Tag Archives: Goldfinger

Skyfall Countdown Day 9: A View to a Kill

“Hmm… he looks like James Bond, but…”

Alas, in our grand journey across the history of the cinematic James Bond we have come to what for many, including myself, is its lowest ebb.  Beating up on A View to a Kill is rather like kicking a puppy, and plenty of bandwidth has been devoted already to tearing apart its myriad flaws.  It’s clear, based on the general plot, that the filmmakers were trying to remake Goldfinger with another megalomaniacal, commodity-obsessed villain – in this case, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) and, with a nod to the burgeoning era of personal computing, microchips.  For 1985, a computer-wielding bad guy would have been groundbreaking – think of all the many thrillers that have been released in the last twenty years involving hackers wiping out the hero’s identity, credit rating or what have you.  But apart from one brief scene where Zorin uses a digital camera to deduce Bond’s true identity, A View to a Kill keeps computers very much in the background.  In a way, the movie’s major mistake is that it is trying to dangle a toe two minutes into the future while keeping its other foot anchored firmly in 1964, failing to recognize that audiences, and James Bond, have grown up.  They want more than outlandish gags and double entendres, but unfortunately, that’s all A View to a Kill is serving.

With suspicions aroused that industrial magnate Zorin is leaking secrets of electromagnetic pulse-resistant microchip technology to the Soviet Union, Bond is put on the case, traveling to a horse auction at Zorin’s French estate where he bandies wits with the bad guy and his henchwoman May Day (Grace Jones) and finds that Zorin is using his microchips to cheat at horse racing.  After narrowly escaping a drowning in a Rolls Royce, Bond journeys to San Francisco, where with the assistance of geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), who harbors a grudge against Zorin for having destroyed her father’s oil business, he discovers that Zorin is planning to manipulate California’s fault system to create a double earthquake that will flood and destroy Silicon Valley, leaving him as the sole purveyor of all microchips on the planet.  As with most basic Bond plots, when they are outlined briefly like this they seem like a solid basis for a thriller.  However, given Roger Moore’s advancing age (he was 57 at the time of filming) and his inability to perform action scenes without excessive use of stunt doubles, the decision was made to treat said scenes as comedy and play everything tongue-in-cheek – a tragic misjudgement that mars the entire experience.  Gone is any sense of danger, of suspense, of doubt that Bond will survive the day.  In its place are broad double-takes, wild, emphatic gestures and hammy acting by bit performers; in essence, the worst of 1920’s-era silent movie slapstick.  Director John Glen cheekily describes it as “James Bond meets the Keystone Kops,” but the problem is, the Keystone Kops aren’t and never were funny.  Humour has its place in Bond but should be kept dry, like his martini.  A View to a Kill is 007 as a broad parody of himself, the classic hero of yore reduced to stumbling buffoon.  Indeed, given the tone, one could simply swap out Moore for Leslie Nielsen.  (Moore’s own comments in hindsight suggest that he might have preferred that option.)

What is doubly frustrating is that many of these scenes (like the extended sequence with the San Francisco police cars falling off the lift bridge) could be lifted neatly out of the movie without making a dent in the integrity of the narrative.  I’m throwing down the gauntlet here to an ambitious Bond fan with ready access to editing software to do a “Phantom Edit” of A View to a Kill that rids it of some of the less inspired choices on display, like the screaming and gesticulating French cab driver running after Bond, or the applauding drunken homeless man watching Bond carry Stacey down a ladder from the burning San Francisco city hall, images I only wish I could expunge from my memory as easily.

