Tag Archives: Ken Adam

Skyfall Countdown Day 13: Moonraker

“Why are we together again?”

I’m a NASA junkie and have been since before I can remember.  My family took me to Cape Canaveral when I was eight, and my most treasured acquisition from that trip was a plastic model of the space shuttle Discovery that my father and I built and painted together.  When Moonraker’s iconic gunbarrel opened to the sight of a space shuttle being carried on the back of a 747, my younger self was utterly enthralled.  The funny thing about James Bond for me is that I look at them with two sets of eyes – the kid who can be wowed by anything, for whom watching Bond was a way of bonding with his dad, and the older, more cynical bastard who always notices the wires dangling from the spaceship.  Everything critics say about Moonraker is true:  it’s silly, it’s out-there space fantasy, it’s the worst of every excess the Bond series ever suffered, and it’s fundamentally a transparent attempt to leech off the success of Star Wars.  But damn if I don’t still dig it.  I can acknowledge its flaws, I can shrug at the ludicrous spectacle of lasers flying left and right and the outright goofiness of the entire endeavour.  But I can still load it up on a rainy Sunday afternoon and groove on it.  Perhaps it’s just that the brand of James Bond is so enduring that even the lesser movies contain something of value – perhaps its “wow factor” continues to appeal to our inner kid.

Ian Fleming’s original novel, which takes place entirely in England, revolved around an English industrialist named Hugo Drax who has built a giant rocket to be deployed as part of Britain’s defense system.  Bond discovers that Drax is actually a German consumed with loathing for all things English who intends to aim his rocket at the heart of London instead.  For the movie however, trying to top the spectacle that was The Spy Who Loved Me, and seeking to cash in on the late 70’s cinematic space craze, anchoring the plot to earth was not even in question.  When the aforementioned space shuttle is hijacked in midair, and after a breathtaking opening freefall fight that required 88 separate jumps to capture on film, 007 travels to California to investigate the shuttle’s disappearance and match wits with Drax (Michael Lonsdale), rewritten here as the billionaire private contractor behind America’s space program.  Pursuing the trail from a glass factory in Venice to the carnival-filled streets of Rio de Janeiro and finally deep into the Amazon jungle, Bond and CIA agent Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) discover Drax’s plan to wipe out the human race using a nerve gas developed from rare orchids, prior to repopulating the planet with his version of a master race of perfect physical specimens.  Rocketing into orbit, and with assistance at a timely juncture by U.S. space marines, the two agents lead a battle aboard Drax’s space station to destroy the gas and save humanity.  The kid thinks “This is the most awesome thing ever!”  The old guy grumbles “Good grief.  Where’s my copy of From Russia with Love?”

But there are a couple of things both sides of me can agree on.  Ken Adam, in his 007 swan song, does a masterful job.  He takes clunky real-life NASA equipment like the centrifuge trainer and gives it a polished, futuristic look.  Drax’s Amazon base, which combines modern, almost German expressionist vertical lines with the crumbling limestone of an Incan temple, would be a suitable enough locale for a Bond film finale.  But even it pales next to the space station, for which Adam’s challenge was to differentiate it substantially from the Death Star and the rotating wheel of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  It’s a modular creation (described as a mobile in space) and its interiors are a perfect balance of practical function based on extrapolation from then-current NASA technology, and a sleek designer’s touch.  With all respect to Adam’s successors, no Bond villain’s lair would ever look like this again, or make such a lasting impression on first view.  It had to, really, given the images throughout the movie that precede its grand reveal.  The visual effects throughout the climactic battle, supervised by Bond veteran Derek Meddings, still hold up extremely well today, and credit must be given to Meddings’ team for a reasonably accurate depiction of the space shuttle’s takeoff and flight in 1979 given that the shuttle did not launch in real life until 1981.  The action beats are solid, with the opening fall from the sky, a gondola chase through the canals of Venice and a fistfight aboard the cable cars of Rio standing out as highlights (spoiled somewhat by being punctuated with misguided attempts at comedy, but more on that later).  One of the most haunting deaths ever depicted in a Bond movie occurs when Drax’s assistant Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery) is hunted down through a forest by killer dogs.  John Barry returns and abandons the electric guitar and swinging percussion that characterized his early Bond work in favour of a more mature sound that uses sweeping strings and a choir to depict the vast emptiness of outer space.

