Skyfall Countdown Day 10: Never Say Never Again

“Mr. Bean, at your service.”

It’s difficult to present a review of the most famous “non-Bond Bond movie” without delving first into the tangled history of how this one-off came to be.  As terms of the legal settlement that allowed Thunderball to be filmed in 1965, Kevin McClory agreed to refrain from producing a competing Bond movie for at least ten years.  At the time, this must have seemed like a good way to dissuade him permanently, for back then, no one could have conceived the potential of a single film franchise running much beyond that.  But as Bond went on, McClory (who once referred to the situation as “the greatest act of piracy in motion picture history”) merely bided his time, and in the early 70’s began putting together his own brand new 007 screenplay with the assistance of Sean Connery himself, to be called either James Bond of the Secret Service or Warhead.  McClory filed suit against Albert R. Broccoli and Eon Productions to prevent them from using Blofeld and SPECTRE in The Spy Who Loved Me.  Countersuits from Broccoli’s people ultimately prevented McClory from producing an original Bond story – he was permitted only to remake Thunderball, absent familiar elements like the gunbarrel opening and iconic James Bond theme which were intellectual properties of Eon.  And so, despite it being almost 20 years later and excepting a few surface aesthetic touches, that’s all Never Say Never Again is:  Thunderball Redux.

After failing a training exercise, a semi-retired James Bond (Connery) is sent by the penny-pinching M (Edward Fox) to the Shrublands health clinic to recuperate, where by coincidence, American air force pilot Jack Petachi (Gavan O’Herlihy) is recovering from surgery to replace his right eye with a copy of that of the President of the United States, in a plot by SPECTRE agents led by Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) to steal two nuclear bombs and hold the world hostage.  Petachi’s sister Domino (Kim Basinger), who happens to be Largo’s girlfriend, is unaware of her brother’s complicity in the plan and ultimately teams up with Bond to recover the bombs before it’s too late.  Because they were restricted to the basic Thunderball plot, the filmmakers attempted to refresh the tale by acknowledging Bond’s age, having Q’s department short on funds, making Felix Leiter African-American and throwing in, for comic relief, Rowan Atkinson as snivelling bureaucrat Nigel Small-Fawcett.  They also update the original showdown between Bond and Largo from the baccarat table to a video game that gives its players electric shocks when they lose points.  But one thing nags at you throughout the entire affair – if Kevin McClory had fought so long and so hard to be able to make his own Bond movie, why does the result seem so incredibly half-assed?  It was his chance to prove to those who considered him a bitter also-ran choking on sour grapes that he’d been right all along, that he knew how to make Bond sizzle, and instead, he completely blew it – whether it was in the personnel he hired to carry out production, or whether from simply being misguided, we’ll never know.  But that is inside Hollywood dish, and what matters to us is what we the audience are left with, which is a very boring movie.

Despite heavyweights in the cast like Brandauer and Max von Sydow (as Blofeld), no one seems to be giving it their all, with one major exception – Barbara Carrera as Fatima Blush, this movie’s equivalent of Thunderball’s Fiona Volpe, only twice as scorching and about twenty times as insane.  Carrera, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance here, is gorgeous, playful, bewitching and thoroughly, remorselessly evil, whether she’s tossing a lethal snake into Petachi’s car, planting a bomb on Bond’s air tanks, dancing through a lobby after having drowned a girl in the bath or reclining stylishly poolside as she dynamites Bond’s hotel room.  She is way over the top, certainly, but when everyone else is playing it so dour and humourless, it’s like a jolt of electricity crosses the screen every time she appears.  In the time-honoured tradition of Bond baddies, Fatima is undone by her own ego, insisting that Bond write a confession naming her as the greatest lover he’s ever had, and unwittingly giving him the chance to blow her up with an explosive pen, leaving behind – in homage to The Wizard of Oz – nothing but her high heels.  The trouble is she’s killed off much too early, and the movie then goes on for another hour and a half with little else to hold our interest.  The miscast Basinger in particular seems like she doesn’t want to be in the movie at all, and the acclaimed Brandauer has never been more unengaging.  Connery is trying, at least, to get everyone to live up to his standard, but one can’t help but thinking even he finds it all terribly familiar; like the audience, he too grows bored once Carrera is gone.

Ultimately, Never Say Never Again is burdened, like Thunderball, with having many of its scenes set underwater, and it seems that nothing has been learned in the ensuing twenty years of how to tighten the pace of those sequences.  Director Irvin Kershner, who made the best Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back, seems curiously out of his depth here, unable to marry crisp action and strong character the way he did just three years previously.  The cinematography and editing is so sloppy it borders on incompetent, and the whole movie has a faded look that makes it look cheap, despite the obvious robust expenditure on actors, sets and locations.  And quick – can you hum the theme song to Never Say Never Again?  I’ll wait.  Music has always been a critical component of the James Bond movies and composer Michel Legrand drops the ball here.  As dull as “All Time High,” the theme to Octopussy was, it at least had a melody that could be carried through the rest of the film as leitmotif; I’m not entirely sure what Legrand is up to with his disorganized collection of random notes that sparsely populate the movie’s running time.  It, like so many other elements of Never Say Never Again, is a wasted opportunity.

Sean Connery has alleged with his trademark Scots frustration that after the movie’s credited producer Jack Schwartzman abandoned the project, it was left to him and the assistant director to produce the final movie.  Never Say Never Again is something of a textbook example of what a movie would look like if nobody really cared about making it – if it succeeds at any level it’s only because of Connery’s charisma and Carrera’s wildly sexy villainess.  One is forced to speculate if, for Kevin McClory, the enterprise wasn’t so much about producing a quality feature but simply sticking it to Cubby Broccoli, and that the actual grunt work of production was never that interesting to him.  McClory would try again in the 1990’s, with rumours swirling of a rival Bond movie called Warhead 2000 A.D. starring Timothy Dalton to go up against the Broccoli family and Pierce Brosnan.  But it wouldn’t happen, and Never Say Never Again would remain McClory’s singular contribution, this oddity in the history of the cinematic James Bond that was born of lawsuits and animosity and never, it seems based on the finished product, the desire to entertain.

Tomorrow:  The review I’ve been dreading for fourteen days.

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Skyfall Countdown Day 11: Octopussy

“The script says we kiss here.”

On an episode of The Simpsons in a flashforward to Lisa’s wedding, Homer is being introduced to her London-born fiancé and comments, “You know what I like about you English people?  Octopussy.  Man, I must have seen that movie… twice!”  Which is something of an apt observation on Roger Moore’s penultimate romp as James Bond.  It isn’t a movie that leaves a lasting impression, or indeed, much of an impression at all, at least, not a positive one.  The villains are dull, the relationship with the leading lady doesn’t go anywhere, and the visibly aging Moore is less comfortable with action scenes, resulting in an over-emphasis on slapstick.  And since the movie is set in a former British colony, where would we be without some condescending observations on the local culture, including the highly questionable choice of mocking extreme poverty?  Octopussy is indeed a many-tentacled beast of a movie that doesn’t know if it’s trying to be a Cold War thriller or a Peter Sellers “birdie nom nom” comedy.

