Tag Archives: Harry Saltzman

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.

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.

Skyfall Countdown Day 24: Dr. No

“Bond… James Bond.”

It’s been a bit of a dry spell for us fans of James Bond of late, a drought not seen since the dreaded 1989-1995 hiatus when a combination of lawsuits, hostile takeovers and general public ennui made it seem like 007 had had his day.  The financial woes of the legendary MGM have kept Bond off the big screen since 2008, but as anyone who’s seen the trailers for Skyfall can attest, he’s ready to roar back in a big way, with Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes at the helm and a powerhouse A-list cast including the likes of Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney.  It occurred to me this morning that there are 24 days until the movie is released here in North America, and that there have been 24 James Bond films preceding this one (if you include the “non-official” 1967 Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again).  What better way to celebrate this new Bond than to review one 007 adventure a day culminating with my take on Skyfall (because you know I’ll be there on opening night)?  So let’s get down to it then – with the movie that started this 50-year rollercoaster ride.

Dr. No seemed an unlikely choice to kick off the film series in 1962 – it was Ian Fleming’s sixth James Bond novel and hardly the most cinematic of the ones he had written up to that date – to say nothing of that oddball title, a moniker probably more suited to a goofy 1930’s Flash Gordon-type serial.  True enough, producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had wanted to make Thunderball first, but it was tied up in litigation.  And the unknown Sean Connery was not anybody’s first choice for the leading role – Fleming himself wanted David Niven, and offers had been rejected by bankable stars of the day like Cary Grant, James Mason and Patrick McGoohan.  Yet it’s difficult to imagine any of them defining the role the way Connery did, particularly in his introductory scene.  There’s a sort of laissez-faire to the way Connery announces “Bond… James Bond,” cigarette dangling from his lips, like he just doesn’t give a rat’s arse whether you care who he is – he’s that confident in his awesomeness.  (One can imagine Grant delivering the line with his customary wink and smile – James Bond would have been Cary Grant, not the other way around.)

There has been a copious amount of criticism written around the “James Bond formula” – the exotic locations, the women, the cartoonish megalomania of the villains.  Many of the elements are introduced in Dr. No, but almost seem like they’re in rough draft form; indeed, it’s difficult to look at the movie objectively 50 years on.  The plot is probably one of the simplest of the film series – a British agent is murdered in Jamaica after looking into reports of radio interference with American space launches, and James Bond is sent in to investigate.  Bond is assisted by CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and local boatman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), and eventually crosses paths with the half-German half-Chinese, handless Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), agent of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), who is using his private nuclear reactor to knock the American rockets out of the sky.  And of course there’s eye candy in the form of Eunice Gayson as Sylvia Trench, Zena Marshall as Miss Taro, 1961’s Miss Jamaica Marguerite LeWars as a photographer, and most famously, the voluptuous Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), whom Bond famously encounters as she strolls out of the ocean in a white bikini, knife on her hip, singing “Underneath the Mango Tree.”

Dr. No is a tough sell to modern audiences if it isn’t the first Bond movie you’ve ever seen.  It was made on a shoestring budget of $1 million (nowadays, that wouldn’t even pay for a third of an episode of CSI) and a lot of it does look very cheap.  The acting is pretty painful across the board, and Connery himself tends to flap his gums and yell his lines as he tries to figure out the character, not yet realizing that intensity doesn’t require volume.  Andress begins a long tradition of Bond girls having their lines completely dubbed by another actress, and the effect can be greatly distracting.  Apart from Wiseman, who is aware of his character’s cartoonishness and underplays to compensate, none of the villains are terribly menacing.  The fight and chase scenes are nothing special.  The “dragon tank” is a goofy excuse for a prop that belongs on Gilligan’s Island.  The latter half of the film, once Dr. No finally enters the picture, slows down and drags where it should be building tension to a breaking point, such that the climactic battle between Bond and the villain seems a bit like an afterthought.  Apart from the singular James Bond theme (which is regrettably hacked up in the opening credits) the musical score is cheesy and instantly forgettable.  Yet compared to the largesse of some of the later films, there is a rawness to this adventure and more of a sense of Bond as a bruiser of a man relying on his skills, wits and fists to extricate himself from sticky situations, rather than the finely-tailored dandy with nary a hair out of place who always has the right gadget at the right time.  When a bloodied, battered Bond is crawling through an air vent to escape Dr. No’s lair, you truly worry whether he’s going to make it out alive.  And there are several memorable scenes that help to define Bond as a new kind of morally uncompromising hero, most notably when he shoots an unarmed man in cold blood, and callously turns a woman he’s just slept with over to the police.  Bond is always at his best when he’s being an unrepentant badass.

In most recaps of the Bond series, Dr. No tends to rate around the middle, which is where I’d probably place it.  It’s a little low-key for how I like my James Bond, and really shows its age in certain places, particularly in its pacing.  It has not yet acquired the panache and greater sense of fun of the mid-60’s Bond pictures, and the cheapness of its budget is quite evident throughout.  In recipe terms, Dr. No is a soufflé with all the right ingredients that doesn’t quite manage to rise all the way.  But you certainly cannot argue that without it and its success to set the stage, we would never have had the James Bond that we’ve grown up with all these decades and continue to love.  That alone tends to earn it both a pass for its faults, and a greater appreciation of what it is – a competently-executed thriller bursting with promise for what is to come.

Tomorrow:  From Russia with Love raises the bar.