Now, to the elements that the older man can’t forgive so easily.  As I indicated yesterday, I love the spectacle of Bond, but I want that spectacle to have some meat behind it, otherwise it becomes, as Shakespeare would put it, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Bond himself really has no character arc here, no personal journey to fulfill other than serving as the wrench which jams the engine of Drax’s master plan, nor is his relationship with the underwritten Holly Goodhead anything more than a happenstance of proximity – that is, she’s the only “good girl” in range.  As sinister as Michael Lonsdale is, with his refined French accent draping itself lovingly around lines like “You defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you,” he, like Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, is too straightforwardly evil to be a truly compelling foe for our hero – there are no layers to his villainy, no motivation other than the usual line about civilization having become corrupt and needing a reset.  In fact, the only character who has any kind of growth in the movie is Jaws (Richard Kiel), who finds love and morphs from remorseless killer-for-hire into a just-in-time good guy (apparently a request made by director Lewis Gilbert’s grandson).  Instead of character beats, we get comedy, and a regrettable trend toward silent movie era slapstick that will only grow over the next few films.  Jaws himself is portrayed as too much of a bumbling oaf to ever represent any kind of threat to Bond, and as a result the first two thirds of the movie are devoid of any serious suspense.  Even in Live and Let Die, Bond had to occasionally use only his wits to extricate himself from danger, but in this movie he always has the right gadget at the right time.  (A couple of machine-gun toting thugs oblige Bond by simply watching agape as his gondola transforms itself – verrrrrry slowly, mind you – into a car for an escape across the Venice piazzas.)  We need to have at least some sense that Bond might be in over his head to invest ourselves in his surviving, and unfortunately it doesn’t happen in this movie.

But there come moments, however, when you simply say the heck with all of that, and let the kid take over and get lost in the fantasy.  Moonraker is such a strongly designed film that the visual elements forgive the flaws in performance and narrative choices, and is worth a look by the older, more discriminating you for that reason if nothing more.  The kid will be wowed by the laser beams and the explosions and the half-naked gorgeous women, and whether we want to admit or not, sometimes, especially with James Bond, that’s enough.

Tomorrow:  For Your Eyes Only comes down to earth but brings the wrong luggage with it.

Skyfall Countdown Day 14: The Spy Who Loved Me

“What do you mean you think Pete Best was a better drummer?”

The most common complaint about the James Bond film series among Ian Fleming purists is that they stray too far from the original books.  The screenwriters would keep the title, a few of the characters and maybe one or two scenes, but generally be permitted to make things up from scratch.  The Spy Who Loved Me, released on July 7, 1977 (or 7/7/77) is a case where not only does the movie have absolutely nothing in common with the Fleming book, but it’s because Ian Fleming himself wanted it that way.  The novel, a low-key tale told from the first-person perspective of a woman named Vivienne Michel (and containing Fleming’s misogynist and dubious observation that “all women love semi-rape”) with Bond appearing only late in the story, was a source of embarrassment for the author, and he stipulated when selling the rights that no material from it could be used, save the title, should a film adaptation be undertaken.  This must have been liberating to Albert R. Broccoli, now the sole producer in charge of James Bond following Harry Saltzman’s departure, and having to chart a course back to respectability after the disappointment that was The Man with the Golden Gun.

The core element Broccoli latched onto, wisely, was the idea of Bond as spectacle.  The previous few films had been very gritty and muted, in keeping with the early 70’s trend in cinema, but Broccoli knew that 007 fit more comfortably alongside the widescreen epics of the previous era.  He rehired Lewis Gilbert, the director of You Only Live Twice, and commissioned a story – after an abortive attempt to bring back Blofeld and SPECTRE that was thwarted when Kevin McClory’s lawyers reared their heads – that would see Bond pitted not against a villain merely interested in selling drugs or cornering the renewable energy market, but against an utter madman with designs on destroying the entire world.  As the story begins, one British and one Soviet nuclear submarine have gone missing, stolen out of the water it seems by someone who is able to track their movements.  James Bond and Soviet agent XXX, Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) are assigned by their respective governments to Cairo to trace the origin of the tracking system, and team up to pursue the architect of the entire affair:  billionaire, webbed-fingered Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), who is obsessed with the oceans and intends to accelerate what he feels is the inevitable decline of civilization by using his captured subs to start a nuclear war between Russia and the United States.  Adding a wrinkle to their reluctant collaboration, Bond has unknowingly killed Amasova’s boyfriend during a previous mission, and she has sworn that once their mission is complete, she will take her revenge.

Clearly this was not a tale that could be told in the buttoned-down, economic manner of the last two movies.  Spectacle requires a spectacular talent in the designer’s chair, and for Broccoli, there was only one name who could measure up:  Ken Adam, fresh off winning an Oscar for Stanley Kubrick’s period costume drama Barry Lyndon.  Adam’s sets open the movie up beyond the reach of the most imaginative audience member.  The staple of the villain’s lair this time was the interior of Stromberg’s enormous supertanker, large enough to contain three nuclear submarines and so large in fact that not only did the world’s biggest soundstage have to be built to contain it, but the film’s director of photography Claude Renoir could not see from one end of it to the other.  (In what has become the worst kept secret in the James Bond canon, Adam invited Kubrick himself to the set to advise on how to light it properly.)  Each set, from the warmth of M’s office to the sterile environs of General Gogol’s retreat, from the curves and spheres of Stromberg’s underwater home to the sandy brickwork of Q’s Egyptian laboratory, brings with it a lush and meticulous character that occupies the screen with as much presence – and in some cases, far more – as the actors wandering through the space.