The murder of 009, who turns up dead in West Berlin clutching a fake Fabergé egg, puts Bond on the case of a jewelry smuggling ring that seems to be centered on India and the traveling circus of the beautiful Octopussy (Maud Adams, returning in a new role after taking a golden bullet to the breast in The Man with the Golden Gun), whose father Bond once permitted to honourably commit suicide rather than face the disgrace of a court-martial.  Octopussy herself is being duped by her business partner Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), an exiled Afghan prince who is collaborating with the mad Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff) to smuggle a nuclear bomb onto a U.S. Air Force base and detonate it in the hopes of persuading the West to disarm its nuclear deterrent and give the Soviets a free path to conquer Europe.  Although the outline is taut, the execution is languid, and the biggest reason is the character of Octopussy.  The early drafts of the screenplay had her in a more active role as the first fully-fledged supervillainess of the Bond series, but she was softened in rewrites to wind up – after some initial misdirection – as merely a rather unobservant dupe in a scheme masterminded by two men, and thus, considerably less interesting, both for Bond and for the audience.  Her interactions with Bond bear no spark, and no tension apart from one contrived argument where she explodes in an unprovoked hissy fit.  There’s no compelling reason these two people should be together, despite both insisting that they are “two of a kind.”  They really aren’t.  They’re two characters who fall for each other because the screenplay forces them to, otherwise Bond doesn’t get a girl this time.  The true antagonists of the piece, Kamal and Orlov, are similarly sketchy – Kamal, while effectively performed by Jourdan with his refined accent, seems to have no apparent motivation for taking part in the grand plan of mass murder, and while requisite 80’s movie villain Berkoff does his best to devour the scenery, he is ultimately too stupid – gunned down by armed guards at a border crossing while chasing a train on foot – to be much of a threat.  As for the other main performers, Maud Adams is attractive but not compelling, and remains remote and buttoned-up when she should be sensual and provocative.  Kristina Wayborn as Octopussy’s second-in-command Magda provides quite a bit more heat, even if she is made up in the over-glammed big-hair style that was early 80’s beauty, but her “seductive” line delivery sounds like she’s reading a grocery list.

India is an exotic location as befits a Bond movie, but its presentation rings false.  Someone once observed that in Octopussy,India looks like what it would be if the British had never lost it.  It’s full of white people; old British brigadiers frequent the casino where Bond plays backgammon with Kamal Khan, and even Octopussy’s army of femmes fatale residing in her floating palace are all light-skinned.  (The two main women in the cast are both Swedish.)  The three-wheeled car chase is like a trip through someone’s stereotypical idea of an Indian carnival, with action scenes built around a sword swallower, a fakir lying on a bed of nails and another walking across hot coals.  As an ally of Bond’s battles a henchman with a tennis racket, we see a crowd of Indians whipping their heads back and forth in unison as if they were the audience at Wimbledon (with accompanying sound effects).  And the poverty of India is used as a punch line for two heartless gags involving Bond throwing money out into the masses (a beggar even does an over the top double take when two stacks of rupees land in his bowl).  It’s left to Vijay Amritraj, as Bond’s tennis-wielding local contact, to try and bring some dignity to how Indians are portrayed, but still Bond can’t help making insensitive comments like “This’ll keep you in curry for the next few weeks,” when handing him a wad of cash.  Before Bond leaves India behind for the less colourful climes of Germany in the second act, director John Glen’s love of slapstick rears its ugly head in an embarrassing “Most Dangerous Game”-inspired jungle hunt.  To escape Kamal Khan’s palace, Bond impersonates a corpse, frightening off its handlers with a ghoulish Dracula laugh, and runs into the wilderness, where he, in short order, tells a snake to “hiss off,” commands a tiger to “sit!” and in what in many ways is a low point of the entire Bond series, swings across vines while emitting the Tarzan howl, only to be finally rescued by a passing tourist boat (again, full of white people!)  India is a land much more complex than how it is depicted here, and it deserves better than to be reduced to a collage of cartoons for the amusement of the old colonials.  Of course, proving that the movie’s patronizing portrayal of foreigners isn’t confined to India, Bond is given a ride later on by an overweight German couple who attempt to ply him with sausages and beer.

Moore seems unengaged and weary of the role.  His 007 contract had expired, but he was persuaded to sign on again as with the release of Never Say Never Again looming with Sean Connery back as the lead, Broccoli did not want to chance having to introduce another new actor as James Bond.  Too much energy and attention, likewise, is diverted from where it should be – writing and performance – instead to the staging of increasingly outlandish gags, reducing Moore himself to little more than a prop to facilitate them and taking the Bond series down to the worst of 1920’s silent movie comedy.  All pretence of seriousness and suspense is abandoned at the climax, when Bond is attempting to defuse the nuclear device while in full clown makeup, and the movie goes on for another twenty minutes as Bond chases down Kamal Khan in a lifeless denouement.  It has not escaped my notice in writing these reviews that Bond seems to operate in a series of approximately ten-year blocks, where at the end of each comes a movie that is creatively exhausted and a franchise drifting with desperate need of a shakeup.  The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974 was the limp end of the first ten years, and with Octopussy coming out in 1983 it would not be long before time was up on Bond again and things needed to be refreshed.  But it would first fall to Kevin McClory, and later Broccoli’s own Eon Productions, to show us how deeply Bond could drive himself into the ditch.

Tomorrow:  Connery comes back to say never again, again.

Skyfall Countdown Day 12: For Your Eyes Only

“WHAT did you say about my acting ability???”

Halfway there!  Hope you’ve been enjoying the daily retrospective journey through James Bond’s past.  While Moonraker had been a tremendous box office success, it tested the patience of Bond fans by pushing their hero, some would argue, much too far into the realm of fantasy.  Recognizing that this was a dangerous path, the filmmakers elected to do what they usually do when they realize they’ve strayed:  return to the pen of Ian Fleming.  For Your Eyes Only was a collection of five short James Bond stories, and the decision was made to combine two of them – the eponymous tale and Risico, along with a sequence that was omitted from the screen adaptation of Live and Let Die, to craft a screenplay that would exchange lasers and explosions for the shifting alliances and unexpected betrayals that marked the best Cold War spy thrillers.

After an unrelated teaser that bids a metaphorical farewell to Bond’s past by visiting the grave of his wife Tracy and dumping a mysterious, cat-stroking “wheelchair villain” into a smokestack (Kevin McClory was still claiming ownership of Blofeld), the plot proper begins with the destruction of a British spy ship off the coast of Albania.  On board – the Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator, or A.T.A.C., which looks like an adding machine but can issue orders to Britain’s entire submarine fleet.  The Soviets want it, and the British want it back.  After the British point man in charge of the salvage operation is murdered by a hitman, survived only by his daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet), Bond is put on the case to figure out who is responsible.  The lead dries up when Melina unexpectedly puts a crossbow bolt in the hitman’s back; however, following up on the man who paid for the hit, Bond journeys to the ski slopes of Cortina, where the helpful Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover) points him in the direction of a notorious smuggler named Milos Columbo (Topol).  But all is not how it appears, and Bond discovers that Kristatos himself has been the one supervising the Soviet attempt to steal the A.T.A.C., with Columbo turning out to be a useful ally as Bond and Melina race against time to secure the A.T.A.C. before Kristatos can turn it over to his Soviet masters in a finale set on a mountaintop monastery in Greece.

The ingredients are there, and the actors are game, but there are a couple of major flaws.  First up is a huge hole in the plot.  Imagine you are told there is a treasure out there somewhere.  In fact, you are told exactly where it is.  You are told that the treasure is incredibly important, that there are other people after it and it’s critical that you get it first.  Step one then would not be wasting days figuring out who those other interested parties are – would it not be, I don’t know, recovering the damn treasure?  Yet this is exactly the course of For Your Eyes Only’s first two acts.  As important to Britain’s national security as we’re advised the A.T.A.C. is, Bond sure takes his sweet time in getting around to finding it.  It’s never explained why it seems to be a greater priority for Her Majesty’s Government to determine who else is pursuing the A.T.A.C., when they’ve established quite clearly that the Russians would be the likely suspects.  Of course, if Bond went after the McGuffin immediately, the movie would only be a half hour long.  So we have an extended sequence set in the Olympic park at Cortina for a diverting dose of winter action.  After a contrived beat designed to maneuver Bond to the top of a ski jump, the chase begins, scored by Bill Conti in an over-the-top disco motif more suited to ABC’s Wide World of Sports highlight reel.  Director John Glen, who cut his teeth shooting second unit for and editing the ski scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, has a really bad habit, evident throughout the five Bond films he directed, of cutting away frequently to show crowd reaction shots – people staring agape, spilling drinks on themselves, cows mooing, etcetera, as Bond speeds by.  This detracts from the experience of the innovative stunts by slipping a barrier between us and them, like an additional proscenium – as if the movie is reacting to its own spectacle instead of giving the audience the freedom to do it.  It robs the scenes of their intensity and any potential drama or suspense by reminding us, blatantly, that these action beats are all meticulously staged.  Instinctively we know that, but we like to pretend there’s some spontaneity.  Glen does much better near the end of the movie, his comedic instincts played out, in staging Bond’s ascent up the side of the mountain where Kristatos’ hideout is located.  It’s a scene without gadgets, where Bond’s ingenuity and skill is required to get him out of a jam, and scored suspensefully (without disco) by Conti.  Of course, Glen has to have a last laugh, and jams in an unfunny cameo by a Margaret Thatcher impersonator just before the credits roll.

