Tag Archives: Ernst Stavro Blofeld

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 20: You Only Live Twice

Not Sean Connery’s Japanese love interest.

James Bond in space!  Well, not quite yet, but almost.  The story behind this one is that following Thunderball, the original intent was to film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but since that movie involved a significant amount of skiing and they missed out on winter, plans were quickly modified to shoot a script that didn’t involve snow; namely, Ian Fleming’s rather odd story of Bond journeying to Japan, battling archnemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld in a weird “garden of death,” losing his memory and thinking he’s a Japanese fisherman.  In the novel, Blofeld, in the alias of “Dr. Shatterhand,” lives in a medieval Japanese castle on the edge of the sea, which for producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman turns out to be a flight of the late Ian Fleming’s imagination.  Initial location scouting trips reveal that the Japanese never build their castles on the seashore because of Japan’s tendency to be smacked around by earthquakes and typhoons.  What’s the answer then?  Keep Blofeld and the Japanese setting but toss the story completely in favour of a brand new screenplay by the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Makes perfect sense, right?

And so, from the pen of Roald Dahl comes a tale where a mysterious rocket is gobbling up American and Soviet capsules in outer space, forcing the superpowers to the edge of nuclear war.  Apparently one of Harry Saltzman’s favourite gimmicks was surprising the audience by killing Bond off in the teaser, and since it worked so well in From Russia with Love, the movie opens with Bond apparently being gunned down in the bed of a Chinese dalliance and given a funeral at sea, only to revive unharmed aboard a British submarine for his mission briefing.  Aided in Tokyo by local intelligence czar Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and comely spy Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), Bond finds a connection to the missing spaceships through industrialist Osato (Teru Shimada) and is disguised as a Japanese fisherman in order to get close to the volcano where they suspect the interceptor spacecraft is being housed.  After Aki’s tragic murder, Bond is wed to another of Tiger’s agents, Kissy (Mie Hama) who accompanies him into the volcano, which turns out to be the cavernous lair of the notorious Nehru-jacketed Blofeld, his face revealed for the first time in the personage of actor Donald Pleasence (in an interesting aside, Pleasence was a last-minute replacement after it was concluded that the first actor looked too much like Santa Claus to be believable as a supervillain, hence Blofeld also acquiring his signature facial scar to double down on his evilness).  It’s up to Bond and a squad of ninja allies to stop Blofeld before a third spaceship can be captured, thus igniting World War III.

The plot is Dr. Strangelove territory and a clear step in the direction of science fiction given what’s come before, but the direction is solid and the film’s aesthetic choices keep it a surprising ride, my sole complaint the overly lengthy Japanese wedding scene.  Only in Bond can you have an enemy vehicle disposed of by a helicopter with a giant magnet, or a henchman vaulted into a pool of ravenous piranha.  The movie feels enormous, successfully managing to re-up the ante every time you think you’ve seen everything, and spending every spare penny on spectacle and showmanship.  As a result, Sean Connery, blasé, perhaps, towards the ever-expanding set pieces, doesn’t seem quite so engaged in the proceedings this time around.  This is in fact, the only movie in which James Bond doesn’t get behind the wheel of a car, and the image of Connery driven around wildly by someone else is an unfortunate yet timely representation of what he must have felt Bond was becoming.  But he still manages to project his usual charm, even stuck playacting in front of a rear-projection screen for the sequence involving Little Nellie, Bond’s miniature helicopter able to take out a group of enemy Hueys with its arsenal of rockets, flamethrowers and aerial mines.

In an era when a lot of Hollywood productions were still casting white people in bad makeup jobs as Asians (Connery’s mid-movie Japanese makeover included), it’s refreshing to see such positive use of native Japanese actors in major roles, even if most of them are dubbed (Tanaka was voiced by the same actor who did Largo in Thunderball, so they sound identical.)  And the extensive location shooting showcases both cityscapes and landscapes of Japan in a way that reinforces the international flavour without becoming a tedious travelogue.  Of course, the most amazing location is Ken Adam’s set of SPECTRE’s hollowed-out volcano, built at good old Pinewood Studios back in England.  This visually sublime creation, built at three times the cost of the entire budget of Dr. No and so enormous in scope that no soundstage at the time could house it, remains impressive even after repeat viewings (one does wonder how, in the Bond universe, SPECTRE could have engaged on such a major construction project without outside notice).  Nowadays, where almost every major set is digital bluescreen fakery, it stands as a testament to the true art of the production designer, and something that the recent Bond films have lost.  Nancy Sinatra sings the lush title track with its sweeping strings (recognizable to fans of Robbie Williams’ song “Millennium”), another change of tone from the brassy stylings and blow-the-roof-off vocalizations that had characterized the last two entries.  John Barry’s score both enhances the Japanese flavour and provides a stirring, suspenseful theme for the outer space scenes, one that would be borrowed, sampled and remixed decades later, most notably by his spiritual successor as 007’s composer-in-residence, David Arnold.

The Japanese press were merciless hounds toward Sean Connery while the movie was in production, photographing him in the bathroom and printing articles with out of context quotes suggesting that Connery didn’t find Japanese women attractive, souring the notoriously hot-blooded Scot on the idea of being forced to be Bond off-camera as well.  Enough was enough, and he announced finally that he would be stepping away from the role after filming finished.  You Only Live Twice would turn out to be, however, the end of only the infancy of the James Bond film series, and awkward puberty was soon to follow, with new actors and creative personnel struggling to redefine a man who was very much a 60’s hero for the changing decades to come.

Tomorrow:  The first, ill-advised crack at Casino Royale.

Skyfall Countdown Day 23: From Russia with Love

“I think my mouth is too big.”