For his part, Moore is not helped by the other actors, none of whom seems to understand what to do with the weak script.  Walken, while delivering his lines with the same peculiar cadence that has generated fodder for impressionists the world over, is subdued and lacking in his usual charisma; it’s almost as if he is worried about coming off as camp so he dials it back, regrettably to a less interesting level.  Despite an extensive history revealed as the film goes on (Zorin turns out to be the result of a Nazi doctor’s experimentation with steroids on pregnant women) we never get a sense of who he is or what drives him, beyond the simple motivation of greed.  (Ian Fleming’s villains always received detailed personal histories as he attempted to examine the nature of evil.)  Tanya Roberts’ dressed-down part as Stacey, bikinis exchanged for long, demure dresses, consists largely of shrieking “James!” as she lands in one peril after another.  And Grace Jones as May Day seems to be on another planet entirely.  Bond himself is uncharacteristically neutered in this movie – he wears dowdy brown suits, flirts like a creepy old uncle and, in one of the most stereotypically emasculating moments of all time, bakes a quiche.  It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to both acknowledge and ignore the age of their leading man, probing way too far into his tender side and keeping him from coming off like a lecherous senior citizen without completely abandoning the ruthless ladykiller of the past.  But it’s a shaken and stirred concoction that simply does not gel.  He who tries too hard to please everybody will end up pleasing no one.

Is there anything worthwhile to be found?  Well, Duran Duran’s theme song, which remains the only Bond song to hit #1 on the Billboard charts, is terrific.  The story goes that guitarist John Taylor, somewhat in his cups, approached Albert R. Broccoli at a party and asked when Broccoli was going to hire someone decent to do the title track.  The sound is Duran Duran at their peak, yet it’s indisputably Bond, and it remains the movie’s most enduring feature, still achieving regular radio airplay almost 30 years later.

The fundamental error common to the worst Bond movies is the failure to develop the character of James Bond – failure to give him an arc to follow or a journey of personal evolution to undertake.  Failure to give the actor something to sink his teeth into.  Throughout his lengthy but controversial tenure, Roger Moore was rarely given any substantial material to play, which is a shame, because when he was, he proved he was up for it (see:  The Spy Who Loved Me.)  Bond instead became merely a vehicle for propelling the plot, a cog in the grand wheel of an elaborately choreographed action sequence, and the filmmakers abandoned the qualities that make him unique.  (Until Christopher Nolan took over, the Batman movies suffered the same problem.)  The reason James Bond is popular is not because audiences bust a gut watching him drive half a car across Paris or dangle from a loose fire engine ladder as he careens through the San Francisco streets.  He is not popular because he can snowboard away from hapless Soviet soldiers while a bad cover of “California Girls” plays in the background.  He is not popular because of the women he tangles with or the villains whose schemes he foils.  Set all the elaborate accoutrements aside; he remains popular because he is James Bond.  And any filmmaker approaching a new 007 adventure who forgets that, as happened here, does so at his peril.

Tomorrow:  A new Bond, an old attitude.

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 22: Goldfinger

Gert Frobe as Auric Goldfinger, stunningly predicting the rise of the iPod Shuffle.

I was at a birthday party many, many moons ago when the kid’s parents stuck a tape in their VCR and unveiled Goldfinger.  It was the first James Bond movie I’d ever seen, and where the rest of the kids were more eager to play with newly acquired Transformers and G.I. Joes, I was glued to the screen as unforgettable images reeled across my retinas:  Sean Connery in his prime.  The silent henchman with the steel-brimmed bowler hat.  The amazing Aston Martin DB5.  The near-castration by laser beam.  “Operation Grand Slam.”  Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus.  And the girl covered in paint… gold paint.  A revelation to a kid whose usual cinematic fare up until that point had been parent-approved rereleases of old Disney movies.

I’m biased towards liking Goldfinger more simply because it was my first, and because it kicked off years of bonding – pun totally intended – with my dad as he brought home a new 007 adventure from the video store every Friday night for us to watch together, or made a point to rearrange his calendar so we could stay up late when they were shown on television.  But even as a now embittered, cynical adult (he jested), Goldfinger is still an amazing ride.  Connery owns the role here the way he never would again, as in later films he is increasingly, and visibly, bored with becoming something of a prop in ever more elaborate set pieces.  But here he is smooth and unflappable; long gone is the eager 30-year-old Scot in his first big break barking dialogue at a machine-gun clip.  He is the epitome of Bond, fusing his own irreplaceable appeal with Fleming’s words and Savile Row tailoring to become that mythic apex of 60’s masculinity – anachronistic putdowns of the Beatles aside.