Glen is another in a long line of Bond directors better at action than managing performances, and while there are some strong actors in this movie, they don’t have a lot to work with; the supporting roles are underwritten as usual.  This time, at least, the secondary characters have more of their own arc, in the shape of the rivalry between Kristatos and Columbo, and Melina’s quest to avenge her parents.  Faring best is Topol, who channels Kerim Bey in his role of the pistachio-chewing smuggler, a likable rogue we’re happy to see on Bond’s side.  As the central villain, Julian Glover as Kristatos presents himself as debonair enough at first, until his duplicity is revealed and he then displays the requisite amount of sadism – tying Bond and Melina together and dragging them behind his boat in the hopes that they’ll be eaten by sharks (the scene lifted from Live and Let Die) and, just so we’re sure about his evil, smacking around his young blond protégé, Bibi (Lynn-Holly Johnson).  More understated and sinister a presence is his lackey Locque (Michael Gothard), the silent, square-rimmed glasses-wearing thug whom 007 dispatches by kicking his car over a cliff, in a classic Bond scene that Roger Moore didn’t want to film (he felt that his version of Bond would never be that cold-blooded).  Leading lady Carole Bouquet, best known as the face behind Chanel No. 5, is a greater beauty than she is an actress, and scenes in which she’s required to display the seething rage of a woman consumed by vengeance come off more like she’s upset that room service was late.  Radiant, however, in an all-too-brief cameo as Columbo’s doomed mistress is Cassandra Harris, the then-Mrs. Pierce Brosnan.  (Producer Albert R. Broccoli is alleged to have made a mental note of Brosnan’s 007 potential while dining with them one night on location.)

For Your Eyes Only is a movie with the right intentions, but its aspirations are undercut by its reliance on the sillier aspects of the previous Bond films.  What was most frustrating about Moonraker was not so much its fantasy setting but by its frequent descent into camp, and it seems like the wrong lesson was learned here.  Verisimilitude is critical to what For Your Eyes Only wants to be, but instead, it goes the other way, never missing an opportunity for a bad joke and undermining the ability of the audience to take it as seriously as say, From Russia with Love.  There’s fun and then there’s trying too hard to be funny, and this movie is most definitely the latter.  And it’s a shame.

Tomorrow:  Eight arms to hold you.

Skyfall Countdown Day 13: Moonraker

“Why are we together again?”

I’m a NASA junkie and have been since before I can remember.  My family took me to Cape Canaveral when I was eight, and my most treasured acquisition from that trip was a plastic model of the space shuttle Discovery that my father and I built and painted together.  When Moonraker’s iconic gunbarrel opened to the sight of a space shuttle being carried on the back of a 747, my younger self was utterly enthralled.  The funny thing about James Bond for me is that I look at them with two sets of eyes – the kid who can be wowed by anything, for whom watching Bond was a way of bonding with his dad, and the older, more cynical bastard who always notices the wires dangling from the spaceship.  Everything critics say about Moonraker is true:  it’s silly, it’s out-there space fantasy, it’s the worst of every excess the Bond series ever suffered, and it’s fundamentally a transparent attempt to leech off the success of Star Wars.  But damn if I don’t still dig it.  I can acknowledge its flaws, I can shrug at the ludicrous spectacle of lasers flying left and right and the outright goofiness of the entire endeavour.  But I can still load it up on a rainy Sunday afternoon and groove on it.  Perhaps it’s just that the brand of James Bond is so enduring that even the lesser movies contain something of value – perhaps its “wow factor” continues to appeal to our inner kid.

Ian Fleming’s original novel, which takes place entirely in England, revolved around an English industrialist named Hugo Drax who has built a giant rocket to be deployed as part of Britain’s defense system.  Bond discovers that Drax is actually a German consumed with loathing for all things English who intends to aim his rocket at the heart of London instead.  For the movie however, trying to top the spectacle that was The Spy Who Loved Me, and seeking to cash in on the late 70’s cinematic space craze, anchoring the plot to earth was not even in question.  When the aforementioned space shuttle is hijacked in midair, and after a breathtaking opening freefall fight that required 88 separate jumps to capture on film, 007 travels to California to investigate the shuttle’s disappearance and match wits with Drax (Michael Lonsdale), rewritten here as the billionaire private contractor behind America’s space program.  Pursuing the trail from a glass factory in Venice to the carnival-filled streets of Rio de Janeiro and finally deep into the Amazon jungle, Bond and CIA agent Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) discover Drax’s plan to wipe out the human race using a nerve gas developed from rare orchids, prior to repopulating the planet with his version of a master race of perfect physical specimens.  Rocketing into orbit, and with assistance at a timely juncture by U.S. space marines, the two agents lead a battle aboard Drax’s space station to destroy the gas and save humanity.  The kid thinks “This is the most awesome thing ever!”  The old guy grumbles “Good grief.  Where’s my copy of From Russia with Love?”

But there are a couple of things both sides of me can agree on.  Ken Adam, in his 007 swan song, does a masterful job.  He takes clunky real-life NASA equipment like the centrifuge trainer and gives it a polished, futuristic look.  Drax’s Amazon base, which combines modern, almost German expressionist vertical lines with the crumbling limestone of an Incan temple, would be a suitable enough locale for a Bond film finale.  But even it pales next to the space station, for which Adam’s challenge was to differentiate it substantially from the Death Star and the rotating wheel of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  It’s a modular creation (described as a mobile in space) and its interiors are a perfect balance of practical function based on extrapolation from then-current NASA technology, and a sleek designer’s touch.  With all respect to Adam’s successors, no Bond villain’s lair would ever look like this again, or make such a lasting impression on first view.  It had to, really, given the images throughout the movie that precede its grand reveal.  The visual effects throughout the climactic battle, supervised by Bond veteran Derek Meddings, still hold up extremely well today, and credit must be given to Meddings’ team for a reasonably accurate depiction of the space shuttle’s takeoff and flight in 1979 given that the shuttle did not launch in real life until 1981.  The action beats are solid, with the opening fall from the sky, a gondola chase through the canals of Venice and a fistfight aboard the cable cars of Rio standing out as highlights (spoiled somewhat by being punctuated with misguided attempts at comedy, but more on that later).  One of the most haunting deaths ever depicted in a Bond movie occurs when Drax’s assistant Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery) is hunted down through a forest by killer dogs.  John Barry returns and abandons the electric guitar and swinging percussion that characterized his early Bond work in favour of a more mature sound that uses sweeping strings and a choir to depict the vast emptiness of outer space.

