Tag Archives: From Russia with Love

Skyfall Countdown Day 21: Thunderball

Sean Connery suffering another hard day at the office.

My contrarian instincts tend to show when it comes to Thunderball, because for me, it has always been the bête noire of the “official” Sean Connery Bond films.  In terms of sheer box office power it was the most popular of the movies he ever made.  It’s also rumoured that it was Connery’s personal favourite of his Bond appearances.  But the long and tortured history it took to get to the screen resulted in what, on reflection, is an overlong, uneven and rather pedestrian entry, which is all the more disappointing given the production values and the presence of arguably the most jaw-droppingly stunning woman ever to star as James Bond’s leading lady.

Had history unfolded differently, Thunderball would have been the first James Bond movie, and it would have hit screens several years prior to Dr. No.  Ian Fleming had initially worked with producer Kevin McClory and playwright Jack Whittingham to develop a 007 screenplay – when nothing came it, Fleming went ahead and adapted the work into his novel Thunderball and was subsequently whacked with a plagiarism lawsuit from his aggrieved former partners – the stress of which certainly contributed to the author’s failing health.  Claiming rights to Thunderball, McClory was later prepared to go ahead and produce his own James Bond film in competition with the Broccoli-Saltzman series until all parties agreed upon a truce – McClory would produce Thunderball in collaboration with Broccoli and Saltzman, Connery would star, and in return, McClory would agree not to make another Bond movie for at least ten years.  That would subsequently not turn out to be that, with McClory fighting a losing battle for the rights to James Bond for the rest of his life (he passed away in 2006).  More on that when we get to Never Say Never Again in a few weeks.

Anyway, despite its turbulent pregnancy, the movie is serviceable, if deeply flawed for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.  Agents of SPECTRE, coordinated by the eyepatch-wearing Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), hijack a NATO bomber with two nuclear weapons aboard, hiding it in the Bahamas and demanding 100 million pounds in diamonds as a ransom.  James Bond happens to be recuperating at a health clinic where the operation is being coordinated and requests assignment to Nassau to locate the bombs before they can be deployed against the United States.  He’s aided in his search by Largo’s beautiful girlfriend Domino (Claudine Auger), the sister of the NATO pilot who was murdered during the theft of the bombs, and challenged by sizzling femme fatale Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), who rides a motorbike equipped with rocket launchers.  A large portion of the movie takes place underwater, with the climactic battle unfolding between legions of scuba divers having at each other with knives and spearguns beneath the waves.

Unfortunately, the screenplay, so key to the success of Goldfinger, is not equal to the visual spectacle this time around.  A fundamental narrative mistake mars the plot in that the audience is always ahead of Bond; this is not always a bad thing (eg. From Russia with Love) but here the experience is frustrating.  We have seen exactly where the bombs are hidden in the first act – in a sequence of exhausting detail – yet are subjected to repeated scenes of Bond wandering around looking for them, in some cases literally flying over water peering down with binoculars, exchanging bland exposition with Felix Leiter (Rik van Nutter).  The main antagonist, Largo, is a paper-thin bad guy with no motivation other than as a required mechanism to move the plot along – he is SPECTRE’s muscle for this operation, nothing more, and accordingly receives no character development, giving us little interest in watching him be brought down.  His social interactions with Bond are awkward and unmemorable, and have nowhere near the electricity of Bond’s encounters with Auric Goldfinger.

It’s perhaps unintentionally ironic that “largo” in musical terms means a very slow tempo, for this movie unfolds at such a lethargic pace (even with the looming threat of nuclear destruction) that there never seems to be any great urgency by anyone to do anything.  The underwater scenes were likely a revelation in 1965 but they drag the film down – one gets the sense that so much money was spent in staging and shooting them that the producers did not want to waste a single frame of footage, however, a few minutes removed strategically here and there could have tightened the pace.  Even John Barry’s usually brilliant scoring work gets repetitive as he’s forced to bolster these lengthy servings of underwater action.  The temptation to push fast forward is regrettable for any movie, and you can skip whole sections of Thunderball and still follow the story.

So what remains to recommend this water-logged James Bond tale?  Well, Claudine Auger, the first of many otherworldly French Bond girls, is a spectacular sight (even though her deeper continental accent was dubbed by a higher-pitched actress), garbed to keep the best of her natural assets on display as much as possible, and usually just out of the water.  Even if her acting is not always up to par, her beauty alone makes her a compelling screen presence.  Luciana Paluzzi has some fun also with the first substantial “sexy bad girl” role in a Bond movie but never pushes things into the arena of camp villainy (villainessy?), ensuring that her character maintains a sliver of menace.  (There’s a fun scene where she mocks the convention established by Goldfinger where Bond’s sexual prowess can seemingly turn any evil woman to the side of the angels.)  The Nassau locations would have been suitably exotic to a 1965 audience even if they seem a bit tourist-trappy to the jaded eyes of today, and the scene where a wounded Bond attempts to lose his pursuers through the chaos of the Junkanoo parade is well-staged.  But overall the movie is bloated, lacks focus and is too enamoured of the technical prowess of its underwater scenes to make for a viewing experience one is terribly eager to repeat.

Tomorrow:  Ian Fleming gets the heave-ho in You Only Live Twice.

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.