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 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 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 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 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.

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.

The charms of James Bond’s Vesper

“Once you’ve tasted it, it’s all you want to drink.”

“I had never tasted anything so cool and clean.  They made me feel civilized.”  Ernest Hemingway on martinis, in A Farewell to Arms

Sitting here this morning listening to Adele’s new Skyfall theme song – a definite callback to the heady days of Shirley Bassey after the well-meaning but ill-advised collaboration that was Jack White and Alicia Keys’ “Another Way to Die” for Quantum of Solace – it’s a struggle to encapsulate in less than several thousand long-winded words exactly the impact James Bond has had on my life, how he has been a reliable friend in darker times and something of a model for far more men than just I as what exactly it is to be a man.  I can admit that Ian Fleming is probably the third in the holy trinity of writers who have helped me forge my own style, along with Gene Roddenberry and Aaron Sorkin – less in the overall philosophical approach of the latter two but more in how to shape narrative, twist one’s plots and compel readers to turn pages.  But enough about all that.  It’s James Bond Day and it’s an occasion to celebrate literature and cinema’s most enduring secret agent.  Today I’m veering away from the usual heavy stuff and talking about drinks.  In particular, James Bond’s drink of choice:  the Vesper martini.  As originally described in the Casino Royale novel, to be served in a deep champagne goblet:

“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

I love martinis.  They are a drink of sophistication and elegance – with a martini glass in your hand it’s natural to find yourself standing a little straighter, feeling a suaveness surging through your veins.  Perhaps they even brace you with enough confidence to approach the voluptuous brunette in the slinky dress at the end of the bar who might just be a Russian agent.  The effort to prepare the martini just right, as opposed to say, simply pouring a scotch over some ice, only adds to its charm.  Admittedly, the definition has gotten a bit fuzzy as they’ve become more popular, to the point where simply putting anything in the right glass is considered a “martini.”  But even though I might enjoy the diversion of a chocolate or berry martini from time to time, when it comes to the martini experience in its purest form, you have to go back to something like the Vesper. 

Ingredients for the perfect Vesper are not as easily found as you might think, making the experience of one a rare sensory pleasure.  The first wrinkle in the ointment is the Kina Lillet.  Lillet is not vermouth, it is what’s called an aperitif wine.  Kina Lillet, unfortunately, isn’t made anymore.  The substitute is Lillet Blanc, and even that can be tricky, but not impossible to track down.  The fortunate thing about it is unless you are planning on having two or three of these daily, one Lillet bottle should last a good while.  Your choice of gin and vodka matter also – I’ve read that the process of manufacturing them has changed somewhat since Ian Fleming’s time, and that the typical Gordon’s or Smirnoff/Stoli/whatever else available commercially are not as strong as they would have been in 1953.  The impact for me seems to be largely in the vodka.  80 proof is the strongest you can purchase in Canada, so I’ve made it a point to stop in at the duty free whenever we’re vacationing across the border and pick up the 100 proof blue-label Smirnoff.  I have noticed, and those I’ve served it to have commented also, that the stronger vodka seems to cut the intensity of the gin somewhat and make for a smoother drink.  Above all, it’s critical that the mixture remain ice cold – a warm Vesper can taste a little bit like lighter fluid.  I find it helps a little to pre-chill the glasses, then pack the shaker with as much ice as it can reasonably handle before adding the ingredients and shaking away.  If one measure as described above = one shot, you will usually have enough to serve two completed drinks (depending how you pour) and don’t forget the critical slice of lemon peel.  Or, you can try the Felix Leiter variation from the movie:  “Bring me one as well, keep the fruit.”  I find that the citrus oils from the freshly sliced lemon are a nice accent though, and after all, the best way to enjoy a Vesper is just the way Bond ordered it.

The quote accompanying the photo is accurate – the Vesper spoils you, it’s that good.  Next to it, appletinis and crantinis and other varieties of fruitinis might as well be watered-down Kool-Aid.  The Vesper is more than a drink; it’s a statement, a marking of one’s territory as a man of refined taste, someone who can cut through the superficial and home in on the richness of life lurking beneath the surface distractions.  There is a world-weariness to James Bond the character – he is essentially a contradiction of a man who is cynical about civilization but still finds it within himself to fight for his ideals of good versus evil.  In his reflective moments, Vesper in hand, the potent potion trickling through his bloodstream, he may find himself questioning the point of it all – why fight on, why continue posing as St. George, when there will always be another bad guy – another dragon – around the next corner?  It is in the fight itself that the resolve of one’s character is proven, win or lose, and like it or not, Bond is not Bond without that fight.  Nor are we.  (See, I can’t escape the philosophical stuff even when I try.)

Happy 50th James Bond – have a Vesper on me.