Now, to the elements that the older man can’t forgive so easily.  As I indicated yesterday, I love the spectacle of Bond, but I want that spectacle to have some meat behind it, otherwise it becomes, as Shakespeare would put it, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Bond himself really has no character arc here, no personal journey to fulfill other than serving as the wrench which jams the engine of Drax’s master plan, nor is his relationship with the underwritten Holly Goodhead anything more than a happenstance of proximity – that is, she’s the only “good girl” in range.  As sinister as Michael Lonsdale is, with his refined French accent draping itself lovingly around lines like “You defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you,” he, like Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, is too straightforwardly evil to be a truly compelling foe for our hero – there are no layers to his villainy, no motivation other than the usual line about civilization having become corrupt and needing a reset.  In fact, the only character who has any kind of growth in the movie is Jaws (Richard Kiel), who finds love and morphs from remorseless killer-for-hire into a just-in-time good guy (apparently a request made by director Lewis Gilbert’s grandson).  Instead of character beats, we get comedy, and a regrettable trend toward silent movie era slapstick that will only grow over the next few films.  Jaws himself is portrayed as too much of a bumbling oaf to ever represent any kind of threat to Bond, and as a result the first two thirds of the movie are devoid of any serious suspense.  Even in Live and Let Die, Bond had to occasionally use only his wits to extricate himself from danger, but in this movie he always has the right gadget at the right time.  (A couple of machine-gun toting thugs oblige Bond by simply watching agape as his gondola transforms itself – verrrrrry slowly, mind you – into a car for an escape across the Venice piazzas.)  We need to have at least some sense that Bond might be in over his head to invest ourselves in his surviving, and unfortunately it doesn’t happen in this movie.

But there come moments, however, when you simply say the heck with all of that, and let the kid take over and get lost in the fantasy.  Moonraker is such a strongly designed film that the visual elements forgive the flaws in performance and narrative choices, and is worth a look by the older, more discriminating you for that reason if nothing more.  The kid will be wowed by the laser beams and the explosions and the half-naked gorgeous women, and whether we want to admit or not, sometimes, especially with James Bond, that’s enough.

Tomorrow:  For Your Eyes Only comes down to earth but brings the wrong luggage with it.

Skyfall Countdown Day 14: The Spy Who Loved Me

“What do you mean you think Pete Best was a better drummer?”

The most common complaint about the James Bond film series among Ian Fleming purists is that they stray too far from the original books.  The screenwriters would keep the title, a few of the characters and maybe one or two scenes, but generally be permitted to make things up from scratch.  The Spy Who Loved Me, released on July 7, 1977 (or 7/7/77) is a case where not only does the movie have absolutely nothing in common with the Fleming book, but it’s because Ian Fleming himself wanted it that way.  The novel, a low-key tale told from the first-person perspective of a woman named Vivienne Michel (and containing Fleming’s misogynist and dubious observation that “all women love semi-rape”) with Bond appearing only late in the story, was a source of embarrassment for the author, and he stipulated when selling the rights that no material from it could be used, save the title, should a film adaptation be undertaken.  This must have been liberating to Albert R. Broccoli, now the sole producer in charge of James Bond following Harry Saltzman’s departure, and having to chart a course back to respectability after the disappointment that was The Man with the Golden Gun.

The core element Broccoli latched onto, wisely, was the idea of Bond as spectacle.  The previous few films had been very gritty and muted, in keeping with the early 70’s trend in cinema, but Broccoli knew that 007 fit more comfortably alongside the widescreen epics of the previous era.  He rehired Lewis Gilbert, the director of You Only Live Twice, and commissioned a story – after an abortive attempt to bring back Blofeld and SPECTRE that was thwarted when Kevin McClory’s lawyers reared their heads – that would see Bond pitted not against a villain merely interested in selling drugs or cornering the renewable energy market, but against an utter madman with designs on destroying the entire world.  As the story begins, one British and one Soviet nuclear submarine have gone missing, stolen out of the water it seems by someone who is able to track their movements.  James Bond and Soviet agent XXX, Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) are assigned by their respective governments to Cairo to trace the origin of the tracking system, and team up to pursue the architect of the entire affair:  billionaire, webbed-fingered Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), who is obsessed with the oceans and intends to accelerate what he feels is the inevitable decline of civilization by using his captured subs to start a nuclear war between Russia and the United States.  Adding a wrinkle to their reluctant collaboration, Bond has unknowingly killed Amasova’s boyfriend during a previous mission, and she has sworn that once their mission is complete, she will take her revenge.

Clearly this was not a tale that could be told in the buttoned-down, economic manner of the last two movies.  Spectacle requires a spectacular talent in the designer’s chair, and for Broccoli, there was only one name who could measure up:  Ken Adam, fresh off winning an Oscar for Stanley Kubrick’s period costume drama Barry Lyndon.  Adam’s sets open the movie up beyond the reach of the most imaginative audience member.  The staple of the villain’s lair this time was the interior of Stromberg’s enormous supertanker, large enough to contain three nuclear submarines and so large in fact that not only did the world’s biggest soundstage have to be built to contain it, but the film’s director of photography Claude Renoir could not see from one end of it to the other.  (In what has become the worst kept secret in the James Bond canon, Adam invited Kubrick himself to the set to advise on how to light it properly.)  Each set, from the warmth of M’s office to the sterile environs of General Gogol’s retreat, from the curves and spheres of Stromberg’s underwater home to the sandy brickwork of Q’s Egyptian laboratory, brings with it a lush and meticulous character that occupies the screen with as much presence – and in some cases, far more – as the actors wandering through the space.

Until recently, Bond movies were never renowned for their great acting, and while The Spy Who Loved Me is a visual banquet stretching from ski slopes to desert dunes and finally beneath the waves, the supporting performances are just a few notches above bread and water – doubly ironic given that this is the movie where Roger Moore finally cast off the shadow of Sean Connery and came completely into his own in his interpretation of James Bond.  Gone for good is the macho cruelty and slapping women around.  In its stead is a polished gentleman who kills when he has to, even if it is with great reluctance and only as a last resort.  Moore was never better as Bond than he is here, both in physical presence and manner, blending his ability to play quips with a forceful dramatic presence, particularly in the scene when Anya discovers that Bond is responsible for her lover’s death.  In that brief moment, Moore unveils the darkness lurking beneath the playboy surface, reminding those audience members who might aspire to be James Bond that his life, despite its exterior appeal, is destructive to the soul.

If only the actress opposite him in the scene could provide a solid counterpoint; alas, Barbara Bach, wife of Ringo Starr, is not up to the challenge.  She’s fine as eye candy but doesn’t really have the chops to be a leading lady, speaking her dialogue with unchanging facial expressions in an accent which defies location (but certainly isn’t Russian).  Caroline Munro, as Stromberg’s bikini-wearing, helicopter-flying accomplice Naomi, radiates more character and sex appeal in one seductive wink at Bond than Bach manages in an hour and a half of screen time.  Jurgens is effectively creepy as Stromberg but is as straightforward and one dimensional as the anonymous henchmen he sends after the heroes, and is not as interesting a social foe for Bond.  The most memorable villain is of course Richard Kiel as Jaws, the unstoppable behemoth with the metal teeth.  Without speaking a word, Kiel injects his lumbering brute with personality and a sense of humor, making him oddly likable even though he kills several innocent people (and eats a shark).

Despite not being so surefooted with his actors (Moore excepted), director Lewis Gilbert stages action extremely well and keeps the pace tight even in sections where it would be natural to let it sag a little.  The geography of the massive final battle between Stromberg’s men and the captured British and Russian naval crews aboard the supertanker is capably handled with no confusion ever about who is doing what to whom (Michael Bay, take notes!)  Interestingly enough, the movie’s signature moment occurs within the first ten minutes.  The filmmakers had seen a print ad with a man skiing off a mountain precipice and contacted the stuntman in question, Rick Sylvester, who confessed that the photo had been faked but that he could execute it for real.  A small filming unit spent weeks hunkered down in the Arctic waiting for the right conditions.  Finally, the weather broke and Sylvester had one chance to nail it – and when audiences watched James Bond, pursued by Soviet gunmen, ski over a sheer cliff ostensibly to his doom, only to be saved by a parachute emblazoned with the Union Jack, theatres exploded in cheers.  It was the surest indication that James Bond was back in the biggest way possible.  Marvin Hamlisch, who had achieved the rare feat of winning three Oscars in a single year, supplied his services for the music and composed for Carly Simon the movie’s famous title song to reinforce this point:  “Nobody Does it Better.”  In that moment, at that time, nobody did.