24 days.  24 reviews.  The James Bond saga continues.

The closing credits of Dr. No began with what would turn out to be a highly premature announcement of “The End.”  After the first James Bond film exploded into a massive worldwide hit, a sequel was inevitable.  Armed with a bigger budget and one supposes an equal measure of increased confidence, producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman embarked on their second big screen Bond, emboldened perhaps by President John F. Kennedy’s choice of From Russia with Love as one of his ten favourite books.

Everything about From Russia with Love is bigger and better, beginning with a screenplay that adds layers of intrigue to Ian Fleming’s original novel about dastardly Soviets out to kill James Bond for causing them so much bother.  In the movie, the architects of this Cold War affair are now the notorious SPECTRE, led by cat-stroking (and Dr. Evil-inspiring) Ernst Stavro Blofeld, eager to pit East and West against each other, with Bond’s death merely a fortunate bonus.  To this end they enlist the innocent Russian corporal Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) in a scheme to lure Bond with the promise of a Russian “Lektor” cipher decoding MacGuffin as the prize, and assign ice-blooded killer Red Grant (Robert Shaw) to act as Bond’s shadow as he journeys through the underworld of Istanbul, unable to sense the slippery arms of the villains closing in until it is almost too late.  It’s a movie full of surprises and turns, riveting chases, locations lush and rich, performances pitched just right and a pace that never relents.  It’s also the only movie where Bond finds himself as a pawn of greater forces, almost an accidental hero, rather than the usual valiant knight riding in on the white horse to bring down the dragon and his kingdom of darkness.

The pressure of carrying the picture doesn’t seem to weigh on Sean Connery as much this time, and you can sense him beginning to enjoy himself, bringing sharper timing to his delivery of his lines and walking through scenes with much greater confidence.  The supporting players are a more capable lot this time as well, beginning with the only Bond actress to ever be mentioned in the Great American Songbook:  Lotte Lenya (of “Mack the Knife” fame) as the slimy Colonel Rosa Klebb, with her oily accent and spike-toed shoes.  Robert Shaw, light-years removed from Jaws’ Quint or A Man for All Seasons’ King Henry is a triple threat:  sinister, sadistic and silent, conveying an unnerving menace absent from other screen villains who were frequently neutered by censors in that era – slinking through the first half of the movie seemingly as a mindless brute and yet able to turn on an English congeniality when he finally introduces himself as “Captain Nash” and makes the fatally revealing mistake to culture snob Bond of ordering red wine with his fish.  Bond and Grant’s final fight scene aboard the Orient Express is to this day cited as one of the best such encounters ever put on film.  One can even see inspiration for future Bond villain Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning turn in No Country for Old Men in Red Grant’s dead-eyed stare.

The greatest accolades however have to go to Pedro Armendariz as Bond’s Turkish intelligence contact Kerim Bey, a jovial old spy with a penchant for nepotism (employing his sons in every key position) and an appetite for women that rivals 007’s.  He radiates Old World charm, with a wily sense of humor, deep sense of honor and ownership of the movie’s most quotable dialogue.  What is even more remarkable about the performance is that Armendariz pulled it off while he was dying of cancer.  He created such an indelible imprint on the Bond series that the producers have been trying ever since to include character performers who could possibly measure up – they even cast Armendariz’s son in a small part in 1989’s Licence to Kill.  Leading lady Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana (again, dubbed by another actress) is a more modest sort of Bond girl, not quite as awe-inspiring in her uniforms and suits as Ursula Andress in the white bikini, and uncomfortable in scenes where she is required to play the seductress.  But she’s adequate for a story where Bond’s romantic entanglement takes a distant backseat to the more fascinating spy saga.  Preserving the requirement for pulchritude in excess, ravenous feminine wiles are displayed in a girl-on-girl barefoot fight scene in a gypsy camp.

Several important tropes that would come to further shape and define the cinematic James Bond are introduced in this movie:  the pre-titles teaser, the title song, the character of Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and his gadgets, and perhaps most important of all, the John Barry musical score.  Barry’s duties on Dr. No were confined to arranging the famous James Bond theme, but here he was given full control over the music and crafted a gorgeously orchestral score, fleshing out the Bond theme with explosive horns and layering in percussive instrumentation evocative of the Turkish locale to create a stylish, suspenseful, indubitably 60’s sonic accompaniment to Bond’s adventures.  Matt Monro, sounding something like an English Andy Williams, sings the song over the closing credits, and while “From Russia with Love” didn’t exactly burn up the charts, it laid the groundwork for an entire catalogue of sometimes brilliant, sometimes regrettable themes to follow.

In From Russia with Love, the rougher edges of Dr. No have been smoothed out, the production values amped up and the entire enterprise given a massive jolt of adrenaline.  In the annals of Bond fandom, there are two major camps – those who like their Bond gritty and down to earth, and the ones who relish extravagance and the kitchen sink approach.  This movie is something of a benchmark for the former, a standard to which all that follow are often compared.  (Indeed, when auditioning new actors to play Bond, the producers typically use the scene where Bond and Tatiana meet for the first time; DVD box set owners have likely seen both James Brolin and Sam Neill’s attempts at it.)  From Russia with Love is absent perhaps only the concept of the individual, flamboyant villain who battles Bond on an intellectual level as well as a physical one – contrasted as the remorseless counterpoint to Bond’s relentless crusader.  But it is a solid spy tale replete with twists Alfred Hitchcock would have approved, and it remains the work of artists at the top of their game creating an indelible entertainment that can still excite an audience after so many of them have long since departed this realm.  Top marks, 007.

Tomorrow:  Goldfinger and all that glitters.