and remain the most beautifully shot sequences in any Bond film.
Off-screen, there were tensions. Although the rumours of Rigg deliberately eating garlic before love scenes were in fact untrue (she accidentally did it once, cheerfully announcing, “Hey George – I’m eating garlic for lunch, I hope you are, too!” and the press pounced on it), Lazenby did later admit that, “I acted stupidly. It went to my head, everything that was happening to me”, and the result was reports of cocky on-set behaviour with far more experienced actors, and an even more cocky refusal to sign up for any more Bond films.
Meanwhile, his performance is not, in the main, one that even the late Roger Moore is likely to have lost much sleep over. And Lazenby apparently had such trouble mastering the cut-glass English tones of Sir Hilary Bray – the College of Arms representative that Bond impersonates to get invited to the social-climbing Blofeld’s hideout – that those sections ended up being dubbed by George Baker, the actor playing the “real” Sir Hilary. But Lazenby looks the part, carries himself like a fellow who can handle a fight and knows it, and puts Colin Firth’s much later Mr Darcy to shame with his wet-dinner-shirt look in that opening tussle on the beach.
Then, of course, there’s the climax, which remains the most stirring scene the series has so far yielded. Hunt deliberately rehearsed Lazenby mercilessly for an entire day, later explaining, “I broke him down until he was absolutely exhausted … that’s how I got the performance.” And, with Bond’s broken little monologue to a concerned policeman as he cradles the dead Tracy in his arms, Lazenby nails it.
“It’s all right,” he insists. “It’s quite all right, really, she’s having a rest …” The shock of it lies not only in the sudden death-by-machine-gun of Bond’s bride of barely an hour – but of the realisation that there was perhaps a real character, and a real actor, beneath the gloss all along.