Tomorrow:  Moonraker shoots for the stars and gets lost along the way.

Skyfall Countdown Day 15: The Man with the Golden Gun

Britt Ekland, considering firing her agent.

Art, like life, is in making choices.  The Man with the Golden Gun is a movie full of bad ones.  Rushed into production following the release of Live and Let Die, it is a pedestrian effort that reeks of exhaustion and a lack of inspiration on the part of the major creative team, despite some game efforts from those working beneath them.  The movie should work – it has exotic locations, impressive stunts (including one of the most amazing car jumps ever seen on film up to that point) beautiful women and a complex and fascinating villain performed by a legendary actor.  That it doesn’t is just proof that even with the best intentions and the best people, things can still go spectacularly wrong.

At the height of the 1973 energy crisis, and with a solar power expert who holds the key to resolving it missing, a mysterious golden bullet etched with “007” sent to London puts James Bond on the trail of famed assassin Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), the titular man with the golden gun who charges $1 million per hit.  Bond travels to the Far East, assisted and hindered the bumbling Mary Goodnight (Peter Sellers’ ex-wife Britt Ekland), and finds that the bullet was sent by the villain’s mistress Andrea Anders (Maud Adams), longing to be free of her sadistic partner and believing that Bond is destined to be her liberator.  When the missing solar expert, Gibson, winds up on the receiving end of one of Scaramanga’s golden bullets, Bond discovers the assassin’s collusion with a leading Chinese industrialist to use Gibson’s invention, the “Solex Agitator,” to secure a world monopoly on solar power, and the stage is set for a final confrontation between Bond and Scaramanga on the villain’s private island – a winner-take-all shootout inside Scaramanga’s house of mirrors and wax recreations.

Christopher Lee, who has more screen credits than anyone else in history, was Ian Fleming’s cousin and transformed the thuggish character from what is considered to be Fleming’s weakest Bond book into a cultured, erudite man of wit and refinement who kills for money, playing him as the morally ambiguous, dark side of James Bond (the cultured, erudite man of wit and refinement who kills for queen and country), in an extension of the theme of the social confrontation between good and evil we saw in the last movie.  Lee is incredibly charming in the part, even eliciting our sympathy when he tells Bond the touching tale of how his best friend as a child was a circus elephant who was murdered in front of him, and never, somewhat to the detriment of the story, lets his freak flag fly.  Indeed, Scaramanga’s “diabolical” plan to spread solar power franchises across the world doesn’t sound like one that needs to be foiled, particularly in the modern era where we’ve seen countless innocent thousands die in wars for oil.  One wonders if things would be better if Bond were to simply leave him alone, rather than saving the status quo for Halliburton and Exxon.  Furthermore, Bond’s characterization in this movie is off; he is inexplicably angry throughout much of the film, snapping frequently at Mary Goodnight, threatening to blow the genitals off an uncooperative bullet maker and slapping the put-upon kept woman Andrea around like a rag doll.  Even though great care was taken in the previous movie to separate Moore’s portrayal of Bond from that of Connery, here he’s like Connery’s little brother on amphetamines.  With our hero acting so unpleasantly out of sorts (even M is in a more-than-usual bad mood in this movie, telling Q to shut up every chance he gets) and the bad guy’s ambitions seemingly in the better interest of humanity, we end up rooting for the wrong person.

The supporting characters are a mixed bag.  For better or worse, you keep expecting Herve Villechaize as Scaramanga’s manservant Nick Nack to yell about “de plane, boss, de plane!”  Soon-Teck Oh lends some dignity to the proceedings as Bond’s Hong Kong police contact Lt. Hip, welcome since the portrayal of the Asians in the rest of the movie verges on Charlie Chan-esque buffoonery, as interpreted by condescending British patricians bitter about the loss of the Empire.  Bond tries to communicate with a family in Macau by speaking slower.  The Chinese industrialist plotting with Scaramanga is named “Hai Fat” (in the original script he was to have a brother named Lo Fat, ha ha).  A naked swimming beauty is named “Chu Me.”  Bond defeats an evil sumo wrestler by giving him an atomic wedgie, while a truly stupid sequence in which Lt. Hip’s two nieces force Bond to stand aside as they make kung fu chop suey out of a gang of pyjama-wearing ruffians has to end with the last guy pulling a stupid face as he gets kicked in the groin.  If that weren’t enough, we also have J.W. Pepper to cringe at again, this time on vacation in Thailand in one of the biggest story contrivances in the history of motion pictures, calling everyone “pointy-heads” – at this point all you need to complete the gamut of cultural insensitivities is to have someone order “flied lice.”

Served atop this rather unappetizing concoction is a healthy helping of blond bimbo.  It’s been a while since I read the book, but I recall Mary Goodnight being considerably more capable as Bond’s assistant in Fleming’s pages than in the personage of Britt Ekland’s screen version.  Whether she’s getting stuffed in a closet, locked in the boot of a car, almost frying Bond with a laser beam by accidentally backing her bum into a control panel or inadvertently causing a solar power plant to blow sky high, she makes you wish she were the one who gets hoisted atop the mast of Scaramanga’s junk rather than Nick Nack at the end of the movie.  Clearly a lesson was learned here, for this would be the last time a female character in a 007 movie would be written so inanely – as audiences decided they don’t like a hero dragging a screaming nincompoop along on his adventures (a lesson apparently lost on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas when they were making Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.)  Andrea Anders is much more dour and human, and her story is worth exploring, but she gets killed off halfway through the movie.  Maud Adams made an impression on the producers however, and would get the chance to survive to the end a decade later in Octopussy.

John Barry came back for this entry, but needn’t have bothered – his work here is dull, the title song performed by Lulu as a bad Shirley Bassey impression is uninspired, and Barry has since apologized for choosing to include the sound of a slide whistle over the amazing barrel roll jump that takes place in the middle of the movie (hint hint, makers of the remastered edition!), taking all the drama and suspense out of a spectacular feat – of course, the script doesn’t help by having Bond quip “Ever heard of Evel Knievel?” before hitting the gas.  The peculiar islands of Phuket in Thailand are a striking backdrop for the movie’s finale, but Ken Adam’s touch is sorely missed in the production design department, and the funhouse setting of the final showdown reminds one of Berthold Brecht in its extremely spare, minimalist approach – and not in a good way, as it just looks like the production ran out of money.  The movie sort of lurches and wheezes to its conclusion, shepherded at each stage it seems by a director rather bored with the entire endeavour and eager to finish the day’s shooting so he can get out on the golf course.  Much as you may be able to detect how I feel in writing this review of it.

James Bond would need a three-year rest after this movie to “go away and dream it all up again,” to cite U2’s Bono.  It would be the last film for a couple of major Bond veterans, including director Guy Hamilton, and producer Harry Saltzman, who was forced to sell his half of the James Bond rights back to the studio following some unsuccessful side ventures.  In a way, it was just as well that these two called it quits, if The Man with the Golden Gun was to be typical of their contributions going forward.  Bond could not survive another affair so listless and so lacking in the panache that had first made him so special to the world.

Tomorrow:  7/7/77 is a lucky number for James Bond.