Until recently, Bond movies were never renowned for their great acting, and while The Spy Who Loved Me is a visual banquet stretching from ski slopes to desert dunes and finally beneath the waves, the supporting performances are just a few notches above bread and water – doubly ironic given that this is the movie where Roger Moore finally cast off the shadow of Sean Connery and came completely into his own in his interpretation of James Bond.  Gone for good is the macho cruelty and slapping women around.  In its stead is a polished gentleman who kills when he has to, even if it is with great reluctance and only as a last resort.  Moore was never better as Bond than he is here, both in physical presence and manner, blending his ability to play quips with a forceful dramatic presence, particularly in the scene when Anya discovers that Bond is responsible for her lover’s death.  In that brief moment, Moore unveils the darkness lurking beneath the playboy surface, reminding those audience members who might aspire to be James Bond that his life, despite its exterior appeal, is destructive to the soul.

If only the actress opposite him in the scene could provide a solid counterpoint; alas, Barbara Bach, wife of Ringo Starr, is not up to the challenge.  She’s fine as eye candy but doesn’t really have the chops to be a leading lady, speaking her dialogue with unchanging facial expressions in an accent which defies location (but certainly isn’t Russian).  Caroline Munro, as Stromberg’s bikini-wearing, helicopter-flying accomplice Naomi, radiates more character and sex appeal in one seductive wink at Bond than Bach manages in an hour and a half of screen time.  Jurgens is effectively creepy as Stromberg but is as straightforward and one dimensional as the anonymous henchmen he sends after the heroes, and is not as interesting a social foe for Bond.  The most memorable villain is of course Richard Kiel as Jaws, the unstoppable behemoth with the metal teeth.  Without speaking a word, Kiel injects his lumbering brute with personality and a sense of humor, making him oddly likable even though he kills several innocent people (and eats a shark).

Despite not being so surefooted with his actors (Moore excepted), director Lewis Gilbert stages action extremely well and keeps the pace tight even in sections where it would be natural to let it sag a little.  The geography of the massive final battle between Stromberg’s men and the captured British and Russian naval crews aboard the supertanker is capably handled with no confusion ever about who is doing what to whom (Michael Bay, take notes!)  Interestingly enough, the movie’s signature moment occurs within the first ten minutes.  The filmmakers had seen a print ad with a man skiing off a mountain precipice and contacted the stuntman in question, Rick Sylvester, who confessed that the photo had been faked but that he could execute it for real.  A small filming unit spent weeks hunkered down in the Arctic waiting for the right conditions.  Finally, the weather broke and Sylvester had one chance to nail it – and when audiences watched James Bond, pursued by Soviet gunmen, ski over a sheer cliff ostensibly to his doom, only to be saved by a parachute emblazoned with the Union Jack, theatres exploded in cheers.  It was the surest indication that James Bond was back in the biggest way possible.  Marvin Hamlisch, who had achieved the rare feat of winning three Oscars in a single year, supplied his services for the music and composed for Carly Simon the movie’s famous title song to reinforce this point:  “Nobody Does it Better.”  In that moment, at that time, nobody did.

Tomorrow:  Moonraker shoots for the stars and gets lost along the way.

Skyfall Countdown Day 17: Diamonds are Forever

“Don’t move, or I’ll decapitate you with this dead raccoon on my head.”

Or, the movie that almost starred Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico.  After George Lazenby quit or was fired, depending on who you believe, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman settled on American actor/future diplomat John Gavin, whose most noteworthy part had been as Vera Miles’ boyfriend in Psycho, to become the third big screen James Bond.  United Artists’ studio president at the time David Picker greeted this news with what one would presume was the diplomatic equivalent of a WTF??? and insisted to the contrary that no expense be spared to get Sean Connery back onboard.  And no expense was spared – Connery was offered a record-setting 1.25 million pounds, plus a deal to develop two additional non-Bond movies at UA, one of which he could direct, and one day off per week during shooting where he would be flown by helicopter to a golf course of his choosing (Gavin was paid off and made a discreet exit before a frame of film was shot).  Eager to use the money to seed his Scottish International Education Trust, Connery agreed to one last go as his signature character, a movie that would not only step far away from the direction of the previous six films but provide a springboard to the Roger Moore era that was to follow.