Sir Sean is matched effectively by German actor Gert Frobe as the bullion-obsessed Auric Goldfinger (“Sounds like a French nail varnish”), the first of many Bond villains to be obsessed with a particular commodity.  Goldfinger is larger than life, but never unbelievable – indeed, in a modern context he doesn’t seem that far removed from the likes of the Koch brothers.  He and Bond share a grudging respect, and Goldfinger’s choice to keep him alive through the second half of the film stems much from Goldfinger’s desire to defeat him socially – a wish shared by many villains that follow, and the source of many (easily escapable?) elaborate death traps.  And one would be remiss to leave out the junior member of the film’s evil duo – Harold Sakata as the legendary Oddjob.  Oddjob never speaks, but Sakata manages to inject a sinister form of charm into the part as he maintains a fastidiously tidy appearance even while committing the most savage of murders.  Another highlight is Desmond Llewelyn, in the second of his appearances as Q, beginning to flesh out the part by turning the eager-to-please armorer from From Russia with Love into a curmudgeonly public servant beleaguered by Bond’s continual disdain towards his precious equipment.  The “Q scene” would become a staple of the films from here on out, with Llewelyn remaining in the role until his tragic death in a traffic accident following the release of The World is Not Enough.

Third film, so naturally, three different Bond girls!  Shirley Eaton is sexy in various states of undress (black bikini, men’s dress shirt and finally nothing but gold paint and a strategically placed pillow) as Jill Masterson, Tania Mallet is sweet but equally short-lived as her vengeful sister Tilly, and Honor Blackman as the infamously-named Pussy Galore (almost called Kitty Galore for fear of the censors) does a good job of giving 007 as good as she gets until she finally succumbs to him – and who wouldn’t, of course.  Fleming’s portrayal of Pussy Galore in the book was rooted in embarrassing old school machismo, referring to her as a capital-L lesbian throughout, but the movie jettisons any such clumsily executed questions of gender identity.  The focus is adventure, not what a crusty old English sod thought of women he couldn’t charm.

John Barry is in top form here, building on what he began in the previous movie.  The brass section cuts loose here in what comes off as spy meets boogie-woogie, particularly in the famous title song belted out at eleven by Shirley Bassey in her introduction to the world of Bond.  One standout in the score is the haunting, finger-curling marimba piece that plays as the laser draws ever closer to 007’s waist, ratcheting up the suspense to unbearable levels.  Ken Adam and his production design team also kick things up a notch, with his imaginative set for the interior of Fort Knox (they weren’t allowed inside for reasons of security and had to guess at what it looked like) providing a visually sumptuous setting for the movie’s final showdown.

Still, none of this workmanship would matter if the screenplay wasn’t there, and writers Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn provide the perfect blueprint on which to build.  Goldfinger is the Bond movie with all the best lines, bar none:  “Do you expect me to talk?  No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”  “Ejector seat, you’re joking.  I never joke about my work, 007.”  “Choose your next witticism carefully, it may be your last.”  And so on, with the focus of the dialogue less on exposition and more on playful banter, almost like a comedy of manners playing out against the backdrop of a threat to the economy of the entire world.  In a sign that adherence to the Fleming works was becoming less important as the series gained in popularity, precious few of these lines came from the book.  Indeed, Goldfinger was the last Bond movie produced while Ian Fleming was alive.  Stress and hard living finally took its toll on the author, who passed away in August 1964 just before the movie was released.  The script does correct an outright miscalculation by Fleming by changing Goldfinger’s plot from robbing Fort Knox (Bond points out it would take twelve days) to irradiating it with an atomic bomb borrowed from China, heightening the stakes and adding in that critical ticking clock – which Bond is able to stop with 007 seconds left.  Leaving Fleming behind would prove to be a controversial choice as the series wore on, with the producers finding time and again that the further they strayed, the less audiences were amused.  But more on that another day.

From start to finish, Goldfinger is a feast for the Bond fan, with every element firing on all cylinders.  It set a standard that the twenty films to follow would often struggle to meet, and some might argue never have.

Tomorrow:  Thunderball gets water-logged.