Skyfall Countdown Day 16: Live and Let Die

“Do not raise your eyebrow… do not raise your eyebrow…”

At the close of the 1960’s, as the bloated big budget studio production of the past gave way to the grittier, more hard-edged and personal films of the 1970’s, gone was the glamour and fakery of the soundstage in favour of the grime of impoverished city streets, with small-scale stories that keyed in on the struggles of everyday life.  The escapist fare that was the James Bond series had to find a way to survive in this new era as well, and with the permanent departure of Sean Connery, they had, in essence, carte blanche to start over.  One cinematic trend that intrigued returning screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz was the rise of the blaxploitation film, with movies like Shaft, Super Fly, Blacula and Across 110th Street proving the box office potential of this genre.  Coincidentally, Ian Fleming’s second James Bond novel, Live and Let Die, had been set in Harlem and featured a black villain.  Mankiewicz decided to contemporize Fleming’s somewhat dated tale by changing the bad guy’s M.O. from smuggling pirate’s treasure to distributing heroin, and, in keeping with Bond’s penchant for a wide array of exotic locations, expanded the scope of the story beyond Harlem to include a jazz funeral on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, a high-speed boat chase through the Louisiana bayou and a final showdown on a fictional Caribbean island.

After three British agents are killed within 24 hours of each other, Bond is sent in to investigate whether there is a connection linking the deaths.  Following a blundering escapade in Harlem and a timely escape from the thugs of local gangster “Mr. Big,” Bond travels to the island of San Monique, where he discovers that its Prime Minister, Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto of Across 110th Street) is concealing vast fields of poppies to produce mass quantities of heroin.  Looking into the final death in New Orleans, Bond discovers the key to the entire mystery:  Dr. Kananga and Mr. Big are one and the same, and Kananga intends to conquer the world in a much different way than good old Blofeld – he wants to corner the American heroin market by giving away two tons of it for free, through the soul food restaurants in the United States owned by his “Mr. Big” persona.

After some questionable casting suggestions that included Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and even Batman‘s Adam West, Albert R. Broccoli put his foot down and insisted that Bond be played by an Englishman.  Roger Moore had made a name for himself on television as The Saint, and was keen to both distance himself from that image and distinguish his portrayal of Bond from that of Sean Connery (he once cracked that he had to learn how to say “My name is Bond, James Bond” instead of “My name ish Bond, Jamesh Bond.”)  Screenwriter Mankiewicz was also acutely aware that even though the movie would be showcasing black actors, the majority of them would be playing villains who would ultimately meet their ends at the hands of a white guy.  With that in mind he decided to craft scenes that would see Bond for the first time totally out of his element, bested frequently by his adversaries’ ingenuity and outclassed by their coolness.  That approach would not have worked with Connery – his Bond was always in command wherever he went – but Moore’s ability to survive sticky situations with his wits instead of his fists lent itself perfectly to this artistic choice.  Consequently, Live and Let Die becomes mainly a social conflict between the hero and the villain, with the favours of the beautiful leading lady the linchpin of their showdown.

That leading lady, a then-22-year-old Jane Seymour as Solitaire, is arguably the most unique Bond girl of the entire series, for two reasons:  she’s a virgin (at first), and she possesses supernatural powers.  Solitaire can see the future with her tarot deck, and her abilities help keep Kananga one step ahead of his enemies, Bond included.  However, it seems that even Solitaire must submit to the will of her cards, and when they foretell that she and Bond will become lovers, her visions vanish forever between the sheets.  (Interestingly her period of mourning for her lost powers is extremely brief, as Solitaire comes to enjoy sex with Bond, and Seymour characterizes this subtly by adding a degree of maturity to her delivery of her lines once the forbidden fruit has been sampled.)  Seymour is utterly ravishing in this part, whether in glamour make-up in high priestess mode, or in more casual clothes with her goddess’ mane of hair flowing out around her.  And it’s refreshing to see a Bond girl role that has its own complete character arc – even if that arc does lead to more familiar damsel-in-distress territory towards the end of the film.  Considering the majority of the Bond girls that follow are either fellow spies or other forms of government agent (inevitably referred to by hack entertainment journalists as “Bond’s equal”) Solitaire remains memorable – just because she is so wholly different, and because such a departure from the Bond girl norm has, somewhat regrettably, never been even tried since.

Sean Connery was a bruiser, and Roger Moore is incredibly not, so the action set pieces lean more towards extrication by gadget and/or sheer inventiveness rather than bare knuckles. (It would not have been unexpected, had Connery starred in this film, to see him jump into the crocodile pool to wrestle each one in turn, rather than leap across their backs to safety as Moore’s Bond does.)  Moore is the “gentleman spy,” who is more apt to disarm his enemies with a cutting remark or a handy wristwatch magnet rather than a headlock or a knee to the stomach.  But it works here, mainly because Moore is still young, and the style is trying to adhere in the realism of the 1970’s while keeping one foot in the 60’s Bond largesse that had proven so popular.  The major misstep is the inclusion, in the massive boat chase that occupies the latter half of the second act, of the hapless redneck Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) who finds himself flummoxed over and over again by Bond’s antics.  It was an ill omen to include this kind of observer character, and he and his ilk would reappear frequently (as I will describe with great chagrin in later posts) as the series wore on.

One area where Live and Let Die knocks it out of the park, however, is in its music.  There’s an interesting story, and perhaps a testament to the eclectic nature of producer Harry Saltzman’s tastes, that when he first heard Paul McCartney & Wings’ rocking theme song, he thought it was a good demo but that Thelma Houston should sing the final version.  Luckily Saltzman lost that battle – and any Bond fan should put hearing McCartney do this song live on their bucket list.  (B.J. Arnau provides a rendition of the theme midway through the film that is perhaps more towards Saltzman’s liking.)  McCartney’s long time Beatles producer George Martin takes over for John Barry and supplies a funky accompaniment to the proceedings that incorporates jazz, Dixieland, Caribbean rhythms and of course the iconic Bond theme into a fusion that is both signature 70’s and unmistakably James Bond.

Live and Let Die is not highly regarded by critics, who are both predisposed to prefer Sean Connery over Roger Moore, and unhappy with the movie’s racial undertones.  True, despite Mankiewicz’s intention to make the black villains formidable characters, they do all receive cartoonish sendoffs, the worst fate saved for Kotto’s Dr. Kananga, who explodes after being inflated into a balloon by a shark gun.  And the scene of the very white Moore pointing a gun directly into the face of a black woman (Rosie Carver, played by Gloria Hendry) after just having had sex with her is uncomfortable no matter what era you’re watching the movie in.  For long time Bond aficionados, it’s a bit strange watching 007 wander through burned-out urban ghettos after seeing him stroll through Ken Adam’s fantastic sets in the previous films.  But there remains a style and verve here, helped along greatly by Martin’s music, Moore’s breezy introductory performance and the stunning Seymour, that leads you to forgive a great number of its sins, and just enjoy it for what it is – a tribute to the trends of its time, and a unique page in the history of James Bond.

Tomorrow:  For Roger Moore, things get worse before they get better.

Skyfall Countdown Day 17: Diamonds are Forever

“Don’t move, or I’ll decapitate you with this dead raccoon on my head.”

Or, the movie that almost starred Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico.  After George Lazenby quit or was fired, depending on who you believe, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman settled on American actor/future diplomat John Gavin, whose most noteworthy part had been as Vera Miles’ boyfriend in Psycho, to become the third big screen James Bond.  United Artists’ studio president at the time David Picker greeted this news with what one would presume was the diplomatic equivalent of a WTF??? and insisted to the contrary that no expense be spared to get Sean Connery back onboard.  And no expense was spared – Connery was offered a record-setting 1.25 million pounds, plus a deal to develop two additional non-Bond movies at UA, one of which he could direct, and one day off per week during shooting where he would be flown by helicopter to a golf course of his choosing (Gavin was paid off and made a discreet exit before a frame of film was shot).  Eager to use the money to seed his Scottish International Education Trust, Connery agreed to one last go as his signature character, a movie that would not only step far away from the direction of the previous six films but provide a springboard to the Roger Moore era that was to follow.