From the very beginning, the intent on the part of the producers was to leave the more serious Lazenby Bond behind and return to the spirit of the far more popular Goldfinger (in fact, one uninspired idea in early development involved casting Gert Frobe again as Goldfinger’s twin brother back for revenge).  Instead, 28-year-old American screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz was hired to craft a snappy, wisecracking screenplay that again jettisoned most of the Ian Fleming story to incorporate a dream that Broccoli had about his friend Howard Hughes, where he went to see Hughes but was surprised to discover it was an impostor.  At the time, Hughes was deep in his exile from the world at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, and the concept of a billionaire recluse who has been missing so long no one notices when he’s kidnapped – in this case, by Ernst Stavro Blofeld – inspired the character of Willard Whyte (country singer and future sausage magnate Jimmy Dean).  Posing as Whyte, Blofeld (now a refined English version of the character played by Charles Gray) uses Whyte’s vast organization to smuggle diamonds from South Africa so he can create a satellite laser weapon that he will use to decimate the nuclear arsenal of every country that does not pay his ransom.  Following the smugglers’ pipeline to the casinos of Las Vegas, Bond encounters the weirdest assortment of characters he’s yet come across – cranky comedian Shady Tree (Leonard Barr), obsequious funeral director Morton Slumber (David Bauer) and the notorious pair of killers with a fondness for holding hands, Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover, father of Crispin, proving that weird runs in that family) and Mr. Kidd (jazz musician Putter Smith, who looks a bit like a friendly walrus).  Feminine companionship is offered in the form of the busty Plenty O’Toole (Lana Wood) and the sassy and wanton Tiffany Case (Jill St. John).

Gone from the script are any notions of the exploration of Bond’s deeper emotional state, replaced with enough bon mots for ten films.  Mankiewicz and Broccoli clashed frequently over Mankiewicz’s penchant for obscure references; when Bond quips “Alimentary, Dr. Leiter,” letting Felix know he’s shoved a load of smuggled diamonds up a corpse’s rear end, Broccoli was unconvinced that anyone would get the joke.  (In a test screening, two people in the front row burst out laughing, and Broccoli shrugged that it was probably a couple of doctors.)  Broccoli also did not like Blofeld’s quoting of French philosopher La Rochefoucauld, and only because director Guy Hamilton deliberately shot the scene in a manner that made the line impossible to cut out did it remain.  With the lighter, wittier tone, Sean Connery seems liberated to just be himself this time around, bad toupee and 70’s suits and all, enjoying getting to act a bit silly and with the confidence that this is his definitive swan song.  Jill St. John bounces back and forth a bit unevenly between femme fatale and outright ditz, but for once the Bond girl seems resigned, even happily so, to the idea that she and 007 will not be forever.  And Charles Gray is a strange choice for a bad guy.  The actor who you’ve heard a million times on the radio announcing “It’s just a jump to the left” in “Time Warp” from Rocky Horror Picture Show has elegant diction, particularly when required to wax philosophical, but he’s not very intimidating, coming off more like “Noel Coward, Supervillain” – and any hint of menace vanishes completely when he’s seen dressing in drag to escape the Whyte House towards the end of the film.  We’re also not quite sure what happens to him; it’s suggested that he is killed when Bond uses his escape sub as a battering ram, but we never get to witness a true comeuppance – perhaps because he’s so charming and inoffensive he doesn’t really deserve one.

John Barry’s swinging score balances the glamour and kitsch of Las Vegas perfectly, and Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (who admittedly will never win any awards from GLAAD in how they are depicted) become the first henchmen in the series to receive their own theme music.  Shirley Bassey returns to provide her usual gusto to the memorable title song.  Ken Adam creates some striking designs for Willard Whyte’s penthouse apartment and underground research facility, and a glitzy hotel room featuring an unusual transparent bed full of fish for Bond and Tiffany to cavort upon (the only time in the series female fans get a glimpse of Big Tam’s tush).

Diamonds are Forever is a sugary concoction served with every bit of excess one can expect from a caper picture set in Sin City – all that’s missing is Frank and the Rat Pack (originally Sammy Davis Jr. appeared in an awkward cameo that wound up on the cutting room floor).  It’s as if Broccoli and Saltzman told everyone on the creative team this time to forget about adherence to realism and let their imaginations run wild, because after all, everyone knows the old line about what happens in Vegas.  The result is a movie that never takes itself seriously, to the point where the tone totally undermines the stakes – but everyone is having such a good time you don’t really care.  Most of the acting is poor (excepting Connery and Gray), a few of the action scenes are sloppily executed (including the two-wheeled car chase that inexplicably switches wheels halfway through an alley) and the visual effects could desperately use a CGI makeover.  But the sheer fun of it all outweighs any nitpicking, especially when Connery is commanding the screen again.  The warm reception that greeted this light-hearted adventure following the downbeat On Her Majesty’s Secret Service assured that even in Connery’s absence, the future of James Bond lay on a much airier path.

Tomorrow:  Enter Roger Moore with a nod to Shaft.

Skyfall Countdown Day 20: You Only Live Twice

Not Sean Connery’s Japanese love interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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