From the very beginning, the intent on the part of the producers was to leave the more serious Lazenby Bond behind and return to the spirit of the far more popular Goldfinger (in fact, one uninspired idea in early development involved casting Gert Frobe again as Goldfinger’s twin brother back for revenge).  Instead, 28-year-old American screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz was hired to craft a snappy, wisecracking screenplay that again jettisoned most of the Ian Fleming story to incorporate a dream that Broccoli had about his friend Howard Hughes, where he went to see Hughes but was surprised to discover it was an impostor.  At the time, Hughes was deep in his exile from the world at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, and the concept of a billionaire recluse who has been missing so long no one notices when he’s kidnapped – in this case, by Ernst Stavro Blofeld – inspired the character of Willard Whyte (country singer and future sausage magnate Jimmy Dean).  Posing as Whyte, Blofeld (now a refined English version of the character played by Charles Gray) uses Whyte’s vast organization to smuggle diamonds from South Africa so he can create a satellite laser weapon that he will use to decimate the nuclear arsenal of every country that does not pay his ransom.  Following the smugglers’ pipeline to the casinos of Las Vegas, Bond encounters the weirdest assortment of characters he’s yet come across – cranky comedian Shady Tree (Leonard Barr), obsequious funeral director Morton Slumber (David Bauer) and the notorious pair of killers with a fondness for holding hands, Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover, father of Crispin, proving that weird runs in that family) and Mr. Kidd (jazz musician Putter Smith, who looks a bit like a friendly walrus).  Feminine companionship is offered in the form of the busty Plenty O’Toole (Lana Wood) and the sassy and wanton Tiffany Case (Jill St. John).

Gone from the script are any notions of the exploration of Bond’s deeper emotional state, replaced with enough bon mots for ten films.  Mankiewicz and Broccoli clashed frequently over Mankiewicz’s penchant for obscure references; when Bond quips “Alimentary, Dr. Leiter,” letting Felix know he’s shoved a load of smuggled diamonds up a corpse’s rear end, Broccoli was unconvinced that anyone would get the joke.  (In a test screening, two people in the front row burst out laughing, and Broccoli shrugged that it was probably a couple of doctors.)  Broccoli also did not like Blofeld’s quoting of French philosopher La Rochefoucauld, and only because director Guy Hamilton deliberately shot the scene in a manner that made the line impossible to cut out did it remain.  With the lighter, wittier tone, Sean Connery seems liberated to just be himself this time around, bad toupee and 70’s suits and all, enjoying getting to act a bit silly and with the confidence that this is his definitive swan song.  Jill St. John bounces back and forth a bit unevenly between femme fatale and outright ditz, but for once the Bond girl seems resigned, even happily so, to the idea that she and 007 will not be forever.  And Charles Gray is a strange choice for a bad guy.  The actor who you’ve heard a million times on the radio announcing “It’s just a jump to the left” in “Time Warp” from Rocky Horror Picture Show has elegant diction, particularly when required to wax philosophical, but he’s not very intimidating, coming off more like “Noel Coward, Supervillain” – and any hint of menace vanishes completely when he’s seen dressing in drag to escape the Whyte House towards the end of the film.  We’re also not quite sure what happens to him; it’s suggested that he is killed when Bond uses his escape sub as a battering ram, but we never get to witness a true comeuppance – perhaps because he’s so charming and inoffensive he doesn’t really deserve one.

John Barry’s swinging score balances the glamour and kitsch of Las Vegas perfectly, and Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (who admittedly will never win any awards from GLAAD in how they are depicted) become the first henchmen in the series to receive their own theme music.  Shirley Bassey returns to provide her usual gusto to the memorable title song.  Ken Adam creates some striking designs for Willard Whyte’s penthouse apartment and underground research facility, and a glitzy hotel room featuring an unusual transparent bed full of fish for Bond and Tiffany to cavort upon (the only time in the series female fans get a glimpse of Big Tam’s tush).

Diamonds are Forever is a sugary concoction served with every bit of excess one can expect from a caper picture set in Sin City – all that’s missing is Frank and the Rat Pack (originally Sammy Davis Jr. appeared in an awkward cameo that wound up on the cutting room floor).  It’s as if Broccoli and Saltzman told everyone on the creative team this time to forget about adherence to realism and let their imaginations run wild, because after all, everyone knows the old line about what happens in Vegas.  The result is a movie that never takes itself seriously, to the point where the tone totally undermines the stakes – but everyone is having such a good time you don’t really care.  Most of the acting is poor (excepting Connery and Gray), a few of the action scenes are sloppily executed (including the two-wheeled car chase that inexplicably switches wheels halfway through an alley) and the visual effects could desperately use a CGI makeover.  But the sheer fun of it all outweighs any nitpicking, especially when Connery is commanding the screen again.  The warm reception that greeted this light-hearted adventure following the downbeat On Her Majesty’s Secret Service assured that even in Connery’s absence, the future of James Bond lay on a much airier path.

Tomorrow:  Enter Roger Moore with a nod to Shaft.

Skyfall Countdown Day 18: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

“Come to think of it, this job isn’t so bad.”

With Sean Connery saying “sayonara,” and the horrendous knockoff Casino Royale a fading memory, it was time for Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to turn their attention to giving their golden goose a reboot (how’s that for a mixed metaphor!)  After an exhaustive casting search, the mantle was bestowed upon 29-year-old Australian model George Lazenby.  Famously, what is said to have clinched the role for him was a test fight scene where the inexperienced Lazenby, not knowing anything about stage fighting, went full tilt and broke the nose of the stuntman he was sparring with.  It was a big gamble to trust an unknown in his first leading role with the most emotionally complex Bond screenplay to date.  Ultimately the movie did not live up to the box office of Bonds past, and Lazenby’s first outing would be his last.  But it has developed a significant following and deep, retroactive appreciation as years have passed, particularly among filmmakers themselves.

After the complete departure that was You Only Live Twice, Majesty’s returns largely to the text of the Ian Fleming book.  Wisely, the filmmakers avoid any clumsy explanations for the change in Bond’s appearance and dive right in as if nothing has happened – apart from winking at it with Lazenby’s famous line, “This never happened to the other fellow.”  While searching high and low for his archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (absent his scar and weird accent, now played by Telly Savalas), Bond crosses paths with the beguiling yet troubled Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), daughter of crime lord Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Their attraction grows as Bond follows Blofeld’s trail to a mountaintop hideaway in Switzerland, filled with a harem of beautiful girls, where it turns out SPECTRE’s number one ailurophile is developing bacteria he intends to unleash on the world’s food supply.  Stymied by red tape from his own side, Bond enlists Draco’s private army to lead an assault on Blofeld’s lair and prevent worldwide starvation.  And in the Bond series’ most tragic finale, Bond and Tracy tie the knot only to have her shot and killed as they drive away from the wedding ceremony.  Bond is left weeping that they have “all the time in the world.”

From a technical standpoint the movie is excellent.  After a slowish start, which includes a cheesy “falling in love” montage more suitable to a Barbra Streisand movie and rescued only by the beautiful Louis Armstrong song “We Have All the Time in the World,” the pace cranks up and does not relent.  Director Christopher Nolan has said On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of his favourite films, and acknowledged that he modeled the snowy mountaintop finale of Inception after the extensive winter sequences masterminded by Bond editor-turned-director Peter Hunt with a combination of aerial photography, backwards-skiing cameramen, fast-paced editing and fearless stunt work.  Several Bond movies since have featured ski chases but none have come close to the freshness and raw energy on display here, fuelled by John Barry’s propulsive chase theme with its alpine horns and synthesizer cues (which has spoiled me because I cannot go skiing now without that music playing in my head).  The screenplay by Richard Maibaum, with script doctoring by Simon Raven, is quite a bit more literate than previous Bond films, daring to quote poetry and speculate on the nature of the human heart rather than simply reeling off double entendres and reminding us how long it will be until the bomb blows.

Diana Rigg’s Tracy is a character with a surprising amount of depth and Rigg bestows her with “to the manor born” dignity, even if the suggestion that all a troubled woman like her needs is a man to dominate her would make modern audiences cringe.  Savalas is a far more active Blofeld, going out on pursuits with his men rather than sitting back and pushing buttons, even though his American style doesn’t quite mesh with how Blofeld has been portrayed up to this point (he is also saddled, unfortunately, with the movie’s worst line:  “We’ll head him off at the precipice!”)  The script chooses, for the sake of plot, to ignore Bond and Blofeld’s meeting in the previous movie, enabling 007 to infiltrate the villain’s hideout in the guise of a genealogist wearing not much more to conceal himself than a pair of glasses (also known as the “Clark Kent Theory”).

How is Lazenby in the title role?  Well, being a non-actor, his is a largely constructed performance.  It is notable how many of his lines are delivered while he is off-camera or has his back turned, suggesting a lot of post-production manipulation.  In a questionable artistic choice, he is completely dubbed in the scenes in which he is impersonating the genealogist Sir Hilary Bray.  But he handles fight scenes and stunts capably and his acting is solid enough for what is required.  Admittedly, anyone following Sean Connery would have impossibly large shoes to fill and Lazenby smartly chooses to go another way.  Some critics have suggested that Majesty’s would have been the perfect 007 movie had Connery remained in the role, but I’ve always maintained that the vulnerability shown by Bond here would simply not be believable coming from Sir Sean.  His Bond was too aloof, too cool, too much of an unstoppable force of masculinity to pull off the tender scene set in a barn when Bond finally drops his guard and asks Tracy to marry him.  I don’t think audiences would have bought that coming from Connery’s mouth – they certainly would not have bought him breaking down over Tracy’s bullet-ridden corpse.  With Lazenby it was a much easier sell.  In the end, he acquits himself very well and probably would have settled comfortably into the role had he fulfilled his original contract for six more films.

As 1969 drew to a close, so too did the attempt to invest Bond movies with emotional complexity and strong character development, the focus turning instead to camp and ever wilder stunts and exotic locations.  Connery would return once more to the official James Bond fold, for what was then a record-setting salary, and help to chart Bond’s controversial course through the 70’s and into the 80’s.  Yet some purists would look back on George Lazenby’s solo effort as the one time the producers really got it right, and continue to long for a return to the tone it established.  It would be a while before they got their wish.

Tomorrow:  Diamonds are Forever, but Sean Connery is not.

Skyfall Countdown Day 19: Casino Royale (1967)

Peter Sellers and Orson Welles on the one day of shooting they were able to stand the sight of each other.

According to Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, the final advice given to her by her father Cubby before he turned over the reins was, “Don’t let them screw it up.”  Broccoli and her step-brother Michael G. Wilson, who have led the franchise’s Eon Productions since Goldeneye in 1995, are notorious in the movie industry for their unflinching control over Bond’s adventures, and scores of film critics have lamented this, wishing that A-list auteurs like Quentin Tarantino or the Wachowskis could be given a chance to put their own imprint on 007.  The Eon family steadfastly refuses, preferring to keep Bond a closed shop and handpick directors who will adhere to their vision of what they believe James Bond to be.  It’s difficult to argue with their approach given the ongoing success they’ve achieved, and even more difficult when one considers the first Bond movie made outside the official canon.  One cannot imagine more of an object lesson in “screwing Bond up” than 1967’s Casino Royale.

Although it was the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale was not included in the package of big screen rights purchased by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  Ian Fleming had originally sold them to a producer named Gregory Ratoff, who first made Casino Royale as a live one-hour TV special in the 1950’s, starring Barry Nelson as an American “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.  The rights were subsequently acquired by producer Charles K. Feldman, who, unable to come to terms with Broccoli and Saltzman, decided to strike out on his own with the world’s first feature James Bond parody.  With Peter Sellers signed to play Bond and Orson Welles as Le Chiffre, one might think something at the very least mildly entertaining might result; unfortunately, it didn’t (depending on how much entertainment one derives from watching cinematic train wrecks.)  Sellers walked off the movie before finishing his scenes, and a patchwork story featuring David Niven as a retired Sir James Bond was slapped together to try and pad the movie out to an acceptable running time.  Five directors, parades of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them stars and some unfunny surrealist attempts at comedy result in a goofy, incoherent yet oddly stylistic and unmistakably 60’s mess.

The plot, such as it is, is that with the “Connery” James Bond missing, a baccarat expert named Evelyn Tremble (Sellers) is recruited by the original Sir James Bond and Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, getting to use her real voice this time) to impersonate 007 and try to bankrupt Le Chiffre at the gaming table.  Though given plenty of opportunity to find laughs with the material, Sellers plays his part completely and stubbornly straight – he’s like that hilarious friend you have who refuses to crack wise for the rest of your guests because he had a bad day.  The problem is, the actors who are playing the movie for laughs, like Niven and Woody Allen (as Sir James’ hopeless nephew Jimmy Bond, who turns out to be the evil mastermind behind the entire affair because of his inferiority complex) aren’t the slightest bit funny.  Long stretches ooze by during which you’ll be hard pressed to crack a single smile while you wait for Sellers to return, since at least his story bares some resemblance to what Ian Fleming wrote.  After Sellers abandoned the production, the collective decision among the movie’s remaining creative team seems to have been to compensate by throwing in the kitchen sink, the dishwasher and a couple of refrigerators.  If Republicans want to complain about out of control spending, they should watch the last twenty minutes of this movie.  With Sellers and Welles long out of the picture, the casino floor erupts in a massive brawl that somehow manages to include Frankenstein’s monster, George Raft accidentally shooting himself, Jean-Paul Belmondo looking in a phrasebook to understand how to say “ouch” in English, clapping sea lions wearing “007” tags and a squadron of parachuting Apaches who proceed to hold a ceremonial war dance that turns into a mass performance of the mashed potato, before the entire building explodes from a bomb accidentally swallowed by Woody Allen.  I only wish I was making this up.

Amidst the outpouring of nonsense, the production did manage to sneak in some tremendously beautiful women:  Barbara Bouchet is simply luscious as Miss Moneypenny Jr., Daliah Lavi slinks vampily through two scenes for no apparent reason, and a yet-to-hit-it-big Jacqueline Bisset pops up briefly as a barely clothed spy who shares a brief romantic interlude with Sellers before slipping a mickey in his champagne.  Ursula Andress is her usual gorgeous self, if her part is regrettably cut short by Sellers’ departure.

Burt Bacharach handles scoring duties, assisted by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and contributes the movie’s singular lasting contribution to popular culture:  the song “The Look of Love,” performed by Dusty Springfield, which would go on to become something of a jazz standard and feature in the Austin Powers movies.  Otherwise, this movie is nothing more than a morbid curiosity – you can’t really call it a guilty pleasure, since there’s little pleasure to be gleaned from watching otherwise distinguished actors like Niven, Welles, Belmondo, William Holden and Peter O’Toole make utter asses of themselves in service of… nothing, really.  Perhaps if one were to consume a copious amount of acid prior to watching, some deeper revelation of the secrets of the universe might unfold, or at the very least, the plot might make sense.

Casino Royale would be something of a thorn in the side of Eon Productions for the decades that followed, with Michael G. Wilson often suggesting going back to it and showing Bond’s origins.  But it wouldn’t be until the rights were finally untangled in the mid-2000’s and returned to Eon that they’d get their chance and be able to adapt Ian Fleming’s groundbreaking first James Bond novel with the respect it deserved – and not screw it up.

Tomorrow:  George Lazenby becomes the George Lazenby of James Bond.